From NC to Tokyo: A 16-year-old swimmer from Cary has made the U.S. Olympic team

·5 min read

Claire Curzan, a 16-year-old swimmer from Cary, fulfilled a dream and made the U.S. Olympic team Monday night — all in 56 seconds.

Curzan finished second in the 100 butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., only four months after she won a similar event at the N.C. high school state championships while representing Cardinal Gibbons High.

Afterward, Curzan admitted to a bit of nerves before the Olympic Trials race began, and why not? The event was telecast live nationally by NBC and occurred in front of thousands in Omaha, and Curzan just finished her junior year of high school.

“I was terrified going into it,” Curzan said afterward in a group interview. “I was so nervous. But I had my family in the stands and my coaches were with me and that definitely helped.”

Torri Huske, another teenager, won the event and also qualified for the Olympics.

When asked what it meant to make the Olympic team, Curzan said: “I honestly don’t even know how to explain it. This has been a dream of mine for so long. To look up there and see No. 2 on the board — I was about to start crying.”

Claire Curzan, a 16-year-old swimmer from Cary, N.C., made the U.S. Olympic swim team Monday night by finishing second in the women’s 100 butterfly.
Claire Curzan, a 16-year-old swimmer from Cary, N.C., made the U.S. Olympic swim team Monday night by finishing second in the women’s 100 butterfly.

The U.S. Olympic Swim Trials are the rare event where second place carries the same reward as first place, with both swimmers qualifying for the Olympics. Third place, on the other hand, is the ultimate downer, because because it means you don’t qualify. Curzan edged out third-place finisher Kate Douglass by 13/100ths of a second.

Curzan has been a spectacular age group swimmer for years in the U.S., known for her fast starts, her versatility and sprinting capability. She has set national high school records before, but she has exploded onto the national swimming scene for all ages recently, as her times in the 100 butterfly have continued to drop.

She will be one of the youngest U.S. Olympians at the Summer Games, which are scheduled to begin July 23 in Tokyo, and she will have a chance at a medal there.

Curzan hasn’t picked a college yet — she will be a high school senior in the fall — but most big swim programs in the country will try to lure her to their school.

SwimSwam.com, a top swimming website, ranks her as the No. 1 female recruit in the Class of 2022 and also calls her “one of the best recruits we’ve ever seen.” SwimSwam also notes that if Curzan was in college now that her best times this year would have qualified her for the final 8 in six separate events in the NCAA championships.

The second of Mark and Tracy Curzan’s three children, Claire Curzan trains at Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary. In April, she posted a time of 56.20 seconds in the 100 fly at a meet at her home pool there swimming for the powerhouse TAC Titans swim team — a time that echoed around the swimming world.

With that time, Curzan became the second-fastest American swimmer ever in the 100 fly, behind only the retired Dana Vollmer.

However, fellow hotshot American teenager Huske eclipsed everyone in Sunday’s preliminaries in the event, swimming a 55.78 to set a new U.S. record in the event after Vollmer’s previous mark had stood for nine years. Huske then beat her own time in the final with a blazing 55.66 — which was the fastest time in the world this year in that event — while Curzan was second at 56.43 and Douglas third at 56.56.

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Huske, 18, has been competing with Curzan for years. By virtue of her time Monday night, Huske will be one of the gold-medal favorites in Tokyo, although Curzan has beaten her before.

“I admire her hard work and dedication,” Huske said of Curzan. “I feel like she is really driven, and those are admirable qualities. So I’m really excited to go with her to Tokyo.”

Torri Huske and Claire Curzan, right, check their times after competing in the women’s 100-meter Butterfly final of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on Monday in Omaha. Curzan, a high school student from Cary, N.C. qualified for the Olympic team with her finish.
Torri Huske and Claire Curzan, right, check their times after competing in the women’s 100-meter Butterfly final of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials on Monday in Omaha. Curzan, a high school student from Cary, N.C. qualified for the Olympic team with her finish.

Both Curzan and Huske said after the race they were actually helped by the Olympics’ year-long, COVID-related postponement from 2020 to 2021.

“I think it had a huge impact,” Curzan said. “I had another year to get bigger, faster and stronger, and I really used that year to the best of my advantage.”

At 16, Curzan was at least 18 months younger than everyone else in the final 8. While she wasn’t officially placed on the U.S. team Monday night due to complicated USA Swimming rules, she will be at the end of the meet when all second-place finishers in individual events are historically added.

Claire Curzan, pictured in 2019 at age 14, has won multiple individual events at the N.C. High School Athletic Association state championships while competing for Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons. At 16, she will be one of the youngest Olympians competing for the USA in Tokyo in July.
Claire Curzan, pictured in 2019 at age 14, has won multiple individual events at the N.C. High School Athletic Association state championships while competing for Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons. At 16, she will be one of the youngest Olympians competing for the USA in Tokyo in July.

By the time the Olympics begin in July, Curzan will be 17. She will have her 17th birthday June 30, which, as she pointed out in an interview with NBC Sports, is the same day legendary swimmer Michael Phelps was born (albeit in 1985).

The 100 butterfly event is traditionally one where teenagers can do well. Four of the top five U.S. swimmers in 2021 in the 100 fly were teenagers entering the Olympic Trials.

Curzan will have another opportunity to qualify for a second event at the Olympics later in the Trials, as the Cardinal Gibbons star (she has won multiple individual state titles every year at the NCHSAA finals) also plans to compete in the 50 and 100 freestyle events in Omaha. She will be seeded highly in both.

Several other swimming hopefuls from North Carolina also have a shot at making the Olympic team during this 8-day meet, including freestyle specialist Michael Chadwick of Charlotte and N.C. State backstroker Katharine Berkoff.

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