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The world stage awaits – Championships and Otter Pops

by ZwemZa on April 19th, 2019

SERENITY comes with a price.

There can be no quiet without noise, no comfort without pain, and no contentment without struggle. Ella Eastin knows this too well as she slips under the surface of the Avery Aquatic Center pool after practice.

Her body coasts and her heartbeat slows. There is no sound, no pressure, and no expectations in this sanctuary. She tilts her head toward the surface, admiring the reflection of the sunlight as the ripples recede into a flat plane above her.

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m working and fighting against the water so hard, and the water’s not working with me,” she said. “But, a lot of the time, I feel like the water is working with me, and I’ve always felt so comfortable in it.”

These are her favorite moments.

The simplicity that exists below the surface does not exist above it. If it did, Eastin already would own a string of global swimming accomplishments to rival those of her recently-concluded Stanford career.

She won eight NCAA individual titles and four relays and earned 20 All-America honors. She became the first woman in NCAA Division I history to capture the 400-yard individual medley championship four times and holds three American records — in the 200-yard butterfly, 200-yard IM, and 400-yard IM.

At the NCAA Championships last month in Austin, Texas, Eastin took on a larger role — adding the 400 medley relay to an already full schedule that grew to six events and 10 total races. The workload may have cost her. Eastin was second in the 200 fly and 200 IM – events she won the year before.

Eastin still willed herself to the 400 IM crown, and contributed key legs on three relays that enabled Stanford to win its third consecutive NCAA title in the closest margin – 37 ½ points — of that stretch.

On the pool deck after the meet’s final event – a strong third in the 400 free relay – associate head coach Tracy Slusser approached Eastin, looked her in the eye and thanked her for all she had done. They embraced, and, with similar words from Greg Meehan, Paul A. Violich Director of Women’s Swimming, Eastin closed her Stanford career.

“I don’t know how to describe the feeling,” Eastin said. “I knew in that moment that it was like they saw more in me than just the fact that I was scoring points for our team. I try to go out of my way to thank Greg and Tracy for everything they’ve done. I never really thought I would be on the reciprocating end of gratitude from people that have done everything for me.”

Eastin embraces the next phase of her swimming career with Tokyo in sight. To plainly declare a goal like the “Olympics” used to scare her. Now, it drives her. The next hope is that the world will discover her.

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AS INTENSE AS elite swimming can be — to sharpen skill, technique, training and racing to such an edge – clarity and purpose come from a place the elite swimmer never can be again.

For Eastin, that place is the Forest Glen Pool in Irvine, California. She’s the girl eating Ritz crackers with cheese sprayed on it, and drinking a soda through a straw of Red Vine licorice.

Elizabeth and Jeff Eastin wanted their daughters Ella and Emily, born 11 months apart, to be water safe. Living in Orange County, with its pools and oceans, meant the girls would be around water constantly.

Holding her daughter close, Elizabeth stepped into the pool and Ella, not yet a month old, felt the cool water creep up her body. It didn’t seem long before Ella was jumping in herself, climbing on her dad’s shoulders and doing handstands before dropping in with a splash.

At two, Ella took her first and only formal swim lesson. Kids put on clothes and jumped in the water to learn how to handle themselves as if drowning. The class was led by an instructor with no patience for crying kids.

“My sister did not like her. She would cry with this lady,” Ella said. “But I was so up to the challenge. I’m going to be that one kid that won’t cry. You can do whatever you want to me, it won’t bother me at all.”

And it didn’t.

“Ella was pretty fearless,” Elizabeth said. “She always responded to challenges. She didn’t understand why anybody would be crying.”

The Forest Glen Pool quickly became central to Eastin family life. It was located near the home of Elizabeth’s parents and became a destination for aunts, uncles, and cousins. Swimming, playing, eating … an endless summer indeed.

“I just have really fond memories of being in the sun and being in the water and being around people that I loved,” Ella said.

The pool had a swim team, the Northpark Riptide. But because the Eastins at first weren’t residents of the neighborhood, Ella’s grandfather made a deal with the club to volunteer in exchange for Ella and Emily being able to join. Soon, the Eastins moved into the neighborhood themselves.

The Riptide was coached by Todd Larsen, a music instructor described by Ella as, “the most fun-loving, caring, energetic person I ever met. He immediately saw something in me. I was hooked.”

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Ella Eastin, Todd Larsen

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On the first day, 6-year-old Ella could barely swim across the pool. After a couple of weeks with Larsen, she had seemingly mastered all four strokes.

