When Lisa Bratton went to her first senior sectional swim meet at age 13, she had an overwhelming case of nerves.
Tri-City Channel Cats teammate Natilee Ruiz was there to help her through it.
“She was in the warmup pool, I could see her shaking, and I was like, ‘You know what? I was there, and (former Kamiakin swimmer) Erin Holmes, she did the same thing for me. I’m gonna take care of this girl,’ ” Ruiz said. “So I walked her to her race, and I just tried to calm her down. I don’t know if it worked, but I tried.”
Big meets eventually became a breeze for Bratton, who went on to win the state title last year for Richland in the Class 4A 200-yard individual medley.
Now she and Ruiz will share the experience of a lifetime when they compete this week in Omaha, Neb., at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Bratton is entered in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, and Ruiz in the 200 back and 200 IM.
Former Richland standout Cody Roberts, now at UNLV, also will swim this week at the CenturyLink Center.
The estimated 1,500 competitors face daunting odds: Only 52 swimmers — 26 men and 26 women — are allowed to represent the United States at the 2012 London Games.
Bratton and Ruiz don’t expect to fly across the Atlantic next month. Instead, they are focused on what they will learn at the Olympic Trials when they race against and watch some of the world’s best swimmers.
“People are like, ‘So how do you feel about maybe going to the Olympics?’ and it’s like, we don’t want to shoot them down, we don’t want to be negative, but we don’t know how to explain to them how difficult that would actually be,” Ruiz said. “So she and I are just going there, we’re just gonna try to do our best and drop some time.”
Ruiz, a six-time Class 2A state champion who graduated June 1 from Othello, also is excited about reuniting with some of her swim pals who are scattered across the country. Among them is 17-year-old Missy Franklin, a three-time world gold medalist from Aurora, Colo.
“She and I are good friends,” Ruiz said. “We’ve gone to camps, we’ve gone to meets together. She and I text sometimes, and I’m excited for her because it’s crazy how I kind of watched her go from being at my level to being way up here.”
Ruiz and Bratton also will meet up with Roberts, their former Channel Cats teammate who will swim in the men’s 100 butterfly.
“It’ll be good to see them all again,” said Roberts, who has been working and training in Las Vegas since the spring semester ended. “You’re gonna see a bunch of friends from all over. It’ll be good to see people from the Channel Cats and friends from other teams.”
The Olympic Trials will be one of the last opportunities for Bratton and Ruiz to swim together before Ruiz heads to San Diego State.
Bratton, entering her junior year in high school, says it will be strange to not practice anymore with Ruiz, whose profile rose after she qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials at age 14. Bratton wanted to be just like her, so she would follow her around the pool.
“Even when I was really little,” Bratton said, “I’d be like, ‘She’s in the lane next to me — go!’ ”
Now, with a state championship and two Olympic Trials qualifying times to her name, Bratton could be the one her teammates are trying to catch.
“Natilee had some great success early on in her swimming career and was always breaking records and at the top of the age group,” Channel Cats coach Todd Stafek said. “Lisa, while being a very good swimmer, didn’t really take that path until the last two, three years, when she’s really improved a lot. Just because you’re not the best as a 10-year-old doesn’t mean that you don’t have a bright future ahead of you.”
Bratton and Ruiz understand that what they do this week might prompt other swimmers to work toward their Olympic-sized dreams.
“I’ve been trying to encourage everybody else, and I even mentioned it at our banquet — we’re all role models, no matter who we are, what age we are,” Ruiz said. “Somebody’s gonna look up to you. It’s important because there’s never a dull moment ever. Somebody’s gonna look at you, somebody’s gonna see something and be inspired or motivated.”