OMAHA, Neb.—On Friday, June 20, Texas A&M swimmer Kristen Heiss was told that she had blood clots in her lungs and that she could not swim again for three months. Exactly 14 days later, Heiss became just the second swimmer, male or female, in Texas A&M history to qualify for a championship final at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Heiss, who spent June 20-24 in a Bryan, Texas, hospital room hooked up to blood thinners in order to help relieve her potentially life-threatening condition, finished in second place in the first of two semifinals of the women’s 200-meter backstroke on Friday night.
“In the two weeks before I went into the hospital, I had no aerobic base,” Heiss said. “I couldn’t kick off the walls. I was gasping for air. I was missing intervals, something I’ve not done since I’ve been in college. That’s when I knew something wasn’t right.”
Heiss qualified fourth overall during morning preliminaries with a lifetime-best time of 2:10.41, finishing second in her heat just behind American record holder Margaret Hoelzer. In the evening semifinal, Heiss was second again, this time to Hayley McGregory, in 2:10.89, the second-fastest time of her career.
“After my third day in the hospital, we were told that it would be okay to start swimming when I got out of the hospital,” Heiss said.
Heiss took that advice to heart, literally. As soon she was she released from the hospital, she drove immediately to the pool to do a workout.
“I was so relieved to hear that I wouldn’t be out three months,” Heiss said. “It would have been devastating had I not been able to try and reach my goals at the trials and would have hurt my upcoming college season too. That was a huge load off my mind.”
After leaving the hospital on June 24, Heiss worked out four days in College Station before flying to Omaha for the U.S. Olympic Trials. She competed in the 200-meter freestyle on Tuesday morning, less than one week since being released from the hospital, and swam the best time of her career.
“This week I’ve just concentrated in relaxing and swimming my own race and not thinking about who I’m swimming against,” Heiss said. “It’s so exciting and such an adrenaline rush to swim at this pool and in front of this crowd. Not many people get a chance to swim in a situation like this and I am truly grateful.”
“First and foremost, our number one concern is for her safety and well-being,” A&M head coach Steve Bultman said. “That’s far, far more important than swimming ever will be. After she was cleared to swim, we just didn’t know what to expect competition-wise, especially after spending four nights in the hospital so close to the trials. For her to come in here and take a nice chunk of time off her 200 freestyle as well as her 200 back time, which was already pretty special, is just flat-out impressive. It says a lot about her as a competitor.”
Heiss wasn’t the Aggies’ only standout in the 200 back on Friday however as sophomore Emily Neal (Plano) also qualified for the semifinals in the event. Neal recorded a lifetime-best of 2:13.22 to finish 14th and become the third Aggie woman to qualify for the semifinals at this year’s trials. Neal, swimming in the same semi as Heiss, clocked a time of 2:13.39, improving her final ranking to 13th among the 93 qualifiers in the event.
“It was great to see (Emily) drop a bunch of time like that,” Bultman said. “She paced it so well. We talked about that last summer that if she could do that, she could make it (to the semifinals) and do a best time. She accomplished both of those goals which is really neat.”
In other action, senior Ozzie Gardner (Kearns, Utah) turned in the Aggies’ best men’s finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials since Jerrod Kappler in 2000. Gardner swam the first sub-23 second 50-meter freestyle of his career (22.73) to finish in 20th place in the 113-man field.
On Saturday morning, Aggies Marissa Jasek (San Antonio), Maria Sommer (Brenham), and Sarah Woods (Birmingham, Ala.) will compete in the preliminary rounds of he women’s 50-meter freestyle. Kristen Heiss will swim in the championship final of the 200-meter backstroke on Saturday night on NBC at 7 p.m. CST.
Friday A&M Results:
Men’s 50 Freestyle – Prelims (113 competitors)
20. Ozzie Gardner, 22.73
64. Casey Strange, 23.28
106. Brad Raiford, 23.87
Men’s 100 Butterfly – Prelims (105 competitors)
62. Tyler Welch, 54.90
68. Scott Newmann, 55.06
Women’s 200 Backstroke – Prelims (93 competitors)
4. Kristen Heiss, 2:10.41
14. Emily Neal, 2:13.22
Women’s 200 Backstroke – Semifinals
5. Kristen Heiss, 2:10.89
13. Emily Neal, 2:13.39