OMAHA—Courtney Otto turned spectators’ heads as she cruised to a first-place finish in the tenth of fourteen morning preliminary heats of the women’s 200-meter butterfly. Her time of 2 minutes, 12.22 seconds, seemed too fast for such a lowly-seeded heat.
But the rising Harvard sophomore was just getting warmed up. Advancing past the prelims, Otto swam even faster (2:11.35) to place ninth in the semifinals of the women’s 200-meter butterfly on day four of the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., Thursday evening, missing a spot in the final heat by .35 seconds.
Crimson women’s head coach Stephanie Morawski was pleased with Otto’s performance.
“For her first semifinal at Olympic Trials, she handled the pressure extremely well,” Morawski said. “She didn’t let anything faze her. She went out there, and she attacked.”
Heading into the preliminary heats, Otto was seeded 48th in a field of 135 swimmers. But the rising sophomore rocketed up the rankings with a pair of personal-best times. In the morning, Otto cut 1.9 seconds from her previous best time to secure the 11th seed for the semifinals. At night, she bested her morning swim by .87 of a second to place ninth.
“I just tried to enjoy the experience and live in the moment, I guess,” said Otto, who represented Harvard at the NCAA Championships earlier this year and holds the school standard in the 400-yard individual medley.
Schulkin, Otto’s training partner, was not surprised by Otto’s result. “Swimming with her every day, I knew it was coming,” Schulkin said. “She’s been training really fast in practice.”
Despite a low seed entering the meet, a top-16 finish was Otto’s goal as she mounted the starting block Thursday morning.
“She loves to race, and it wasn’t really a matter of dropping time and moving up places,” Morawski said. “She just had to get in there and do what she does best: race.”
Otto showed quick opening speed in both her morning and evening swims, turning in two of the fastest first 50-meter splits of the field. In the semifinal, Otto found an extra gear during the third 50 meters of her race.
“This morning, I was a little tired for some reason, so I felt like I had a little more in me coming into tonight,” Otto said. “I didn’t feel any extreme nerves. I just felt relaxed and ready to swim.”
Otto’s ninth-place finish is the second-highest by a Harvard woman at the Olympic Trials during Morawski’s 15-year tenure with the team. Eight years ago, Noelle Bassi '07 also excelled in the 200 butterfly at the 2004 Trials in Long Beach, Cal., where she placed sixth in her bid for the Olympic team.
Otto now looks ahead to the U.S. Open later this summer in Indianapolis. There, Otto hopes to qualify for the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia, with a top-two finish among American collegiate competitors.
“It’s still kind of a long-shot, but it’s definitely a good goal to work towards,” Otto said.
Day Four of the Trials was a banner day for Harvard, as five Crimson swimmers—Otto, Kate Mills '11, junior Dani Schulkin, Hilary Roberts '12 and rising freshman Connie Hsu—competed in the women’s 200 butterfly.
Mills, who currently hold Harvard's school record in the 200-yard-butterfly, also qualified for the top-16 semifinal round, placing 13th with a time of 2:12.11.
Schulkin and Hsu, who swam with Otto in the same preliminary heat, finished 111th and 115th, respectively. Roberts placed 104th in her final race as a Harvard swimmer.
In other races Thursday, Harvard sprinters junior Oliver Lee, sophomore Griffin Schumacher, and junior Christopher Satterthwaite competed in the men’s 100 freestyle, finishing 49th, 85th and 118th, respectively. In the men’s 200 breaststroke, junior Chuck Katis placed 45th.