What inspired your passion for aquatics? If you’re like many in the industry, you probably said, “The Olympics.” Every four years the world gathers to celebrate the spirit of competition, patriotism and sportsmanship — and this summer’s games should be no different. Athletes from around the globe will put on an exciting show, captivating millions.

What can we expect from U.S. aquatic athletes? Not all of the teams are finalized yet, but one thing is for sure: With names such as Michael Phelps and Laura Wilkinson, there are high hopes for gold medals. Here’s a preview from some of the coaches, athletes and others closest to the action.

Swimming

U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials won’t happen until the end of the month, but USA Swimming National Team Head Coach Mark Schubert can already say with certainty that he expects to see some great racing throughout the games.

“On the men’s side, we probably have the strongest team since the 1976 team, which was considered the strongest in history. They won all but one event,” says Schubert, who is also general manager. “[On the women’s side], we’ve improved quite a bit since Athens.”

This summer, USA Men’s Swimming is likely to be lead by powerhouses Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Phelps is favored in the 200m and 400m individual medley (IM) races, the 200 butterfly and the 200 free-style (FR). “Both are very versatile and world record holders,” Schubert notes.

Katie Hoff and Natalie Coughlin are expected to lead the women. Another strong medal contender is Hayley McGregory, who recently broke the world record in the 50m backstroke (BK).

Even with such dominant names, Schubert says, “No one can take for granted a spot on the team, or the ability to win a medal.” Team USA faces tough competition from Australia, France and South Africa.

One of Team USA’s strengths is its depth, according to Schubert. Another strength may be that a number of returning Olympians are vying for a spot on the 2008 team. “I think we’ll have a much higher percentage of returning athletes,” he says. Schubert notes that a trend among swimmers is the tendency for athletes to continue in the sport much longer than in the past, beyond the high school and college years.

For now, he is looking forward to the trials, scheduled for June 29 through July 6 in Omaha, Neb. “This is a first for swimming in the United States,” Schubert says. “[We will be] holding the trials in what is now a basketball and hockey arena in a temporary pool.”

Athletes to Watch
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Teresa Crippen

With an older sister who’s a former Olympic swimmer and a brother who’s a former national team member, you might say Teresa Crippen was born with pool water in her veins. Today, at 17, she’s balancing her senior year in high school with preparing to compete for a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swim Team.

The youngest of four, Crippen, says she began swimming along with her siblings because her parents wanted them to be water-safe during trips to the family’s vacation house on the Jersey Shore. “We all liked it and stuck with it,” she says. “I like the competitive nature [of the sport of swimming]. That’s what keeps me going. [The discipline I’ve learned] has helped me with life outside of the pool.”

Today, Crippen swims for her school team, Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa., and has been named a high school All-American multiple times. She made a splash on the international scene in 2007, winning three medals at the Pan American Games — gold in the 800m FR and 200m BK, which she says is her favorite event, and silver in the 400m IM. “I like being part of a team,” she says. “You get really close with your teammates; they become like a second family.”

In preparing to compete for her spot on the team headed for Beijing, Crippen says she’s taking it one step at a time. She’ll be traveling to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for some altitude training, and has stepped up her regular workouts a bit. “[Making the 2008 Olympic Team] is something that I’ve always wanted, especially within the last couple of years,” Crippen says. “I never thought it would be possible, but [then] I watched my sister make the 2000 team. [Becoming an Olympian] would be a great honor and something that I look forward to.”

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Randall Bal

Since he first jumped in the water to swim at age 4, Randall Bal has stepped up to every challenge. “My sister would swim in the neighbor’s pool and, wanting to be competitive with her, I joined a team,” he says. “What’s allowed me to proceed in the sport is [achieving] personal goals.”

The California native has attained some pretty impressive goals in his swimming career. At last year’s Pan American Games he won gold in the 100m BK and 400m relay. The one goal that has eluded him so far is making the Olympic team. He narrowly missed a shot in 2004, placing third in the 100m BK at Olympic Trials. “[Going to Beijing] would be satisfying, a sense of accomplishment,” he says. “It’s what we’re all training for.”

