By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
An Olympian once told me, "All I need is water. Then I transform into someone else. Someone different than who I normally am."
Claire Donahue is shy. Though she certainly doesn't seem shy, especially during our hour-long conversation over the phone. About halfway through our interview, I asked her to describe her personality. It's a slightly awkward question - to describe yourself. Sometimes I ask this question to elicit candid self-reflection and straightforward answers. Sometimes the responses are completely unexpected. Over the phone, Claire seemed boisterous, outgoing, and talkative: She seemed like a genuine extrovert. But after a few stumbled words, Claire said:
"I guess I'm kind of shy. You would constitute me as 'shy.' I'm shy around people, but when it comes to swimming, that's when I'm more myself."
It's been a whirlwind year for the self-described "shy" Western Kentucky graduate. In 2011, she finished in 2nd place at the NCAA Championships, which was WKU's highest individual swimming finish ever. Then Donahue qualified for the Pan American Games - her first international competition and the first time she ever ventured outside the United States. Then she competed at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool, swimming alongside teammates she had once seen on TV, like Ryan Lochte and Natalie Coughlin. It seemed that every few months came another "Most Important Meet" of Claire Donahue's career. For the girl who grew up unheralded out of high school, who dropped a second every season of her collegiate career, it almost seemed too much.
"2011 has gone by fast," Donahue responds when reflecting on the previous year's success, "but I've been able to see what I've done in a short amount of time. I wouldn't say it was overwhelming, but it was very cool to be able to do all those things."
Her meteoric rise to the top of the 2012 Watch List is something in the vein of "Rudy-esque" plotlines: The small-town swimmer with the big-time dreams. The Cinderella Story who comes from nowhere and shocks the world. The athlete from the mid-major conference who competes against swimmers from "major conferences" with big facilities and long course pools. (Donahue must travel 2.5 hours round-trip to the nearest long course pool, which she does, sometimes four times a week.)
However, at its core, Claire Donahue's story is like many other swimming stories: a swimmer, a work ethic, and a lane. It's a simple enough formula that has steered her from an above-average high school swimmer to one of the best swimmers in the world. And though she races the entire WKU men's team every day (who makes it a goal to beat "the girl" in practice), Donahue knows that the only person that she has to truly beat is herself: her nerves, her shyness, her approach to swim meets.
For Donahue, it's a bit of a different kind of a "Cinderella story." It's not Cinderella vs. outside factors like stepsisters and pumpkin mobiles and large quantities of dishes.
It's Cinderella vs. herself.
WKU: Where The Heart Is
The last time Western Kentucky swimming had an NCAA finalist, Ronald Reagan was President, CDs were just introduced, and "Back to the Future" was raking in the box office. The year was 1985. Then came along Claire Donahue, an above-average high school swimmer from nearby Lenoir City, Tennessee.
"In high school, I wasn't that great. When I was looking at schools, my top choices were here and Louisville," Donahue explains. "I wanted to go to a school where I was in the middle and also where I was going to make a difference. I didn't want to be a top dog."
It certainly didn't take long for Donahue to become the "top dog." Her freshmen year, she swept the butterfly events at the Sun Belt Conference Championships. Thus began Donahue's remarkable and very consistent annual time drops - a second every single year. Donahue dropped from a respectable 55-high to a runner-up 51.6 at the NCAA Championships in the 100-yard butterfly her senior year.
"There was competition in the Sun Belt, but when I didn't have competition, I learned quickly to race myself," Donahue says. "Which is what you want to do in swimming anyways. I learned that early on, you're not racing people beside you, but yourself, and the clock in particular."
After the success of her NCAA runner-up finish, things started to change. Not only with her success at swim meets - winning the Pan American Games and competing in the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool - but Donahue's approach to swim meets changed, too. She noticed that she'd get "really, really nervous" before competitions. Which is normal and justifiable, considering she transitioned from competing against college teams like Florida Atlantic and North Texas to "Team Europe."
Needless to say -- a bit of a competition jump.