In her first meet, Ella swam the 100 IM. She dove in, finished quickly, and got out of the pool before officials even knew what happened. They announced the runner-up as the winner.

“I learned two things,” Ella said. “No. 1: I learned you’re supposed to wait for everyone to finish before getting out of the pool. And, No. 2: Maybe I can be pretty good at this.”

At the city league championships, there was a buzz. “I heard this 7-year-old is going 14 seconds in the 25,” a stranger told Jeff. “I’ve got to see this girl.”

Even after it was clear that Ella and Emily needed to swim on a year-round club team, they continued to spend their summers with Larsen.

“He made it fun,” Ella said. “I never looked at practice or competition as work until I was old enough to recognize the sacrifices I was making.”

In an essay on her Stanford application, Eastin described the impact of Larsen:

“Todd held a respect never matched by anyone I know … His mission was to encourage everyone to do the best they could in any area of their life. No matter what path we take in life, he enforced the importance in finding the beauty and fun in every situation.”

As Jeff Eastin observed, “He was a great coach. Every kid loved Todd. If you ever thought, That guy is a cool guy … he was. He was a good dude.”

“He taught the kids to have a passion for whatever you do,” Elizabeth said. “It doesn’t have to be swimming. It could be music, school, whatever. But you have to have fun while you’re doing it. That was the lesson Ella learned and continues to draw from today.”

After a function at the pool with Olympic swimmer Jason Lezak one night, Elizabeth had a chance to tell Larsen how much he was appreciated and what a positive influence he was. A few days later, Larsen was diagnosed with leukemia.

As Larsen underwent a variety of treatments, Elizabeth barely slept for a week as she organized a fundraiser matching Larsen’s passions of swimming and rock ‘n roll in an event called the Rock ‘n Splash Relay Bash. Ella and Emily joined Lezak and other local Olympians like Janet Evans and Kaitlin Sandeno to raise money to help defray medical costs for Larsen’s family.

Parents helped find the Larsens a house near the City of Hope cancer treatment center so he could get a bone marrow transplant, and made meals for them every day. But with his immune system in tatters, Larsen died of pneumonia and bacterial infections at age 44.

“I don’t think I could ever express to that community what they did for our family,” said Todd’s wife, Kelly Larsen. “We wanted for nothing. How do you tell people? I don’t know. I hope they know.”

The Eastin girls took it hard.

“That was the first huge loss in my life,” said Ella, who was 13. “He gave me the opportunity to be my best self.”

That was the first of many crossroads for Ella, the one that forced her to consider why she was swimming in the first place. Ultimately, it gave her more of a purpose and strengthened her commitment.

Today, Eastin prays for Larsen before each race, and points to the sky in his honor afterward.

Todd was proud of Ella. “It was a relationship of admiration and support,” Kelly said. “He respected her, pushed her, and had high expectations for her. And she had a place where she could always be accepted.”

“Losing somebody like your spouse, you grieve and a community grieves. The impact comes only when the person is missed. Todd’s legacy lives through Ella. When Ella talks about the impact he made, I get to remember him.”

After Todd died, the community presented Kelly and their 2-year-old son Garrett with books of memories and stories from the children who knew Todd.

“I have Ella’s letter in there,” she said. “When Garrett is ready, and he can understand, I will read it to him. And he can know his father.”

Todd once told Ella, “Life’s not easy, and you’re going to have to deal with whatever comes at you. But do it with a smile.”

That advice would be tested … often.

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EASTIN CALLS THE 400 individual medley, particularly the long course 400-meter version, “long, intense, and painful.”

It’s a combination of four different styles into one race. In order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle.

“You have to be good at everything, or at least good enough, to stay in the race,” Eastin said. “I would say that I’m on the high end of mediocre on all of my strokes. When you put them together, it seems to work pretty well.”

“A love-hate relationship.” That’s the understanding between Eastin and the 400 IM. “I would love to hear from someone who only has love for that race. I would argue it’s one of the hardest races in swimming, if not the hardest. Long enough to be painful, short enough to be a sprint.”

There’s a different pain associated with each stroke and each stage of the race, she said. The pain begins to kick in during the butterfly and her legs begin to tire during the backstroke. It becomes hard to breathe on the breaststroke.

“I always get a bad burning sensation in my legs at that point and my arms are tired from the butterfly and backstroke,” she said. “Your body wants to slow down, but you have to force yourself not to. I feel like my insides want to come out of me because I can’t breathe so badly.”

You think you’re almost done at the turn to the freestyle, but the pain just gets worse.

