Two seconds-it's a crucial time span on the mind of Stephen Raynes.
The 18-year-old from Basking Ridge, New Jersey needs to drop only two seconds in the 400 and 200 meter individual medley (IM)--butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle--swimming races to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials next June in Omaha, Nebraska. If he does so, he will likely have placed himself among the top 100 swimmers--or better--in these events of any age anywhere in America. In the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, 64 swimmers qualified and competed in the 400 IM and 95 did so in the 200 IM.
Raynes dropped his times to the two second qualifying margin at the YMCA Long Course National Swimming Meet held in Atlanta the week of July 25th. He placed third nationally in the 400 IM meter race with a time of 4 minutes and 32 seconds (4:32.81). That missed by just 2.32 seconds the U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying time. His performance shaved eight seconds off his previous best time entering the meet. In the 200 IM, he placed fifth nationally with a time of 2:08.10, merely 1.6 seconds away from the Trials qualifying time, and more than four seconds faster than his previous best entering the meet.
Raynes has been one of New Jersey's most talented and consistently high-achieving swimmers since he began competing at the age of eight. During his career, he won first place in 12 different events at the New Jersey YMCA State Swimming Championships, along with a plethora of other races and awards at Ridge High School and other meets. Yet as stellar as he has been, he was surprised to learn at the Atlanta meet that he was getting so close to qualifying for America's highly prestigious Olympic Trials.
"At the national meet this summer it was the first time I saw I had a chance to get to the U.S. Olympic trials," he said. "I never pondered the U.S. Olympic trials until then. Now I actually have a chance. Wow, that would be cool."
Dropping two seconds in these races will be a challenge yet is a realistic possibility. Raynes said he will be working hard towards making the qualifying times as a swimmer during his upcoming freshmen year at Columbia University. "In college swimming will get a lot more intense." He hopes that will catapult him to reach the lofty goal.
The 200 and 400 IMs are like the Olympic decathlon event, which encompasses 10 events and tests for the best athletes at various skills. These swimming races are the true test of the best all around swimmers. Each swimmer must excel at every stroke or they can't get anywhere close to the level Raynes has.
I've seen Raynes swim these races many times over the years. Watching him is breath-taking. Unlike almost all other swimmers, he doesn't have a weak stroke. These two races were made for Raynes, a do-it-all swimmer. He attacks the water ferociously and yet with artistry. Like no swimmer I've seen, he always competes hard, goes all out all the way. He never takes it easy. Regardless of the event, regardless of the stage of the race.
For example, he won first place in the mile race at the YMCA New Jersey State championships this year, which isn't even his specialty. Because it was a race, though, Raynes pushed himself as fast as he could. No one I've seen swim-and there have been more so many over the past 10 years--races better than Raynes measured by intensity, approach, guts and consistency. I've never seen him have a bad race. When he's on the starting block, you have to watch him. He is that entertaining and impressive and, often, truly amazing.
Asked about his mental approach to racing, he said: "Actually I don't think of anything leading up to the race. I learned that when I over-think the race it doesn't work so well. Not really thinking about anything seems to work."
The 200 and 400 IM races are "really painful all the time. My best stroke is breaststroke (the third stroke of the race). That's the point where I really start to tighten up. But it's also my chance to go fast. I push through the pain."
To prepare for this summer's national meet in Atlanta, he says he worked a bit harder in the weeks and months leading up to it. "I worked out some on my own and lifted weights. It definitely made me stronger."
Asked about how he felt standing on the medal stands in Atlanta recently, he said: "I thought that my hard work paid off. It was really a great feeling."