OMAHA, Neb. - Nobody knew, and few suspected, that this was going to be The Day of Alyssa Anderson's Life. It would be an Olympic surprise party.
Anderson, who just completed her senior season at the UA, was seeded seventh entering Thursday's 200 freestyle finals at CenturyLink Center. She knew it would be a happy night because her sister, Haley, a USC senior, was going to be honored for making the USA Olympic team in open water swimming.
"My parents had been asking me, 'Are you going to go with us to London, or are you going to get your own ticket?'" the 16-time Arizona All-American would say two hours later. "That was their way of asking me if I would make the Olympic team myself. I couldn't tell them, 'Sure, I'll get my own ticket.' It didn't look so promising."
Not even Alyssa's coach, Arizona's Eric Hansen, fully believed that Anderson would make it.
"I thought maybe it was 50-50," he said with a smile, as if to suggest that he was doctoring the odds after the fact.
Almost nobody makes the American Olympic team as a surprise. The times on the psych sheets are so reliable that you rarely get all teary-eyed by a Cinderella story at the trials.
"At first, everybody thinks they're going, but the reality is, this meet is the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent in American swimming," Anderson said. "And then there's another 1 percent on top of that going to the Olympics."
Her math checks out.
When NBC's cameras began Thursday's broadcast, the night's Cinderella storyline was Tucson's Caitlin Leverenz, who had already qualified for London by finishing second in Monday's 400 IM. But Leverenz was favored in the 200 IM, a gold medal hopeful, and this would be her moment, alone, at the top.
It would make good theater: After 15 years of training, Caitlin Leverenz had arrived. Perhaps she would get all mushy during the medal ceremony.
Unlike Alyssa and Haley's parents, Robert and Colette Anderson of Granite Bay, Calif., the Leverenz family arrived in Omaha expecting the best. They showed up at the arena Thursday night outfitted in matching blue T-shirts that read, across the backs:
You could see them from the cheap seats, and it was fitting because Caitlin Leverenz, the 2012 NCAA Female Swimmer of the Year, is now a Really Big Thing in global swimming.
When she blew away the competition, more than a full second (which is almost like lapping someone in track) ahead of world-record holder Ariana Kukors, Leverenz was neither weepy nor celebratory.
She is all business now, fully aware that she can win a gold medal in London. This was a step in the process.
"I've still got a lot of room for improvement," she said. "But I'm so happy to get my own ticket and win my own event."
Anderson had a much different reaction. With about 20 meters remaining - needing to finish in the top six to get a place on America's 4x200 relay team - she was decidedly in last place.
"When Alyssa reached the final flag, I put my head down," Hansen said. "Then I looked up, and she was moving; she was sixth. She got it."
Hansen and his assistant, Rick DeMont, were so ecstatic that they left their normal viewing stations and hustled to reach the media interview area to congratulate Anderson. They did a little dance and a lot of hand clapping.
"I only had to beat two people, but that's easy to say," Anderson said. "I was just a nervous wreck. I knew that ultimately this could be my last race ever. I knew I couldn't make a living as a postgrad swimmer, and if I had not made the Olympic team I would've probably been done."
Instead, much like Leverenz, after 15 years of training, she is just getting started.
After Anderson chatted in the media zone, she met her coaches, Hansen and DeMont, in the swimmer's warm-up area. That's when the magnitude of what she had done engulfed her.
"She actually threw up," said Hansen. "That's a natural physical reaction from the lactate in her body; it's not unusual at this level of swimming. But, yes, it was emotional. She was crying."
Thirty minutes later, after Leverenz made a victory lap around CenturyLink Center, bathed in a spotlight and pointing to her happy family in the bleachers, Anderson walked purposely with the USA Swimming drug-testing people for the mandatory tests.
If they found anything unusual in her system it was probably a record amount of happiness.
• What: U.S. Olympic swimming trials
• Where: Omaha, Neb.
• TV: 1:30 p.m., NBCS (taped); 7 p.m., Channel 4 (taped)
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org