The Western Kentucky community gave Claire Donahue a rousing sendoff to the London Olympics Thursday night.
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WDRB) – Watch the replay of the women's 100-meter butterfly final at the U.S. Olympic Trials one more time. Focus on all the swim caps as the announcers set the scene by identifying the eight finalists.
The Who's Who of college swimming are on display – California, Stanford, another California, Texas A&M, Tennessee. It's a string of programs that finished in the Top 10 of the NCAA meet, but did not recruit the swimmer who started in lane one – Claire Donahue, the pride of Western Kentucky University.
"Coming out of high school, I wasn't good enough for the top schools to recruit me," Donahue said.
Alabama had slight interest. Donahue considered Kentucky. She visited Clemson. Her final two choices? The University of Louisville and WKU.
"For a top SEC program, Claire would have been a good catch, not a great catch," said WKU coach Bruce Marchionda.
Today Donahue is a swimmer that all but one American woman could not catch in the 100 fly. Donahue is packing her black Western Kentucky cap and heading to London, the first WKU women's swimmer to compete in the Olympic games for the U.S. WKU fans lined up to snap her picture and get her autograph Thursday night during a reception at Indian Hills Country Club.
On Friday morning she's driving to Knoxville to train at the pool of the University of Tennessee program that did not offer Donahue a scholarship, even though she grew up in Lenoir City, Tenn., about a half-hour from UT.
"I would have loved to have been recruited by the bigger schools, but I'm so glad that I wasn't because going to Western Kentucky was the best decision I ever made," Donahue said.
"It's been an absolutely perfect fit with the school, the team, the coaches, the weight coaches, everything. The love I've felt from the Western Kentucky alums since this happened has been unreal. I feel like I'm taking everybody with me."
Actually, Donahue is taking the entire American swimming community with her. Teammate Dana Vollmer will be one of two favorites in London. But Donahue isn't going for the fish and chips. Her qualifying time of 57.57 was not only a personal best, Donahue said it ranks as the sixth best time in the world this year.
The way Donahue handicaps the race, she said her best time is within a quarter-second of the third-best time in the world – and you know what reward awaits the third-place Olympic finisher.
Donahue graduated from WKU in 2011, but remained in Bowling Green to train the last year. She is 23. Sounds young to you and me. It's not for a swimmer. Some peak at 20. Or younger.
"She's been getting faster every year for five years, which is not a common thing in the world of women's swimming," Marchionda said.
As a freshman, Donahue failed to qualify for the NCAA finals. She made the nationals as a sophomore, but failed to score. She was fourth in the 100 fly as a junior and then upgraded her resume with a second-place finish as a senior.
But Donahue still had a year to train before she had the opportunity to prove she was one of the best in the world. Her technique was excellent. Her conditioning was outstanding. Her commitment could never be questioned. Marchionda said she is the most "coachable swimmer," he has worked with in 18 seasons as a college coach.
Donahue needed one final upgrade -- her confidence. Donahue's times suggested she belonged in London. Now Claire Donahue needed to believe it, too.
Eight months ago Marchionda introduced Donahue to Dr. Betsy Shoenfelt, a psychology professor at WKU. Shoenfelt made the trip to the swimming trials in Omaha, too, huddling with Donahue every morning to reinforce three Ps – being Positive; focusing on the Present; and Performance.
"I can't imagine how I would have done it without her," Donahue said. "It's totally changed my mindset. When I first got to Omaha, I wasn't nervous at all. But I got really nervous when I walked out and saw the pool and everything.
"Betsy helped me realize that I was just nervous because I was overthinking things. I had unrealistic fears. All the reasons I had for being nervous were stupid."
"When you start looking around and getting nervous, it's because you start thinking you're competing against the best swimmers in the world," Mar hionda said. "Well, guess what? Claire is one of the best swimmers in the world, too."
And now Claire Donahue – and her Western Kentucky swim cap – is bound for the London Olympics.