“My head’s pounding,” she said. “You can hear your heart beat in your head a lot of the time.

“I forget almost how I’m feeling at the end of the race because my mind just blacks out. Muscle memory takes over. But, at the same time, you’re very aware of where everyone is. When it’s over, you have used every single muscle in your body.”

Asked to describe the event, 2016 Olympic gold medalist Maya DiRado, said:

“If you swim the 400 IM right, you should want to throw up about halfway through the race. And to be able to race it properly, you need to be getting to that point multiple times a week in training, if not more.

“You know you’re swimming the 400 IM properly when you start to lose feeling in your face in the last 100. When my lips were numb and tingly, that’s when I knew it was going to be a good one.”

DiRado had graduated from Stanford, gotten married, taken a full-time job, and never reached an Olympic Games when Meehan convinced her to give swimming one more shot. When DiRado got back in the pool in preparation for Rio in 2016, she found Eastin, a freshman.

“I got back from my honeymoon and was a little bit out of shape when I jumped into an IM workout and got my butt kicked by her,” DiRado said. “That was my first impression – she was going to be scary good.”

Eastin and DiRado pushed each other relentlessly and both benefited. DiRado won the 400-meter IM gold. And Eastin, at age 18, became the youngest ever to break four minutes in the 400-yard IM and went on to win her first NCAA title in that event and set history in motion.

The logical next step was to consider Rio.

“I had never said out loud that it was my career goal to qualify one day for the Olympic Games,” Eastin said. “My coaches forced me to say it out loud. I immediately burst into tears. That was the first time I ever had a goal that scared me more than excited me.

“People in my life had always known that it was my goal to go to the Olympics, but in conversation, it was like, ‘Oh, you want to make the Olympics, right?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, we’ll see.’ I was never the one to bring it up.

“I was never proud of that. It was also terrifying knowing that I had this goal I now shared out loud, that I may not achieve.”

•••

Ella Eastin

•••

WHEN SHE LINED up at the 2016 Olympic trials in Omaha, Eastin was intimidated.

“I looked up to these people my whole life – Maya, Elizabeth Beisel, Caitlin Leverenz. These were my swimming idols. At that point, I was like, I can’t beat these people, but I’m going to be devastated if I don’t. How do you resolve that conflict inside yourself?”

Eastin didn’t. She missed the final of the 400 IM and faded badly down the stretch in the 200 IM final.

In contrast to her brilliance at Stanford, Eastin continued to endure heartbreak at each attempt to reach a global long course championship. One in particular seemed utterly cruel.

At the 2017 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Eastin touched the wall in second place in the 400 IM, apparently earning her first World Championships berth. Eastin and Beisel, who placed third, hugged across the lanes and Beisel was generous in her praise.

“Girl, you are the future,” Beisel recalled saying to Eastin, in an interview with Swimming World. “I’m handing you over that 400 IM baton. Take it”

An announcement was made in the background that Eastin didn’t hear.

“Ella, look at the board,” Beisel said.

There was no time by Eastin’s name. She was disqualified.

“I had no idea why,” she said. “I was confused. No one came to tell me even after I got out of the water.”

As fans in the IUPUI Natatorium began booing, Meehan made his way to the officials to find out what happened. Eastin was among four that day victimized by the “Lochte Rule,” named after Ryan Lochte, who found he could get more speed on the freestyle leg of the IM by dolphin kicking off the wall underwater on his back.

That move was deemed illegal, but the subjective interpretation was devastating to Eastin, who sat by the warmdown pool in tears.

“Swimmers invest way too much time in this sport,” she said. “When there’s disappointment, you feel it really deep.”

In the stands, Elizabeth watched in shock as her daughter’s ordeal unfolded in front of her.

“I lost it,” Elizabeth said. “I remember running outside of the facility, trying to get it out so that I could regain my composure and face her. As a parent, you want to fix things, but there are some things you just can’t fix.”

Eastin took solace in knowing that she swam fast. The time didn’t count, but the DQ couldn’t take away from what the race said about her ability. She was there. She was good enough. The days of being too scared to perform on a big stage were replaced by steely-eyed confidence.

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SHE’S NOT A perfectionist, she says, but strives for perfection. Though she seeks the perfect training session and perfect race, Eastin understands those things are impossible. Indeed, perfection never truly can be achieved, but it sure felt like it had at the 2018 NCAA Championships.

Called “the greatest performance in an NCAA Championships in the history of our sport,” by Meehan, Eastin took five titles – three individual events and two relays – and set American records in both the 200 IM and 400 IM. She was named Swimmer of the Meet.

