AU swimmer qualifies for 2016 Olympic Games
Junior Caylee Watson will swim the 100-meter backstroke for the U.S. Virgin Islands in Rio this summer.
Twenty-three flags line the walls of Frailey Pool, each one symbolizing a country that has been represented by a student-athlete on the AU swim team. When Caylee Watson joined the team two years ago, swimming head coach Mark Davin added a new flag to represent her home -- the U.S. Virgin Islands. Just last month, Watson, now a junior in the School of Public Affairs, earned an honor much bigger than a flag: a spot on the U.S. Virgin Islands Olympic team.
Competing for AU in early December, Watson touched the wall after her 100-meter backstroke race in 1:05.21 at the Navy Long Course Invitational, hitting a season best time and topping a 17-year-old school record in the process. Her time and previous performances at World Championship events, such as the 2015 Summer World Championships in Russia, earned Watson enough FINA points to receive a call from the president of the Swimming Federation in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Watson said she texted the president of the federation after finishing her 100 backstroke swim, and he responded that the committee would meet to discuss the Olympic team the following day. That night, Dec. 12, Watson’s phone rang with the good news. She had made the Olympic roster.
The opportunity to compete at the Olympics represents the culmination of a journey Watson began as a 12-year-old swimmer in the Virgin Islands with a 100-yard freestyle race and ultimately brought her to American University six years later.
Life as an Eagle
Headlights cut through the dark sky as Watson and her roommates drove to practice for another 6:15 a.m. workout. Top 40 pop music filled the car while suspense and anticipation hung in the air in between the swimmers; all three athletes quietly prepared themselves for the grueling three-hour session ahead of them. Seven days had passed since the start of the January winter training, and Watson's arms ached with soreness as she departed the vehicle and readied her body for the cold pool. The collegiate swim season at AU lasts six months with a focus on the conference championships in February, but Watson keeps her mind focused on Rio.
Pushing through the exquisite pain of a lactate threshold set, Watson took another stroke. Seven thousand yards later, she popped out of the pool, threw on shorts and a T-shirt and headed to the gym to lift. Twenty hours a week during the school year, the ‘eat, sleep, swim, class’ schedule fills Watson’s days, and she’s found success balancing her swimming commitments in the pool with her academic and extracurricular responsibilities.
In her previous two Patriot League Championship appearances, Watson earned Top-10 finishes in multiple events, and last season broke a school record in the women’s 400-yard freestyle relay with teammates senior Paris Wood, junior Julianna Cavano and sophomore Shannon Exley. Named the team’s MVP in 2014 and 2015, Watson scored 13 points at her most recent Patriot League Championship meet in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. and finished her fall semester with a 4.00 GPA. Her performance in and out of the pool helped her earn distinction on the Academic All-Patriot League Team, and she credits her accomplishments at AU and her Olympic qualification to Davin.
“Mark Davin has been my best coach, and he’s got lots of wisdom and experience, and he pushes me which is good,” Watson said. “Coming to American has made all the difference. I remember freshman year, I was very nervous about coming in here and swimming in general. I was just like, ‘just hold out one year, that’s all you need, just give it a try,’ and it turned out well.”
Davin, who coached 1996 Olympian Casey Leger for the Atlanta summer games, said the credit belongs to his athlete.
“I do think that it’s less me, truthfully, and more her,” Davin said. “Whatever we do, she embraces all of it. She’s kind of like a sponge that’s soaking up everything. I think if you just tell Caylee, ‘this is going to help you,’ she’s all about it, always. And it’s fun to be part of it. I think she likes to be with people that are having a lot of fun and working really hard and racing really well and being good teammates and doing well academically and having a full happy life.”
“I wanted to go to Wesleyan”
When Davin first received an email from Watson about training at AU, he almost denied her a roster spot. One year later, the head coach changed his mind.
“I sent him an email, and he was like ‘no, you’re too slow,’ Watson said. “And then I sent him another email another year that I was coming, and he was like, ‘welcome to the team.’”
Even before Davin’s initial hesitation, however, Watson admitted AU was not her top choice. She said she never visited the school or toured the campus prior to her enrollment but remained interested solely because of the swim team and the opportunity to study political science in the District.
“I didn’t even want to come here, honestly,” she said. “I wanted to go to Wesleyan.”
Watson said that Wesleyan, a small school in Connecticut, appealed to her because of its size and liberal arts curriculum. After conversations with her family, however, Watson ultimately packed her bags for D.C., but not before competing on the world stage yet again. Just weeks before moving into Letts Hall to start her freshman year at AU, Watson represented the U.S. Virgin Islands at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain. She returned to Spain last winter to compete in the Ciudad de San Sebastian meet with former teammate and 2015 School of Communication alumnus Charlie Taffet. According to Davin, Watson’s international experience helps her approach races with a different mindset than other athletes.
“She had some world-class experience before she came here. She’d gone to some international meets and that kind of thing, and I think that as an athlete, I do believe it gives you a different outlook on what you’re doing, having had those experiences,” Davin said. “One of the reasons I set up the meet in Spain is I think the people that have made that trip, it’s changed them. Sometimes they go, and it’s just so overwhelming and so new. The second time they go, they really get it. They really start thinking about the Olympians that are there, how they’re racing, and they’re looking for more than, ‘how do I function?”
Watson said the thought of competing in arguably the most prestigious swimming event in the world keeps her motivated through long practices, and her hard work continues to pay off.
“I’ve definitely been more on the backstroke side this year, and I’ve been focusing a lot on rotation and making sure I’m connected even on harder sets,” Watson said. “I know I’ve been a lot more confident going into sets this year...so that’s gone well. I’ve definitely been able to do sets that I was not able to even think about doing in the past.”
Every day at Frailey Pool, the U.S. Virgin Islands flag waves in the wind, reminding Watson where she comes from. Imagining herself competing at the Olympics in the uniform of her home country gives her added motivation at every practice. But for the next two years, Watson will also sport the red, white and blue of AU as she continues to represent the school that helped her to earn a trip to Rio.
Note: Shannon Scovel is a member of the AU swim team.