In the finals of the women's 200-meter freestyle at the United States Olympic Swimming Trials on June 28 in Omaha, Neb., Granite Bay's Alyssa and Colette Anderson were nervous wrecks, but for different reasons.
Alyssa, a 16-time All-American who had completed her senior season at Arizona, wasn't sure if she was about to swim the last race of her career after having survived grueling 200 free preliminaries and semifinals to reach the final eight of an event that sends the six best to the 2012 London Olympics.
Colette, Alyssa's mother, didn't know how she'd handle her oldest child's disappointment if, after so many years of prodigious work and sacrifice, Alyssa failed to fulfill her dream of making the U.S. Olympic team. Adding to Mom's anxiety: Middle daughter Haley, a year younger than Alyssa, already had qualified for the Olympics by winning the FINA Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifier in Portugal.
"That was the big elephant in the room," Colette said. "I was on pins and needles all through the Trials. Here we were down to Alyssa's last event in which she had a chance to qualify. I had my eyes closed the whole time during that race.
"Then I looked up and saw a 'seven' by her name. I thought she had just missed. But Haley says, 'Mom, are you serious? She got sixth; she's qualified.' "
It took Colette a moment to realize that Alyssa had been swimming in Lane 7.
"I've never been more nervous," Alyssa said. "A lot was going through my mind, including that this might ultimately be my last race. At first, I was thinking of everything I had done wrong at the start, but in the final 75 yards, I just put my head down and clawed my way to the finish."
Alyssa's time was 1 minute, 58.40 seconds, .16 seconds better than seventh-place finisher and non-Olympic qualifier Megan Romano of St. Petersburg, Fla.
The performance earned Alyssa one of 25 spots on the USA women's swim team and gave her and Haley the distinction of becoming the second USA sister duo in Olympic swimming history. Tara and Dana Kirk competed in the 2004 Games.
"It's a pretty amazing accomplishment," said Jeff Pearson, the Andersons' former club coach. "At that level, there are a lot of really spectacular talents who have competed for years and never were able to put it together at the right time to make an Olympic team. So it's pretty special for sisters to do it."
The Granite Bay High School graduates will be one of eight sibling sets to compete for the United States in London. And while they aren't nearly as famous as tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, the Andersons feel blessed to be able to participate together in one of sports' greatest spectacles.
So when Alyssa was making her gut-wrenching Olympic bid, her normally reserved sister was among those leading the cheers in the stands, although she, too, was so wracked by nerves she said she almost passed out.
"Alyssa's making the team definitely is my biggest highlight," said Haley, a senior-to-be at USC. "When I won, Alyssa was even more exited than I was. She's someone who paved the way for me growing up, and I wouldn't be where I am today without her. It's going to be a phenomenal experience in London being with her."
But a bit different, too.
While Alyssa will enjoy the Opening Ceremony with her USA Swim teammates, Haley will miss those festivities because she is training in isolation in Roberval, Quebec, and won't arrive in England until Aug. 3.
The swim portion of the London Olympics will be Saturday through Aug. 4. The women's swim marathon isn't until Aug. 9.
The scheduling gulf is only fitting since pool swimming is far different from open-water competition.
"It's pretty much a different sport," said Pearson, a former open-water swimmer who has made the sport a part of his Folsom-based Sierra Marlins program. "It's a lot more physical, a lot more tactical than pool swimming. And it's a perfect fit for Haley. She's super tough, and there's only a few swimmers in that event who can match her speed-wise."
Haley, who won the 500 free at the NCAA championships last spring and missed qualifying for the Olympic 800 free by one place, is expected to contend for a medal in the 10-kilometer race that once had little appeal to her.
"I'd schedule my recruiting trips just so I could avoid having to do the open-water practices when I was with the Marlins," Haley said. "But now I find it so much fun. There's no monotony, every race is different, I keep improving, and it's fun to be part of the growth of the sport."
As the only American entry, Haley will battle sentimental favorite Keri-Anne Payne, the defending world champion from Great Britain, and other international swimmers in Hyde Park's murky Serpentine, a lake that King George II created in the 1730s.
With newly minted 200 free American-record setter Allison Schmitt and teen phenom Missy Franklin having locked up two spots for the 800 free relay, Alyssa will compete against teammates Dana Vollmer, Lauren Perdue and Shannon Vreeland in preliminaries to land the other two berths for the Aug. 1 finals. The United States is a gold-medal favorite.
"The fight's not over for those of us who want to be on that podium," Alyssa said from Vichy, France, where she is training with the U.S. team. "So we're all looking to do the best race we can. If I do my best, and I'm No. 5, I'll be OK with that. We want the four fastest girls to represent our country in the finals."
Once the competition starts, Colette Anderson expects her nerves will kick in again.
But right now, she and her husband, Randy, are busy making arrangements for their two-week London sojourn that includes 16 friends and relatives and their youngest daughter, Jordan, a sophomore-to-be at Granite Bay and a talented swimmer in her own right. They leave for England on Friday.
"The last five weeks have been pretty crazy," Colette said. "But we're all so excited for them. People don't realize how much these girls have sacrificed. They've missed so many family events, parties and social activities. Swimming is like a job. Thank goodness they have had the passion for so many years."
Alyssa, 21, and Haley, 20, thank their parents for their support and wisdom, encouraging them to experiment with various sports and activities as children until it became clear that swimming was their special talent.
"Our parents never forced us to do anything, but they never raised quitters, either," Haley said. "My mom was a swimmer in college (at Hawaii), so she saw firsthand how some parents push their kids too far and too fast. She'd sometimes make us take a day off of practice so we wouldn't burn out. That just made us want to swim more."
Colette only has to look back to the beginnings for perspective.
She remembers taking her sometimes reluctant daughters, then 6 and 5, to their recreational swim practices at a club in Livermore.
"When I went in with them and told them to go in the pool to warm up, they wouldn't go in the water," she said. "Pretty soon, I learned to just drop them off with the coach (Dianne Masluk). Then she's telling us: 'These girls are going to be something.'
"Who would think they'd go from this little club team to the Olympics?"