Bal’s training has changed a lot since the last Olympic Games. Back then, he was fresh out of Stanford University with a psychology degree and swimming approximately 20 hours a week. Then a shoulder injury left him wondering if he’d be able to continue in the sport at all. He slowed down and eventually did come back, now training in Ispra, Italy, with coach Andrea Di Nino. “What I learned from [getting injured] was to gauge my own body and know what’s enough for me,” Bal says. “I established a great relationship with [Di Nino] about two years ago, and he and I really see eye to eye about accomplishing the same goals. He communicates well with me.”

Today, Bal trains about six days a week, single practices, and says he’s a lot less stressed and more confident going into the 2008 Games. “As long as you’re honest with yourself, you can’t walk away disappointed,” he says.

Diving

One of the most popular events in the Summer Olympics, diving has been an Olympic sport for more than a century. Since the first contest in 1904, the United States has been a major force and, despite some tough losses in recent years, the 2008 USA Diving Team is gearing up for a strong competition.

“We only won one medal in 2004 [when Laura Wilkinson took home a gold]. But our outlook is brighter as we get closer to [this summer’s games],” says Debbie Hesse, CEO of USA Diving. “A number of [our] athletes are right in the hunt [for medals] if they can be consistent.”

If the performance at the 16th FINA Diving World Cup, held in Beijing last February is any indication of Team USA’s chances, Hesse is right. The team took home two third-place finishes and two fourth-place finishes. In addition, this will be the first Olympic Games since 1996 that U.S. divers have qualified to compete in all the diving events. Hesse says the goal is to bring home four medals.

Exactly which Team USA members will be competing for those medals has yet to be determined. Olympic trials are scheduled in Indianapolis at the end of this month and the top finishers in each event will earn a spot in Beijing. The remaining divers will be named at an official selection camp to be held next month in Knoxville, Tenn.

No matter which athletes end up diving for the United States this August, it’s a sure bet they’ll face formidable competition. “The No. 1 country is China, It’s definitely dominant,” Hesse says. “Canada, Germany, Australia, Italy and Mexico [also] are strong competitors.”

In facing these challengers, Team USA has a lot in its arsenal, according to Hesse. “One of the best parts of this sport is the passion that people have to regain the United State’s stature in the international diving world,” she notes. “[We’re also] blessed with [great coaching and] more facilities that can accommodate diving than any country in the world.”

Athletes to Watch
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Haley Ishimatsu

At age 15, Haley Ishimatsu is among the youngest of the 2008 Olympic hopefuls. “It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “I never thought I’d get this far this quickly.”

A former gymnast, Ishimatsu has been a U.S. National Diving Team member since 2006. She followed her sister, Tory, into the sport of diving just two years earlier. “My background in gymnastics has helped me learn faster and become more aware of where I am [in the air],” she says.

As a diver, Ishimatsu competes on the 10-meter springboard in the individual and synchronized events. She made her international debut in 2006 at age 13 and placed 14th on the 10-meter in her first World Cup. At the 2007 Pan American Games she was a silver medalist in the individual 10-meter event and a bronze medalist in the synchro event.

Today, Ishimatsu is the only female diver in the world performing a Back 2 1/2 pike (degree of difficulty: 3.6). She continues to excel, and attends an online high school to accommodate her training schedule. Coached by former Chinese diver Wenbo Chen, the Southern California native now trains at the USA Diving Training Center in Indianapolis. She made the move to the Midwest with her sister and father in September 2006. Ishimatsu’s mother, Carol, still lives in California, but travels to Indianapolis frequently.

In spite of the sacrifices, Ishimatsu’s passion for diving drives her to continue. “I love the excitement of the sport, every time I go off the board,” she says.

