CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Olympic Games are back this month, starting in Tokyo in late July after a year-long delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What You Need to Know
Charlotte swimmer Madeline Menkhaus made the 2020 Olympic Trials held in Omaha, Nebraska last month
Her typical swimming week usually includes about 18 hours of practice, 5,000 yards of swimming per practice and sometimes practice twice a day
Menkhaus will head to Notre Dame this fall to be a scholarship swimmer
Charlotte will have some athletes with area connections in the games and had many others compete for a spot.
One of those athletes, swimmer Madeline Menkhaus, said participating in this year’s Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska was an incredible moment after a year in which the swimming world was turned upside down.
“I’ve been swimming for around nine years, and I usually swim 200 butterfly and 100 butterfly, backstroke events, and [individual medley] events,” Menkaus said.
Set to start at Notre Dame in the fall on a swimming scholarship, Menkhaus spends hours in the pool each week even during the summer.
“Madeline is at the top of our program now. So, she is training at a high level,” said Sean Quinn, her league coach at SwimMac.
Quinn, who has been coaching Menkhaus for more than two years, said she’s a talented, great and versatile swimmer.
“She’s certainly a special young lady who’s worked very hard to get where she is now,” Quinn added.
But her love of swimming started years ago, when she first started watching her sibling swim in a neighborhood summer league.
Eventually, Menkhaus, who was also a competitive gymnast, couldn’t be kept out of the pool.
“I really started swimming when I was around 3 or 4,” Menkhaus said with a smile.
Her love of summer league, which she still participates in to this day, turned into a love of competitive swimming.
Menkhaus had her breakout meet, the meet which swimmers say shows they are a force to be reckoned with, at age 12. She graduated from Charlotte Catholic High School this summer as a four-time women’s team state champion and six-time individual state champion.
You might think all the success would go to her head, but no, Menkhaus still goes to the Firethorne Country Club pool on summer mornings to help children as young as 3 and 4 learn the sport she loves.
“That is so good, you’re doing so much better!” Menkhaus told one particularly splashy diver at a summer league practice earlier this summer.
It is the same summer league which helped Menkhaus grow up into a decorated competitive swimmer. In fact, Menkhaus’ mom said many of the older kids end up coming back and coaching, creating a cycle of young people who love the sport and want to share it with others.
“First off, I love kids. So, that makes it easier when they’re so small, and they’re so excited about swimming. And I love that,” Menkhaus said during a practice with the children.
On one of their last days of the summer program, Menkhaus and the other older swimmers got in the pool to compete with their young students, helping out on relays and other competitions. As some of the kids loudly pointed out to their friends, it helps having an older, decorated state champion as your relay anchor.
But the summer league competition is a little easier for Menkhaus than her other summer competition this year.
In Omaha at the Olympic Trials, she competed in the 200-meter butterfly, and while she did not make the team headed to Tokyo, she said it was a lifelong goal checked off the list.
“So to be there is kind of like a life-long goal,” she said simply.
All told, the talent, dedication and skill it takes to get to an Olympic Trial is not understated. Out of more than 300,000 Team USA swimmers across the country, only 1,500 or so qualify for the trials, according to Quinn.
After making the cut for the trials, an even smaller percentage of swimmers actually make the Olympics. In fact, Quinn said the Team USA trials are often considered one of the fastest meets in the world, faster even than some medal-winning meets at the Olympics later this month.
Even though she did not make the Tokyo team, Menkhaus said she will enjoy the Olympics and watch friends swim for gold.
“It’s kind of fun to know that I’ve raced Olympians and kind of grew up with some of them. Like Claire Curzan, we’ve always raced each other. ‘Cause, we’re both in North Carolina, we always raced. And it’s kind of fun knowing that they’re there and cheering them on,” Menkhaus said about her trial experience.
It took years of dedication to get to her level.
“She probably puts in about 18 hours a week in the pool, another three to four hours in the weight room and other versions of dry land training. So, again, it is the top percentage of our team. Not everyone swims quite that much,” Quinn said, while Menkhaus was swimming at practice.
A typical practice usually goes for about 5,000 yards, sometimes twice a day.
All those hours in the water gives her a lot of time to think.
“Well first off, I’m counting, ’cause even though counting is just a normal thing, it’s really hard while you’re swimming. Sometimes I’m thinking about my technique, sometimes I’m just thinking about the day. Sometimes, when it’s a long swim like that, I do sing a song,” Menkhaus jokes while taking a break between laps.
For reference, the song is usually by Dua Lipa.
To qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials, which were actually held in June 2021, Menkhaus had to hit a qualifying time in a particular event. Thankfully, Menkhaus got her qualifying trial time right before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted swimmers and other athletes across the globe.
But even after dealing with a disrupted COVID-19 swimming season, years of two-a-day practices, dozens of hours of swimming a week and lots of lost family trips and weekends to swim meets, Menkhaus said getting in the pool at Omaha made it all worthwhile.
“Yes, it was definitely worth it. I would do everything that I’ve done, done the same,” Menkhaus said.
She has her mind set on trying again in 2024 in an effort to make the team for the Paris Olympics.
But in the meantime, she’s got to figure out what she wants to study at Notre Dame.
“Right now I’m in the Mendoza business school, but I don’t really know what I want to study ’cause I do love biology, and they’re two totally different things,” Menkhaus laughed.
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