The oldest competitor at the U.S. trials turns in the swim of a lifetime

Gabrielle Rose swims during the Women's 100 breaststroke semifinals Sunday, June 16, 2024, at the US Swimming Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS - For seven of the eight swimmers in Heat 7 of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke preliminaries Sunday morning at the U.S. Olympic trials, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics exist as some sort of ancient, grainy highlight reel, clips of which occasionally are played on the giant video screen suspended above the pool at Lucas Oil Stadium. None of those seven were born in 1996. That was back in their parents’ days.

But for the swimmer in Lane 5, the one who touched the wall first in a personal-best 1 minute, 8.43 seconds to sail into Sunday night’s semifinals, Atlanta 1996 is a real, living memory. The swimmer in Lane 5, Gabrielle Rose, swam in those Olympics as an 18-year-old, all the way back - could it really be? - 28 years ago.

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The math seems impossible, but it is 100 percent true: Rose is 46 years old, which is seven years older than any other of the 1,007 swimmers who qualified for these Olympic trials (and 33 years older than the youngest competitor here). On Sunday, she was some 20 years older than the second-oldest swimmer in her heat and nearly 30 years older than the youngest.

“I feel so lucky to feel so young and so strong and to have this experience,” said Rose, whose 9-year-old daughter, Annie, was in the stands. “I don’t really relate to ‘oldest.’”

A crowd of 17,697 - believed to be a record for a preliminary session at a swim meet - took notice of Rose after the announcer pointed out her age, noting she was the oldest swimmer in the meet. And the low murmur became a crescendo as she headed for the final wall in first place. When she touched first, more than half a second clear of the runner-up, it became a full-throated roar. Rose hung on the wall for more than a few seconds, her goggles hiding the tears welling up behind them.

“Just relief,” she said when asked what was going through her mind in those moments. “I just wanted to have the swim I thought I was capable of.”

As she walked across the pool deck to the athletes’ tunnel, the crowd - full of swim moms and swim dads of Rose’s generation - sustained its applause, with many rising to their feet in appreciation. Rose kept her left hand over her heart as she walked, as if struggling to keep it contained in her chest.

“I wasn’t expecting how loud and awesome it was,” she said.

By the time the final three heats wrapped up, it was official: Rose had earned a spot in Sunday night’s semifinals and was seeded 11th out of 16. She harbors no fantasies about this “journey,” as she calls it, continuing on past that race - the top eight move on to Monday night’s final, with the top two from that one earning spots on Team USA’s squad bound for Paris - but no matter where she finishes, she already has accomplished what she came here to do.

“There’s no expectations. I’m not going to make the team. But I just wanted to have that swim,” she said. Beyond that, her mission was to prove something to others of her generation. “I’m just hoping to show people you can do more. I want women in particular to … know they can have a lot more in the older chapters of their lives.”

The story of Rose’s swimming career soars and craters and meanders and then finally doubles back on itself. The dual-citizen daughter of a Brazilian mother and American father, she grew up in Memphis as a breaststroke phenom, setting a U.S. age group record as a 12-year-old. But in her telling of the story, she “lost” the feel for her stroke somewhere along the way and eventually transitioned into a freestyler and individual medley swimmer.

She swam at Stanford and competed for Brazil in Atlanta in 1996, then for Team USA in Sydney in 2000, with a best finish of seventh in the 200 IM at Sydney. Her last crack at top-level swimming came at the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials, where she fell short of making it to a third Olympics. Most of the next two decades were spent in what she called “real life” - raising a daughter, taking a job as a club-level swim coach in Southern California and working in drowning prevention advocacy through a foundation started by her father.

She kept competing as a masters swimmer - she holds 14 national records for ages 35 to 39 and 45 to 49 - and a couple of years ago she started feeling her breaststroke, the most temperamental of all swimming strokes, clicking back into form. Her times kept dropping until finally, in November, she got under the Olympic trials cut. She was heading to Indy.

That’s how she found herself in an NFL stadium Sunday, soaking in the energy of nearly 18,000 mostly strangers and struggling to keep it together. She’ll go back to “real life” in a few days, back to being a mom and a coach and an advocate. But first, there is another swim Sunday night and - who knows? - maybe a third, should she sneak into Monday’s final.

“This is kind of like going back to [being] that little girl who was disappointed and … wondered what happened to her breaststroke,” she said. “I found it. It took a couple of decades, but I found it.”

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