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Troy Dumais

A self-described “adrenaline junkie” Troy Dumais says he was ready to dive even before he was a competent swimmer. Once he grew older, with four siblings also in diving and a former professional hockey player dad to support his athletic endeavors, the long trips to practices and meets became family time.

Since then, diving has taken this California-born young man around the world. He competed in his first international event, the IX Can-Am-Mex Age Group Championships, in 1993 and won first place in the 1-meter, 3-meter and platform events.

Seven years and a number of international events later, he competed in his first Olympic Games, placing sixth in the individual 3-meter event and fourth in the 3-meter synchro event. Four years later he competed in the games again, finishing sixth place in both 3-meter events.

Heading toward Beijing, Dumais appears at his best. He was named USA Diving’s Athlete of the Year for the past two years. In 2006 he placed third and second at the FINA World Cup, and last year he placed third and first at the Pan American Games.

“My coach, [Matt Scoggin], and I have been meshing better than ever over the past two or three years. We’ve come to an understanding of how my body works … when to work and when to rest,” Dumais says. “My training is a smarter training [now].”

When he’s not diving, he resides in Austin, Texas, and is a 2006 University of Texas graduate with a B.S. in exercise science. As a student, he turned in some A+ work on the board as well. He was NCAA Division 1 champion in the 1-meter and 3-meter events in 2000 and 2001.

Looking ahead, Dumais says he might use his education to become a physical therapist. But, for now, he’s focused on diving and preparing mentally for Beijing. “I’m going to give it my all. I don’t train for second place,” he says. “[Not training to win] puts a negative connotation on [the event] already.”

Synchronized Swimming

Part raw athletics, part lyrical beauty, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games synchronized swimming competition is sure to showcase both aspects of the sport. U.S. National Team coach and former Olympian Tammy McGregor understands the importance of combining physical strength and technique with artistic sensibility and grace. “Many countries are one or the other but we have the ability to be both technical and artistic,” she says.

Lead by Captians Kate Hooven and Kim Probst, Team U.S.A.’s journey to Beijing began in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the 2007 Pan American Games. By winning gold medals in both the team and duet events the team secured an Olympic berth. The team scored silver at the 2007 FINA Synchronized Swimming World Trophy Cup. Russia took gold and Spain was awarded the Bronze in that three-day competition also held in Rio de Janeiro.

Although Team U.S.A. is not lacking in international experience, when is comes to the Olympics, all ten of the ladies are “rookies.” “Because [the ladies have never been to the Olympics before] they have an excitement that you only get going [to the games] for the first time, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes,” says McGregor. “They’re willing to try new things, and that makes them really great at what they do.”

It may be that spirit that puts the U.S. ladies among the favorites going into the games, in spite of their lack of Olympic experience. They’ll be competing against other powerhouses including Russia, Spain, Japan and China. McGregor says one of her strategies is to capitalize on Team U.S.A.’s strengths and showcase some truly unique moves. “Right now, the most important aspect is original choreography and lifts of throws [out of the water],” said McGregor, adding, “You have to posses strength, flexibility and power.”

In going for the gold the team is training up to eight hours a day both in the pool and on dry land. Land work includes strength training, conditioning, flexibility training, mental preparation and acrobatic training.

“One of the things I usually talk a lot about is putting in the work prior to arriving,” says McGregor. “You can’t make the Olympics into something huge. When you break it down it is really just another competition with a pool and judges.”

With training, drive and a can-do spirit that is uniquely American, it’s a safe bet that whether the ladies of Team U.S.A. medal in Beijing or not, they’re athletic prowess and artistic talent will be something to watch.

Athletes to Watch
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Andrea Nott

Watching the Olympic games as a child, Andrea Nott says she never expected that one  day she would be an Olympian herself. “My family and I have always been huge fans of  the Olympic Games,” she says.

When her mother, the school nurse, learned about a synchronized swimming team — the Santa Clara Aquamaids — from another student, Andrea got involved and was immediately hooked. “My mom and I went to watch her practice, and I joined the team right away. I was already spending my after-school time playing in the pool or taking dance classes, so it was perfect,” says Nott.