“Ridiculous,” was Meehan’s reaction of the way Eastin crushed those marks. Her 400 IM of 3:54.60 “may withstand a fairly long test of time,” he said.

Eastin and teammate Katie Ledecky, the four-time Rio gold medalist, traded the 400-yard IM record for two years. Two weeks before NCAA’s, Ledecky lowered it by more than a second. This time, Eastin knocked it down by two seconds more, with Ledecky three seconds in her wake.

“I remember being in awe in the middle of that race,” Ledecky said. “Just seeing how far ahead she was on the breaststroke. She just kept extending her lead.”

Eastin finally seemed poised to reach a global championship, but again misfortune struck. A few weeks before the U.S. Championships and a chance at worlds, Eastin came down with mono, missed significant training, and scratched two events, returning only for the 200 IM. That she placed third and qualified for her first major international meet, the Pan Pacs in Tokyo, was a significant achievement. But the turn of events also represented another failure that was out of her control.

Back at Forest Glen Pool, if a swimmer slipped on the pool deck or got stung by a bee, Coach Todd would say, ‘Nothing an Otter Pop can’t fix.’ And the pain would go away.

What she wouldn’t give for such wisdom, for Coach Todd, and for an Otter Pop on these days of disappointment. Sometimes, she just feels like giving up.

“Once a year,” she said, “something has come up that has challenged my willingness to continue. I’m doing everything I possibly can and putting myself out there, but then these things that are out of my control take it away from me.

“Why should I continue? I felt like I was sacrificing more than I was getting. People would be lying if they said they swam their whole career without considering quitting.

“I have considered quitting, but quitting’s not in my personality. I’ve worked way too hard and put in way too much time to stop, especially because now I’m starting to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Experiences have given her pause, but not deterred her. If nothing else, she’s learned that her control ends with the work she puts in. If nothing else, she’s going to make it very hard for someone to beat her. If that happens at the Olympic Trials or the Olympic Games, so be it.

“None of us are on the 2020 Olympic team,” said Ledecky, who continues to be a training partner. “It’s anyone’s game, and Ella’s right there with everyone else. She can really set herself up for a great 2020 if she continues on the path she’s on and continues to have fun. She’s a great racer, a great competitor, and she’s become a great trainer.”

DiRado sees it this way: “She hasn’t gotten close to hitting her potential, which is quite scary. It’s really been the confluence of the world that has kept her from unleashing the times that she’s capable of. She has so much untapped potential.”

•••

Ella Eastin, Katie Ledecky

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EASTIN JUST WANTS the opportunity.

“I’m just waiting for the world to have mercy on me a little bit,” she said. “To be able to prove myself in a moment where it matters.”

Eastin knows her value will not be determined by whether she reaches Tokyo or wins a gold medal, or even by swimming itself. She refuses to consider herself only a swimmer. It will always be part of what she does and who she is, but will never be everything. She won’t let it.

For role models, Eastin has DiRado, who is “one of the most caring, loving, genuine people I’ve ever met,” she said. “She never made me or anyone else feel less than her.” Swimming never consumed her.

She has Ledecky, her junior-year roommate, who wins gold medals and sets world records, but still is willing to have a go against Eastin in “Just Dance,” even after the hyper-competitive Eastin picks the song and perfects the moves beforehand.

She has her coaches, like Meehan, who will continue to guide her through the waters, and the memory of Larsen, who created Eastin’s entire foundation for the sport.

And she has her family, like her grandmother Ellen Lewis, who founded UC Irvine’s Program of Nursing Science and inspired a future career. Eastin is a human biology major who wants to be a nurse practitioner.

“As a child, I would go to work with her, watch student clinicals, sit in classes and play with the equipment used for health simulations,” Eastin said. “Ever since then, I’ve dreamed of becoming a nurse. I saw the great impact that my grandma has made and continues to make in her work.”

When Eastin allows herself to drop under the surface after practice, the water cradles her. It feels like home. She is again the girl drinking soda through a Red Vine as much as a dominant NCAA champion with Olympic aspirations.

But even in the calm, there is a storm waiting to be unleashed.

“I’ve spent my whole career waiting to see my own potential,” she said.

In a swimming career marked by both great success and colossal disappointment, there remains something out there, something that will make all the “croggling” – crying in your goggles – worth it.

Her coaches remind her of this constantly, and Eastin believes it:

When you have victory, it’s going to be sweet.

•••

David Kiefer | Go Standford

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