Donahue's coach at WKU suggested that she see a sports psychologist to help control her nerves. The psychologist began helping her, teaching her simple stress-management exercises - deep breathing and visualization - to help Donahue control the competition tension. Donahue also began purposefully envisioning "negative things" that could happen at meets -- anything from cracking goggles to poor race performances to meet delays to disruptions on the blocks (e.g. officials calling swimmers down seconds before the race).
"I visualize bad things that might happen. Then, I visualize me being able to overcome that specific bad thing, relax, and deal with it. That's what I do now to prepare," Donahue says. "When I get closer [to the Olympic Trials], about a month out in the beginning of June, that's when I'll visualize [Trials] races."
She adds: "If you do it a million times, it will be easy to do it over again."
Donahue says the sports psychologist has helped immensely, and the mental aspect of the sport is behind her. She points to the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool last December as a prime example. Though Donahue didn't place in the Top-5, she was pleased with how she handled the nerves, and how she swam the race. She kept control of her emotions.
"Four years ago at Trials, I was out so fast, I was spinning and nervous. Any big meet, I'm nervous," Donahue says. "That's something I'm trying to control. With that, I'm trying to control certain things within my racing. It's focused me on my technique more, instead of focusing on something bad that's going to happen, or over-analyzing it. I focus on my technique."
She's got the desire and motivation to take the next step. The visualization techniques only give her an added advantage over the competition. And her support network at Western Kentucky helps her along the way.
Not Your Standard Cinderella Story
Last week, at the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, one team was down by 16 points. Everyone thought the game was over. Slowly but surely, the losing team came storming back, making baskets, crawling, scratching to get closer to the victory. With 33 seconds left, the losing team hit a 3-pointer, and, unexpectedly - despite having a losing regular season record entering the NCAA Tournament -- they won. The team that pulled off the comeback?
"I watched parts of the game. It was pretty cool," Donahue laughs. "I watched the conference tournament to see them go to the NCAAs. They weren't expected to do well at all."
Donahue's journey is the opposite of WKU's basketball team: She's now a favorite. She's one of the best swimmers in the world (she was 14th in the world in 2011). She can't surprise anyone anymore - people know what she is capable of doing, and the vast reaches of her potential. Donahue points out her reasons for success: continued progression. She learns from her coaches, she tweaks her strokes, she grows from her mistakes, and she overcomes obstacles. Ironically (a contrast with the WKU basketball team) she's not the "comeback" type of athlete - she takes her races out blazing fast, sometimes in world-record fashion. All she needs to do now is learn to hold on.
"At Nationals, at the 50, I was on world record pace. Then I died off. I'm more of a sprinter," Donahue says. "I'm working on that second half. Different sets. Different things in the weight room."
She's also conquering the battle that rages within every swimmer - the internal monologue of over-analyzing and nervousness. And just like every other obstacle she's faced, Donahue is learning how to deal with that, too. Most of all, she's just having fun, being happy, and is still practicing with the coaches and teammates she loves at Western Kentucky.
"When I came here, I loved it from the beginning. The chemistry with everyone was so great. And having fun was such an important aspect that I hadn't seen before. Not all practices are having fun, but we try to enjoy what we we're doing," Donahue says. "That's one of the big things that I learned here."
Everything now is seemingly in place for success. Which makes Donahue's story so unique and interesting. Despite the environmental uniqueness of her journey - the small college swim team, the acceleration of improvement, the loyalty to training roots and coaches - none of these factors matter when she steps on the blocks. Swimming is not like March Madness. It's not about a group of athletes physically battling others. The water does not care where you're from, or whom you've trained with, or how many Olympic medals you have, or what your world-ranking is.
When the reflection of the pool stares back at you milliseconds before your hands hit the water, there is only your outstretched body, an empty lane, and the clock.
"My coach in high school said, 'You're going to get to a point where you're only dropping tenths of a second instead of full seconds,'" Donahue says. "But I haven't hit that point yet."
When she dives in, Claire Donahue transforms into the person she is. Only, she expresses herself in butterfly strokes, kicks off the wall, and a final five meters of a determined, resolute finish. Like the swimmer who once said he transforms when he enters water, Donahue transforms, too.