After years of hard work, and several national and international competition medals, Nott  was selected as an alternate for the 2004 U.S. Synchronized Swimming Olympic Team. Now, after four more years of training, she’s excited about competing this summer. “By deciding to continue to swim after not making the ‘04 team it really made it clear to me how  badly I wanted to be an Olympian,” she says.

Although she never considered herself particularly athletic, this California native says synchronized swimming helped her discover her competitive nature. “Competing has helped me discover my athletic drive and desire to continue improving myself and reaching new goals,” she says.

Today, one of Nott’s favorite aspects of the sport is the teamwork. “Everyone puts in their best to make even the smallest parts [of the routine] as good as they can be and then when we put it all together, it’s even better than the sum of it’s parts,” she says. “We’re better together than we could be on our own.”

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Janet Culp

Because she grew up in the mountains of Colorado, you might thing Janet Culp would  more naturally be drawn to sports such as skiing or hiking. But thanks to an aquatics program in her hometown of Littleton, Culp spends her time in the pool as a member of the U.S.National Synchronized Swim Team.

“What drew me to synchro in the beginning is what I still love about it,” she says. “I love the fact that I can be creative and incorporating the gymnastics and dance elements.”

A member of the national team for six years, Culp began swimming with her twin sister  Jennie. She later attended Santa Clara University where she earned a degree in history.

Although she was recently married, in December 2007, a big part of Culp’s focus now is gearing up for the 2008 Olympics. Along with her teammates, she’s training approximately eight hours a day six days a week, as well as attending a San Francisco circus school to gain more specific acrobatic training.

“I’m just really honored to be in this position, and excited at the same time,” she says looking forward to the games. “Competing will be really exciting and I think every athlete looks forward to the opening ceremonies.

Water Polo

“[Water polo] is a tremendously demanding sport,” says U.S.A. National Women’s Team coach Guy Baker. “You’ve got to be in top physical condition [and it requires] good defense and teamwork.” It is with those thoughts in mind that Baker’s team, along with its male counterpart is gearing up for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

For the women, 2008 will be Team U.S.A.’s third Olympic appearance. The squad claimed silver in Sydney in 2000 and Bronze in Athens in 2004. Last year the team won three international tiles — the FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia; the FINA World League Super Final in Montreal, Canada; and the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — and went undefeated, making 2007 the most successful year in the history of U.S.A. Women’s water polo. Winning the Pan American Games qualified the ladies for a spot in Beijing and they head to China as one of the favorites.

“We won the 2007 World Championships, so we’ll be one of the favorites going into games and that carries some added pressure,” says Baker. Squaring off against that pressure will be a squad of 13, and although the team has had a lot of time playing together, no more than four have past Olympic experience. Adding to the drama is the fact that Team U.S.A. faces some tough competition, including China, Netherlands, Italy, Russia, Hungary and Greece.

“In this Games all the teams are extremely good,” notes Baker, adding, “Over the last 15 years the growth of women’s water polo has been phenomenal. We’re hoping we can do well in Beijing to inspire and impact the growth and development [of the sport].”

On the men’s side, the team is lead by Head Coach and former Olympian Terry Schroeder, brought on board in June 2007. Assistant Coaches Robert Lynn, a 2000 Olympian, and Ryan Brown, and Team Leader Rick McKee round out the staff. Although 2007 included a ninth-place finish at the FINA World Championships and a fifth-place finish at the FINA World Leagues, the squad has shown a lot of promise lately, with a gold medal victory at the 2007 Pan American Games.

But when it comes to Olympic wins, it’s been 20 years since Team U.S.A. has captured a medal. Back then Schroeder was team captain. Today, he’s hoping to use his experience to bring home a United States medal again.

“We’re working hard to get back to the podium and we’re doing everything we possibly can thing of to make that happen,” said McKee.

