OMAHA, NE — Imagine standing on the starting block: 14,000 people in the stands, bright lights and TV crews above, Natalie Coughlin to the right and Michael Phelps on the sideline. For Caroline Baldwin, it was a long way from the pool at the Westfield Area Y.
“Trials was definitely a new experience for me,” said Baldwin, a 2014 graduate of Westfield High School. “Trials is probably the biggest meet outside of the Olympics, so USA Swimming makes an event out of it, which is pretty amazing. There are opening ceremonies during every finals session and the awards ceremonies where they named the Olympic team. It gave me chills every night.”
Baldwin’s journey to Omaha for the 2016 Team USA Olympic trials began last summer, when the former Blue Devil decided to skip her summer vacation and instead stay down at her college, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to train.
“I qualified in the 100m backstroke and 50m freestyle last summer. So, I guess I could say I've been training for it since then,” Baldwin said. “School ended in May for us, and I continued to stay down there until trials. We went pretty hard from March until the first or second week of June and then we start tapering, which is where we decrease our workload and give our muscles a chance to recover so they're able to perform at their best.”
And that training paid off. At the trials, Baldwin finished 26th in both 100m backstroke and 50m freestyle, only about 10 places from qualifying for the semi-final.
It was only a little more than one second that separated Baldwin from the most-decorated female Olympic swimmer of all-time, Natalie Coughlin, in the 100m.
“I was pretty happy with my performances at trials,” Baldwin said. “I went into the meet with an open mind because I knew the meet was going to be like nothing I've ever gone to before. I came out of the meet with two new best times, so I was pretty happy with that for my first time at a meet like that.”
While most of Baldwin’s meets at North Carolina have an attendance of 150-250 people, 14,000 packed the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska to watch her and other Olympic hopefuls compete for a spot in Rio. The event was broadcasted nationally by NBC.
“There are just about every kind of emotion around at this meet, with the highs of people achieving their dreams in making the Olympic team and then those who may have just missed it,” Baldwin said. “It is pretty surreal and amazing to be swimming against and with people who I've considered role models in the sport like Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps.”
Being considered and competing among the top swimmers in the U.S. is an experience that Baldwin will not soon forget.
“It's pretty amazing yet incredibly intimidating to be around some of the best of the best,” Baldwin said. “But, they're there for the same reason you are and they're fighting for the same spots, because nothing is guaranteed for them. This trials was pretty cool where a lot of new names and first time Olympians made the team, which for me was even more fun to watch because a lot of them were college swimmers who we've swam against and know on a more personal level.”
Though she won’t go on to Rio, the swimmer is excited for those who will.
“I think the most memorable moment of trials was definitely seeing my teammates succeed and their faces of seeing all their hard work pay off,” Baldwin said.
The former co-captain of WHS’s girls swim team, three-time Courier News Swimmer of the Year and one-time Star Ledger NJ Swimmer of the Year had plenty of people cheering her on back home.
“It felt pretty cool to have Westfield behind me at the meet,” Baldwin said. “The amount of people who reached out to me to say good luck or send their best wishes I think is a true account to what this town is like in the way that we care. I'm grateful for everything I learned growing up in Westfield and everyone I met along the way.”
As far as future plans, Baldwin does not intend swim again in the 2020 trials. After completing her final two remaining years of swimming at UNC, she hopes to become a broadcast sports reporter.
“I've learned so much and met so many people I never dreamed would be possible with the help of swimming. With two years left in my college career, I want to enjoy the time with my teammates and take everything I can out of this sport,” Baldwin said. “Being a part of a team like UNC is unmatched and I can easily say I've met some of my friends for life. Without them and their encouragement, I don't think I would be where I am today. I hope to make my family, teammates and coaches proud with what I have left.”