FARGO — It was never about being one of the top two finishers. The goal was to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.
Eric Anderson was a half-second off from qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle last November. He had six months to improve his time.
Anderson, a recent graduate of Fargo Shanley, achieved the qualifying mark with a month to spare at USA Swimming’s TYR 18 & Under Spring Cup in Des Moines, Iowa, that was held April 29-May 2. His second-place time of 23.03 seconds qualified him for Wave I of the trials, which are split into two sections.
Exactly one week after he walked across the gymnasium floor at Shanley to receive his diploma, Anderson arrived in Omaha, Neb., to take the biggest stage in United States swimming. He made the six-hour drive to Omaha with his mom.
Anderson just wanted to make it, to step foot in the pool at CHI Health Center. Leaving as one of the top swimmers in the men’s 50 free seemed out of the question.
Until it wasn’t.
Anderson, 18, has a chance to make the U.S. Olympic Team next week. He advanced to Wave II of the U.S. Olympic Trials with a second-place finish in the men’s 50 free on Monday, the final day of Wave I competition, held June 4-7.
“We weren’t even remotely thinking we were going to make it past Wave I, but we did,” Anderson said.
Anderson touched the wall in 22.57 seconds — clearing the Wave II standard of 22.71 by 0.14 seconds — to keep his Olympic dreams alive. He graced the leaderboard with the fastest time he’s ever posted.
“I was super happy that my week here in Omaha wasn’t over, that I had another one waiting for me now,” Anderson said. “It’s like you just keep wanting to stay and see how much farther you can go.”
Anderson was .02 seconds behind Jack Armstrong, who took the 50 free in an incredibly tight race during Monday’s Wave I final. He moved into a tie for 18th all-time in the 17-18 age group with the runner-up mark of 22.57.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking having this at such a large stage,” he said. “But if you didn’t think of it that way, it kind of got rid of most of the nerves.”
A seven-time high school state champion in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races, Anderson finished his prep career as one of the most decorated swimmers in North Dakota. But his recent success was unexpected, he said.
“I did not think I was gonna be in a podium spot,” said Anderson, who will swim at South Dakota State. “I wasn’t thinking that we were even really gonna make finals at first.”
Anderson was one of 50 swimmers who qualified to compete in Wave II by finishing first or second in one of the 28 Wave I finals. According to Team USA’s website, Anderson and the other 49 athletes moving on will compete against 30 Olympians and 23 Olympic medalists in Wave II, which is set for June 13-20 in Omaha.
Wave II serves as the sole qualifier for pool swimmers for the U.S. Olympic Team that will compete at the Tokyo Olympics. The top two finishers out of Wave II can qualify for the Olympic team.
Anderson advanced to the A final after placing fourth in the 50 free prelims Monday morning. He won his heat with the fourth-best preliminary time of 22.80 seconds.
Anderson said it helped to get the first race under his belt. He improved on his prelim time by 0.23 seconds in the Monday night final.
“It was just ‘get loose’ and remember that it’s the day to race,” Anderson said of his preparation. “Know that we gotta be on time because we don’t have super long for warmups, so we have to get through our warmup quickly. And just remain focused — that was the big thing.”
Anderson grew up in Wahpeton, N.D., and won three of his seven state titles for the Huskies before transferring to Shanley for his junior year, which has a swimming co-op with Fargo South. In his final state tournament as a Bruin in March, he won his fourth straight state title in the 100 free and third consecutive championship in the 50 free.
Anderson seems to only get faster. Heading into Monday, he wanted to break 23 seconds. Anything less than that seemed out of reach.
Once again, Anderson defied his own expectations. He cut almost a half-second from his trial-qualifying mark (23.03), which he registered just over a month ago.
“We just tried to work on the little things — key details — and try to make them better,” he said. “That’s all we really did.”
Anderson will head back to Omaha next Tuesday. The preliminary and semifinal rounds for the men’s 50 free will take place Saturday, June 19, with the final slated for Sunday evening. The 16 fastest swimmers from prelims in races 200 meters or shorter advance to the semifinals.
In between sessions, he’s hitting the reset button. Anderson is trying to rest as much as possible, while staying ready to race. He’s been in the pool once a day since he’s been home, focusing on sprints and resistance training.
“Go have fun, try and stay competitive, and know that you belong in that session,” Anderson said of his mindset heading into next week. “Just absorb it all.”
NBC Sports Network will have tape-delayed coverage of the morning preliminary heats, which will also be live-streamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. The finals in each event will be aired live on NBC.