The first step was that Pan American Games victory, which solidified U.S.A.’s place in Beijing. The next step has been a hard-core, full-time residential training program. McKee says the team has been working a lot on fundamentals and conditioning. “Even at this level the guys pick up bad habits,” he said.

Competing in Beijing will be 13 of the 26-man Team U.S.A. and they’ll face 12 fierce competitors, including Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Spain, Germany, China, Italy Greece and Canada. “It’s going to be a good tournament, said McKee “Canada is the surprise. They’re an up-and-coming team.”

With such a strong pool of competitors, Team U.S.A. faces several challenges. According to McKee one of the biggest is the fact that there’s no professional league here in the United States, like in Europe. “[I’d say] 40 to 50 percent of the guys go to Europe to play during our ‘off-time,’” so we’re not able to train together as a team on an annual basis,” he notes.

Additionally, McKee notes that the sport has “kind of hit a skid” since the last Olympic medal, but that is changing. “Terry has brought a lot of respect back to the sport of men’s water polo. I think overall there’s [a growing awareness now] and if we medal that will create energy and the momentum that [the sport] really needs.”

Athletes to Watch
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Brandon Brooks

You might have some less-than-fond memories of seventh grade P.E., but Brandon  Brooks remembers it for introducing him to the sport of water polo. “My teacher was also the water polo coach and we played it for a couple weeks,” says Brooks. “I love being in the water and I really liked to dunk people underwater, which is totally illegal.”

Born in Rock Island, Il., Brooks is the oldest of three. During his college years, his athletic ability took him a long way from the Midwest, to UCLA, where as a freshman he walked on to the school’s nationally renowned basketball team. He graduated in  2005 with a degree in economics and two NCAA Water Polo Championship wins.

On the international stage, Brooks was a member of the 2003 and 2005 World Championship squads. In 2004 he was the starting goalie for Team U.S.A. at the  Olympic Games.

“I have never been as proud as when I got to walk out to the National Anthem in our first game of the 2004 Olympics,” says Brooks. “Having a second shot for an Olympic medal would [be] a huge deal to me. I want to be part of a team of the best players in the U.S.A. and fight together for success.”

Heading into the 2008 Olympics, Brooks says he’s a lot more mature in his game. “I have the chance to look back at what happened the first time and use that to my benefit,” he says. “I’ve been around the game a lot more in the last few years and I think that helped me see so many more situations and circumstances. [To prepare] I’m watching game tape as well doing all the physical training.”

Now living and training in Los Angeles, far from his family  (in Hawaii), the teamwork and competition keep Brooks passionate about his sport. “Everyone has to be on the same page, much more so than in other sports like basketball, soccer, or baseball. Water polo is so difficult to play in the first place, but then to have to think at a high level at the same time, I find it remarkable.”

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Brenda Villa

A natural athlete, Brenda Villa grew up playing all kinds of sports. It was in high school that she decided to focus on water polo. Attending a school without a women’s team, this Southern California girl joined the boys team, and managed to excel. She was awarded first-team All-CIF honors three times. “There were other girls who wanted to play, but not enough of us to have a team,” she says. “After I graduated they formed a women’s team.”

That experience made her a strong competitor as a college student at Stanford University where she won a number of honors including the 2002 NCAA championship. Since then Villa has honed her game playing professionally in Italy.

Playing for Team U.S.A., Villa’s position is Attacker. She is a member of the bronze medal-winning 2004 Olympic team and scored four goals against Hungary and two against Russia to guarantee her team a place on the medal stand.

At the 2000 games, Villa was a silver medalist. She counts qualifying for Sydney among her proudest moments as an athlete. “We missed our first opportunity toqualify in 1999 and a bunch of us took leaves of absence from college to train. We [ended up] beating a water polo powerhouse, Hungary, to qualify,” she says.

Looking toward Beijing, Villa says she and her teammates are training more efficiently. “We have the same [experienced] coaching staff, we’ve tweaked our training so that we can be faster, smarter and stronger than four years ago. Yes, our goal is to win the gold but our journey getting there is [also] important.”