Dreaming of Athens

By Scott Cole / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
It was August 9, and Liz Daniels ’04 was holding on at the end of the swimming pool, straining to read the scoreboard. She had just tapped the wall at the end of her lane to finish the 50-meter freestyle finals at the ConocoPhillips National Championships at College Park, Maryland. Someone who could clearly see the scoreboard was Bears swimming coach Peter Brown, who was ecstatic over what he was seeing, though not really surprised. He had just witnessed another significant step in the evolution of a potential world-class swimmer.

“I just got out of the pool, and Peter was standing there,” Daniels recalls, “and I was like, ‘What was my time? What place did I finish?’ ’’ Her time was 25.99 seconds, fast enough for a third-place finish and an invitation to the Olympic trials in July in Long Beach, California. As Daniels accepted her bronze medal that day, the reality sank in: she was taking her place among the nation’s top women’s swimmers. “It was just so cool to stand up on that podium,” she says, smiling at the memory. “It was an unreal experience. I’ve been to the Nationals about ten times. I’d never even made it to the finals. I think this summer I realized I earned my spot. I’m just as good as they are.’’

Three days before, Daniels had also qualified for the Olympic trials in the 100-meter freestyle by finishing eighteenth, with a 57.05 time. She had swum in the trials during the summer after high school graduation, but since then she’d become a much better competitor. “I think Liz is just finding out how good she can be,” Brown says.

At Long Beach, however, the competition will be grueling. Daniels will be trying to win one of only two 50-meter freestyle slots and one of six 100-meter slots on the U.S. team that will travel to Athens for the 2004 summer games. “The Olympics are one of those things everyone dreams of,” Daniels says. “I always thought that after college I’d be done with swimming. I never realized until this summer and last year that I can legitimately say I want to go to the Olympics.”

Even if she doesn’t make the cut at next year’s trials, Daniels, who is twenty-two, can still dedicate herself to making the 2008 U.S. team for the summer games in Beijing. “I know I have so much to improve on,” she says. “For me, in my mental schedule of how I would like my swimming career to go, 2008 would be the ultimate goal.”

In the meantime, she’s focused on her final year at Brown and making sure she succeeds in both completing her psychology concentration and serving as a captain of the swim team. A sterling club and high school swimmer while growing up in Pittsburgh, Daniels was heavily recruited by a number of swimming powerhouses, including Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Penn State, and Arizona State.

But she was drawn to the Brown program’s lofty reputation after the school won five straight Ivy titles from 1995 through 1999. Even more attractive, she says, was the University’s superior academic reputation, which promised challenge, creativity, and freedom.

“Swimming has never been my life,” Daniels says. “My family has always stressed academics. My dad always said, ‘Someday swimming is going to be over. What’s the school that’s going to put you in the best situation?’ Because Brown was not a scholarship school, there was a different passion for the sport. People swam because they loved to compete. At other schools, people were more concerned over who was going to get what scholarship money. Brown was a school that when I walked on the campus, I loved it. The team atmosphere was what I thought it would be. I think after taking a few classes I realized what I had walked into academically. I had a class [called] Magic in the Middle Ages. I took a geology class. I’d go home and my friends were taking chemistry and math. Things they didn’t want to take, but they had to. There’s also the opportunity to build great relationships with your professors here. It isn’t that way everywhere.”

Daniels was recruited to Brown by then-coach Matt Kredich, who resigned at the conclusion of the 2001 season to take over the program at the University of Richmond. Peter Brown, who’d been Penn State’s head coach since 1984, inherited a swimmer who started to come into her own as a sophomore, when Daniels was the Ivy champion in the 50-yard freestyle and runner-up—by a hundredth of a second—in the 100-yard freestyle to teammate Dawn Chuck ’02. That March the Bears finished second in the Ivy championships to heavily favored Princeton by only fifteen points. Chuck then represented Brown at the NCAA Championships with Daniels, who qualified in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events.

Last winter Daniels established herself as one of the Ivies’ most dominant swimmers, ripping through the dual-meet season and the Ivy Championships unbeaten in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle and the 100-yard backstroke. At the Ivy Championships in Princeton she set a pool record for the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 22.75, won the 100-yard backstroke with a school-record 56.11, took the 100-yard freestyle in 50.08, and swam a leg on the Bears’ victorious 400- and 200-yard freestyle relay teams. The 1:32.27 time for the 200 relay team of Daniels, Michelle Oeser ’06, Inbal Hasbani ’03, and Emily McCoy ’04 was an Ivy League record.

In March, Daniels was the Bears’ lone representative at the NCAA Championships at Auburn, where her 22.75 qualifying time in the 50-yard freestyle was tenth-fastest in the country. Daniels finished seventeenth in the event at 23:03, missing qualifying for the consolation final by four-hundredths of a second. But she came through with a fourteenth-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle with a career-best 49.84 seconds, enough to earn Honorable Mention All-America status. She was the only Ivy League woman to place at the NCAAs.

Not surprisingly, Daniels concluded her junior year by receiving the swim team’s Florence Filippo Award, which is given to the athlete who, in the judgment of her teammates and coaches, contributed most to the team’s success. She was also elected a 2004 cocaptain, along with McCoy, and received the Marjorie Brown Smith Award as the university’s top female athlete.

Peter Brown has found it immensely rewarding to watch Daniels grow as a swimmer and a competitor. “Liz is one of those special people you come across as a coach,” he says. “You want to do everything you can to help her because she has the tools and the desire.”

It’s a combination that may give Daniels the chance to one day represent her country—and school—at the Olympics. “I would never choose a different place to go school,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be the swimmer I am unless I came here.”

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November / December 2003