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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Senior Maureen Farrell jumps into the pool and pulls herself up on to the blocks. She grasps the handles closely as if she's holding on to the last remnants of her slowly evaporating career.

Her knees leave their 90-degree angle as she pushes away, and one of her last chances to beat swimming powerhouse Auburn in a relay is underway at the 2005 Southeastern Conference Championships.

Then it's upperclassmen Vipa Bernhardt and Candace Weiman's turns. With a junior and a sophomore, you're feeling pretty good about your chances. Experience should help, after all.

It's as close as a 400-meter medley relay can be. And now, it's up to a freshman, Caroline Burckle.

One on one on one in the freestyle against Georgia's Amanda Weir, who had spent last summer in Athens at the 2004 Summer Olympics, and Auburn's Emily Kukors.

Burckle wouldn't have any Vegas betters breaking the bank for her.

They would've, however, been very rich if they had.

The UF freshman reached and touched the wall seven tenths of a second before Weir and .73 seconds before Kukors.

Southeastern Conference, meet Caroline. Caroline, meet the SEC. It was a rude introduction for the rest of the conference.

"I've been waiting four years to beat these girls," Farrell says. "These girls made my dreams come true."

For Caroline, well, her dreams were just beginning and are now continuing into the Olympics, which are just nine days away.

THE BEGINNING

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Not even the Kentucky roosters deem it time to wake. In her Louisville home, Caroline rolls out of bed at 4:30 in the morning. While most of her schoolmates are still having dreams of Power Rangers and just getting over the nightmares from the Goosebumps they read the night before, Burckle is in a pool.

That's not your typical morning wake-up shower.

Then she goes to school, probably the most normal part of her day. Then it's back to the water. After that, it was time to scarf down food and hope that her brain cells were focused enough to finish homework. Then, it was time to sleep and start it all again the next day.

"That consumed her life," her mother Jill said.

No kidding.

"Growing up it was second nature to stay at the pool all day during the summer," said younger brother Clark, who's also a swimmer at UF.

It's safe to assume the Burckles are immune to chlorine.

When she was 9 years old, swimming started to become more serious. Her coaches told her parents they should put her on the club team, and moving through the water had started to become second nature. She had the keys to start her swimming ignition, and she knew how to work them with little effort. As Caroline put it, swimming just "kind of came to me."

Mike DeBoor, who coached Caroline's club team from when she started until she left for Gainesville, said she wasn't scared or intimated by anyone.

She still lacked that competitive instinct, though.

Apparently just a dash of breaststroke seasoning was needed.

Four years later, when she was 13, she made her first junior nationals. And, perhaps as a sign for the future, it was in Gainesville.

"Once you make it on the national scene, that's a pretty big feather in your cap," Jill said. "It was at that point the goals were probably reset."

Reset. Relaunched. Redone. However you put it, Caroline was on the swimming radar.

"By 13, 14, that's where we were thinking - the national, international level," DeBoor said.

THE STRUGGLE

Caroline went to the 2004 Olympic Trials and did well. Almost too well, maybe. She came to UF and had a freshman year that had her name already getting sprinkled over record books: SEC Freshman of the Year. NCAA runner up in the 500-meter freestyle. All-American in four relays and two individual events. Fifteen first-place finishes.

She even set the conference record for the 500 free in her first conference event.

So, the next year, she felt 500 meters of pressure.

"I struggled for a little while," she said.

Consider that struggling for Burckle meant still taking home three All-America honors her sophomore year, but so much early success redefines future success.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself," she said. "I was pressuring myself instead of having fun swimming."

For probably the first time in her swimming career, there wasn't constant improvement. Caroline was stuck. She was expected to be the best swimmer on one of the nation's best teams, and she didn't know what to think of that.

"Her freshman year, she broke out and then fell back into a rut," Clark said. "She got real nervous with herself about whether she could re-accomplish what she had done. The next few years were kind of rough for her."

Those national and international expectations now appeared quite distant.

THE TURNAROUND

UF coach Gregg Troy and Caroline sat down and had a meeting before her senior year. He told her she could be the best swimmer in the nation.

"Okay," she said.

That's about as technical as Caroline Burckle gets.

The summer before her senior year she went to the Pan-American games and won a gold medal.

And guess who got their confidence back. There was no more pressure, or at least not any that was affecting her. She returned to, as Clark puts it, "keeping the sport in its natural form."

In other words: Have fun trying to keep up, everyone.

"Caroline is very much a momentum athlete," Troy said. "And when she's confident about what she's doing, she's really tough to beat."

Not only tough to beat, but impossible to beat. At least on the collegiate level. She was named the NCAA Swimmer of the Year and took home two individual titles, while breaking the NCAA record in the 500 free.

But all those accomplishments just meant she was supposed to make the Olympics this summer. This time, she met expectations.

"There weren't that many college swimmers that made the team," Jill said. "A lot of them were professional swimmers that didn't just (compete in an) NCAA meet."

It's been proven that Caroline isn't most swimmers.

"When I hit the wall and I turned around and saw that I made it, I was thrilled and the pain went away," Caroline said.

Clark said that, as a swimmer, you expect that the Olympics are "one of those things that you think just happens to other people."

His sister is now in that category.

"THE MOUTH"

It's as wide as Joakim Noah's wingspan. It speaks as loud as a Tim Tebow stat line. It's open more than a 7-11.

It's Caroline Burckle's mouth.

"The hard thing about swimming is that your face is always in the water, so the only time you can talk is when the coach is talking," Jill said. "That's not good (for Caroline)."

So, is it true?

"I just talk a lot," she said.

And that's why DeBoor originally called her "The Mouth." Needless to say, the name stuck.

She taught her youngest brother how to get a few words in as well. Jill tells her daughter that their youngest of three "just doesn't know the drill" and is always talking. Caroline's response just rolls of the tongue.

"'Mom, I didn't know the drill either,'" she says. "'I was always talking, too.'"

It's ironic that her premier stroke is the freestyle, because that embodies her personality. Clark takes care of the money for the siblings, and Caroline takes care of the, um, social aspect.

Caroline does take care of her friends and brother very seriously, and always wants to make sure they're taken care of emotionally. But she has to look good while being there, of course.

"She likes fashion a lot," Clark said.

How much do you like shopping, Caroline?

"A lot."

Gotcha.

Let's forgot about the chatter for a second. Because as happy and smiley as she is, there are moments of nerves. Her struggles during her sophomore and junior years are evident of that.

"She didn't picture herself at that level," Troy said. "If she had realized it a little bit earlier, she might've been even more successful."

After she qualified, Clark said his sister was more relieved than overjoyed. Even on a bus taking her to the airport where she'll leave for Beijing, she still hasn't let it sink in that, yes, you are an Olympian.

"I'm thinking that it will when I'm on a plane for a whole day. But I think I'll be able to soon…hopefully," she said with a laugh.

She's still laughing, Gainesville. And for her success, that's just about all she may need.

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