Jun. 13—The other morning, John Heaphy had breakfast with champions.
He ate oatmeal, eggs and toast at the same table where 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte was eating oatmeal, eggs and toast.
Both men are competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming, which begins Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska. Lochte is world-famous, a 36-year-old world-record holder who is trying to become a five-time Olympian. Heaphy is a 20-year-old from Eagle River who is an Olympic Trials rookie dipping his toe in the world of big-time swimming.
“I definitely was preparing myself to be impressed, and I got there and I was still impressed,” Heaphy said. “I had breakfast with Ryan Lochte, and you don’t get to do that every day.
“This is the Super Bowl for swimming, and it’s something that doesn’t come around every day. You have your NCAAs and your USA meets, but it’s not the same. The lane lines are red, white and blue. The emphasis is on the pinnacle of sports.”
An Eagle River High School graduate, Heaphy is one of two Alaskans competing in Omaha.
Lydia Jacoby of Seward is the other one, and while she is a rising star who could wind up in the finals of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, Heaphy would be excited to make it to the 16-man semifinals.
He’s one of 52 men in the 100-meter breaststroke, and he enters Sunday morning’s preliminaries with the 26th-fastest qualifying time — 1 minute, 1.53 seconds, less than seven-tenths of a second off the 16th-best time.
“I get to soak it in and enjoy the experience,” Heaphy said. “I have pressure that I put on myself to perform, but since I’m not a pro and just a college athlete there’s not money on the line for me. For the pros, there’s a whole lot of sponsors and money on the line.”
The way Heaphy sees it, the true pressure won’t come until the 2024 Olympic Trials. He’ll have graduated from college by then and he’ll be an age when male swimmers typically hit their stride.
“So I’m really young to really stake my claim,” he said. “I’m trying to enjoy the experience and (learn) this is what it’s like to race in the big pool with the big dogs.”
Even the warmup pool is nicer than anything in Alaska, he said, and the main pool is one of the best in the world.
Heaphy arrived in Omaha on Thursday night, and on Friday morning he did a warmup swim in the main pool — a raised, temporary structure at Creighton University. After the trials it will be moved to Minnesota for use by low-income families, according to swimswam.com.
“It’s inside the arena where the Creighton basketball team plays,” Heaphy said. “I’m swimming backstroke and I’m looking up at the huge Jumbotron. It’s really mind-bending.”
Heaphy qualified for the Olympic Trials with a time of 1:02.75 at a 2019 summer meet at Bartlett High. Three months ago in Phoenix, he lowered his time to 1:01.53 at the Speedo sectionals in Phoenix. That time put him in the faster wave of swimmers for the preliminaries.
His goal is another personal record, and maybe a chance to race more than once. Prelims are Sunday morning, semifinals are Sunday evening and the finals are Monday.
Jacoby swims Monday morning in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke preliminaries; semifinals are Monday night and finals are Tuesday. She enters with the third-best qualifying time (1:06.38). Jacoby, 17, will also swim Thursday in the women’s 200-meter breaststroke, where she has the 15th-fastest qualifying time (2:27.39).
Heaphy was a state high school champion for Eagle River and continues to train with Bryce Carpenter, his Chugiak Aquatics Club coach, who is in Omaha with him.
After high school, he spent a year at McKendree University in St. Louis, where he was a member of the victorious 200-meter medley relay team at the 2020 NCAA Division II championships.
Heaphy decided to transfer after his freshman year and wound up at Arizona State, where his coach is Bob Bowman, best known as the coach of Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer in Olympic history.
Arizona State didn’t compete in 2020-21 because of COVID-19, so next season will be Heaphy’s first at the Division I level.
“I really wanted to chase the dream, and to do that I would need the supporting cast around me,” Heaphy said. “McKendree was awesome. I’m just looking for bigger opportunities. I entered the transfer portal and I decided Arizona is closer to home, it has everything I needed and they offered me a spot on the team.”
Even a year at Arizona State, which has three pools on campus, didn’t prepare him for the scene in Omaha and up-close encounters with some the world’s greatest swimmers.
“I’m not here as a tourist, I’m here as an athlete, but it’s hard not to be a tourist when you have the second-best swimmer ever sitting next to you,” Heaphy said. “It’s really humbling. I never thought I’d get there.”
He’s proud there are two Alaskans at the Olympic Trials this year. He and Jacoby bring to 12 the number of Alaska swimmers who have ever qualified for the Olympic Trials, and while that puts Heaphy in an elite group, he’s got plenty of perspective to keep his ego in check.
Yeah, his day on Friday began with breakfast with breakfast with Ryan Lochte. But wait till you hear about his lunch date:
“Jimmy John’s,” he said.
Alaskans at the Olympic Trials
Clark Rush, 1980
Mia Costello, 1988
Andrew Billings, 1988
Maria Reeves, 2000
Andrew Tainter, 2000
Robert Roosa, 2000
Patty Nash, 2000
Derek Gibb, 2000, 2004
Micha Burden, 2008
Samantha Wicks, 2016
Lydia Jacoby, 2021
John Heaphy, 2021