BEMIDJI - The pageantry of the 2012 London Olympics are an ocean away, but a group of Bemidji athletes has already had a little taste of the Games before they kick off today.
Bemidji High School swimmers Steph Frye, Lexie Hendricks and Libby McRae ventured to Omaha, Neb., last month with assistant coach Kristen McRae. There, they got a firsthand look at the top American swimmers at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.
"It was really cool," BHS senior Frey said of the experience. "The atmosphere down there was just crazy. I'd never gotten to watch world-class swimmers like that up close."
The three had ventured to Nebraska for a swim camp at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln - coach McRae's alma mater. And when McRae saw that the dates of the trials aligned perfectly with their time in Lincoln, she figured a short jaunt to Omaha to see the best in the world compete was in order.
"It was two days after camp ended, and I thought it would be a great experience for them," McRae said. "The last time I went was in 1984, so I wanted the chance to go back too. The timing was perfect."
The four got to see the first two days of the competition, including a couple of races between Olympic favorites Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
All agreed that it was unlike anything they'd seen at a swim meet. The pool, built just for the trials, utilized pyrotechnics and had a waterfall.
And the fact that they got a chance to mill around and catch some time with Olympians made the trip even better.
The girls snapped pictures with Lochte as well as Brendan Hansen, Allison Schmitt and Kevin Cordes, who just missed making the team.
"We didn't get to talk to them a lot, but the ones we did get to spend time with were really nice," Hendricks, a BHS senior, said.
Coach McRae said meeting the Olympians could have been the highlight of the trip. But the girls are swimmers, too. Watching the competition was even more eye-opening.
"They could have gone home right at that point and been happy," McRae said. "But they were taking it all in. We had a bird's-eye view of these world-class athletes, and they could see everything. They made all these observations about technique and stroke that was great to see.
"I think it was an eye-opening, motivating experience for them."
Libby McRae, a rising freshman who swam for the Lumberjacks as an eighth-grader last season, was looking for ways to improve.
"It was cool to see some new ways to do things and watch what they're doing now," she said. "Just things like switching strokes to get a little faster."
"I think one of the things we all noticed is just that there are so many fast people," Frey said. "Obviously they're all up to date on the new techniques, so it was cool to see what they do in person."
The swimming events begin Saturday. Most of the nation will be watching to see who wins the Lochte vs. Phelps battle. Frey, Hendricks and Libby McRae are no different.
Frey said she thinks Lochte is the best swimmer they've seen and should win most of the head-to-head medals.
But Hendricks isn't so sure.
"I have no idea," she said. "They're both really good. And I think it's going to come down to a few strokes in every race. It might come down to who wants it more."
Aside from the Phelps/Lochte battle, she plans on paying close attention to the women's 100-meter backstroke, which features Minnesota native Rachel Bootsma, and the 200- and 400-meter freestyle, which are her main events.
"It will be more fun to watch now that we've seen them swim in person," Libby McRae said.