By Herb Benenson
Talk with Cal swimmer Elizabeth Pelton for any length of time, and one word seems to find its way into her sentences and phrases more than any other: cool.
On being the youngest member of 2009 U.S. World Championships team at age 15: “It was the coolest thing ever.”
On the strength of the current Cal roster: “It’s the coolest and most competitive environment I’ve ever been in.”
Pelton, now a sophomore for the top-ranked Golden Bears, understands the meaning of cool. She’s used it to gain places on three different World Championships teams, earn the 2013 Pac-12 Swimmer of the Year honor, and set an American record in the 200-yard backstroke, a feat that produced 2013 NCAA Swimmer of the Meet recognition last March.
For all of the times Pelton has shown composure under pressure, there was one painful instance where coolness got away that has shaped who she is today.
Pelton helped build her resume at the trials for the 2009 World Championships, where she took second place in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke and 200-meter individual medley. Two years later, she was back on the Worlds squad following another runner-up showing in the 200 back at nationals, and she secured a gold medal at the international meet for her role on the 400 medley relay.
So with berths on the Olympic team on the line in 2012, Pelton had early thoughts of traveling to London on her mind. But when the trials were over, she found herself on the outside after taking third place in both the 100 and 200 back. Only the top two finishers advanced to the Games.
“Everyone expected me to make the team,” Pelton admitted. “Getting third is good, but I definitely let the pressure get to me.”
Less than two months later, Pelton had left her hometown in Towson, Md., and was enrolled for her freshman year at Cal. She has since turned the Olympic team disappointment into a passionate desire to erase the bad memories from the trials.
“I was this close,” Pelton said. “I basically got to start over. I came to school. I had nothing to lose. I was the one who could get better. It’s an undying motivation to constantly beat people. I constantly think that I didn’t make the team. I really do. It really never goes away.”
Before her first year in Berkeley was complete, Pelton clearly exhibited the results of her newfound attitude and the benefits of training under Cal head coach Teri McKeever.
In her first home meet vs. Texas at Spieker Aquatics Center, Pelton blazed to a pool record in the 200-yard back. The result prompted McKeever to state: “She’s a fierce competitor. She brings a lot of determination, and that’s contagious for everybody.”
Pelton continued to roll throughout the season. In early March, she reset the American record in the 200 back at the Pac-12 Championships. A short while later, she added Pac-12 Freshman/Newcomer of the Year and Pac-12 Swimmer of the Year awards to her collection.
At the NCAA Championships, Pelton claimed the Swimmer of the Meet title after another American record in the 200 back along with runner-up finishes in the 200 IM and 200 free.
“I’ve had times when my performance has suffered,” Pelton said. “But at NCAAs, I just thought, ‘let’s go for it like when I was younger.’ That’s when the best things happen. That’s what Teri has been stressing a lot lately. Why don’t you just swim like you were a little kid and you’re so excited about swimming? That’s what I love about the sport, the excitement of competing. It’s like you are going back to your roots.”
The NCAA results set the stage for this past summer’s World Championships trials. With her rising confidence and underdog mentality, Pelton entered the meet relaxed and ready.
“If I make the team, I’m the one that’s going to defy the odds,” she thought. “I’m the one that’s going to make a headline. It was super-motivating to go into that meet and try to make a name for myself.”
By the end of the competition, Pelton had done just that. She took second in the 100 and 200 back (to soon-to-be Cal teammate Missy Franklin in both cases), as well as fifth in the 200 IM and sixth in the 100 free. When time for the world meet in Barcelona came around at the end of July, Pelton relied on her past experience and brought a broader perspective to the championships.
“It was amazing, the most fun national team trip I’ve ever been on,” she said. “I had a blast just soaking up the atmosphere. It wasn’t as much about the swimming as it was just the whole process and letting the swimming just come to me.”
Adding to Pelton’s enjoyment was the success she had, coming home with a pair of gold medals from the 400 free relay and 400 medley relay. She also reached the finals in two individual events, placing fourth in the 100 back and fifth in the 200 back.
As the 2013-14 swimming season unfolds for the Bears, Pelton finds herself among perhaps the most talented corps of backstrokers ever assembled on one collegiate squad. Senior Cindy Tran was the NCAA 100 back champion in 2011 and ’12, while sophomore Rachel Bootsma claimed the 100 title last spring. Of course, Pelton has her own NCAA crown in the 200 back. And then there’s Franklin, the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 100 and 200 back.
“My motivation and level of expectation for myself are higher than ever,” Pelton said. “If they beat me (in practice), then shoot, they might beat me in a meet. We’re all helping each other get better. I’ve never been pushed like this before. I’ve never been challenged like this before, and it’s the greatest feeling. It’s already paying off because you have to be on your game every time. It’s preparing you for competition down the road.”
Pelton relishes the tests she receives from her teammates daily and is already seeing results. Many of the returning swimmers are well ahead of where they were at the same point last season. But Pelton believes it’s far too early to make any predictions for the end of the year when Cal will be aiming for its fourth NCAA team crown in the past six years. For now, she just wants to come prepared to swim at each and every practice.
“If I’m not mentally into it, I’ll have to get myself into it,” she said. “It’s good competition in practice with no hard feelings. We’re having a blast. The atmosphere of the team is really cool. I don’t know how much we’re going to accomplish or how well we’re going to do. But I feel the opportunities are kind of endless these days.”