Swimming with the 'big guys'
Towson’s Felicia Lee is 15, the same age as teammate Katie Hoff when she made the Olympic swimming team that went to Athens in 2004.
Lee is starting to show her chops, finishing three of her four events at the Missouri Grand Prix in the top 10, including a third-place showing in the 200-meter butterfly against two veteran athletes.
As she stood in the blocks last weekend, she said she was aware that setting up to her left were Mary Descenza, 23, and Kim Vandenberg, 24, who finished the 200 butterfly one and two, respectively. Descenza, the silver medalist at nationals, is only the second women to win the event in four consecutive years of the NCAA championships. Vandenberg, won the 2004 national title and finished second in the event at worlds last year.
That didn’t bother Lee, who came to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in late 2005 from Wayne, N.J.
“Age doesn’t really matter. It’s just get out there and do what you have to do,” Lee says. “I really wanted to work on my turns and build my last 50 because that’s where I have my trouble.”
She led the race, but faded in the end as the two veterans glided past her.
In some ways, she reminds swimming fans of a young Hoff, who had the physical tools first and then polished her act with maturity, experience and a tough mental approach.
“I still have a lot to work on,” Lee acknowledges. “I have to be a little more confident about it. I’m confident enough that I know my ability but, being with the big guys out there, I look up to them a lot. It’s like, ‘Whoa, I’m swimming against them.’
Given her northern New Jersey background, it’s no surprise that the bubbly teenager considers herself a shopaholic mall rat, who is always looking for something sharp to wear. She enjoys photography and drawing, and English is her favorite subject in school.
Paul Yetter, who coaches both Hoff and Lee, says he doesn’t compare Hoff four years ago to Lee today.
“But there are similarities. They are both improving in an Olympic year. They both believe anything can happen. Both know what being an underdog is, Katie in 2004 and Felicia in 2008,” Yetter said.
Lee swam preliminaries in the 50-meter and 200-meter freestyle events Saturday night, barely missing the cut for finals field of weight. Then, she finished fifth in the 100-meter butterfly preliminaries (59.46), making her the youngest finalist by two years. In the finals, she placed fifth (1:00.05). In the 200 IM, she took sixth (2:17.05).
“The 100 fly is one of my best events right now, and 200 IM, I’m trying to get there, too,” she said.
The coach says there are a number of veteran swimmers in the 200 fly, “and she’s still learning this race. She wants to beat everybody, which is tough to do at this point in her life.”
Lee would love to duplicate Hoff’s accomplishments of four years ago by making the Olympic team and going to Beijing in August.
“It’s hard. There’s a lot of competition out there," Lee said. "Going to trials, I just want to do my best, get a good swim in. If I don’t make the team, I mean, there’s always the next four years.”
“And then,” says Yetter, as if turning the calendar pages, “there’s eight years and there’s 12 years.”