At 15 years old, Emma Carlton is the top swimmer in four different events for her age group in the history of the Bellingham Bay Swim Team, she has been ranked eighth nationally for her time in the 100 meter fly and she is just one second away from qualifying for the Olympic Team Trials in two events.
"I really want to accomplish getting a trials cut before 2016,” Carlton said. “So I can go and enjoy the experience there before I go off to college."
During trials, thousands of athletes who reached the qualifying time during a meet compete. Only the top two finishers in each event go on.
Olympic hopes are not unthinkable for Carlton as she says with a laugh that every swimmer’s dream is to get a gold medal, so why would she work for less?
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Last week at the Pacific Northwest Swimming Senior Long Course Championship in Federal Way, Carlton placed first with a time of 1 minute, 2.88 seconds in the women’s 100 fly. She also placed fifth in the 50 free and sixth in the 100 free as an individual. As a member of a team she placed second in the women’s 200 meter free relay, third in the 800 free, third in both the 200 and 400 medley and fourth in the 400 free.
The competition was a collection of the best swimmers in the state, representing the majority of teams in Washington.
Racing against women who were three and four years her senior Carlton proved she can compete, often being the youngest of the top finishers by three years.
Before a meet, Carlton hates looking at numbers. She relaxes, like her coach says, staying out of the sun and eating a lot of carbs. But she does not worry about the competition.
"I like to go and have fun so I go in relaxed,” Carlton said. “I am ready to just have fun at the meet, and that is when I perform at my best, when I am just having fun."
Her teammates are the best part of the experience for her. She is competitive and the excitement that comes with watching her own times improve is wonderful, she said, but cheering on her teammates is what she remembers most from the meet.
Carlton moved to Washington from Arizona when she was 11 and the past four years with BBST have shown her that swimming on a team is about improving together.
Practices happen nine times throughout the week. Monday through Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and three other mornings during the week are commitments that truly make swimming Carlton’s life.
On an average day, a BBST swimmer will swim at least 6,500 meters, which is over four miles, in the pool.
"You give up a lot of your social life, that’s for sure,” she said. “When someone asks you if you want to hang out you just say I have swim practice, sorry."
But it is all worth it.
"Our whole team has just worked so hard,” she said. “And we have all improved so well over the years.”
For as long as she can remember, Carlton has loved being in the water. Even outside training she goes paddle boarding at the lake with her brother.
Looking ahead, it’s all mental preparation. Physically, Carlton says training has her ready to reach the time she needs for Olympic trials. Now, she just needs to push herself to that point.
"She has accepted the process and she has been patient,” said her coach Sean Muncie. “One of the hardest things about swimming is that there is no immediate reward, so the delayed gratification that swimmers learn is really more so than any other sport."
Muncie has been working with Carlton directly for two years now and sees nothing but potential in the soon-to-be high school sophomore. Being able to take the step from average to exceptional in anything requires more than raw talent. It takes work ethic, he said.
Carlton listens, learns and is willing to work. She takes constructive criticism and understands what needs to be done, never mindlessly going through the motions. With that attitude her coach believes she can go as far as she wants in swimming.
"It’s the difference between practicing and training,” Muncie said. “When these kids walk through the door, they are there to train. We are not a babysitting service, we are not going to waste time. If they are going to spend five hours a day doing this in the morning, before school and after school practice, then lets get something out of it."
Athletes train eight months out of the year to compete in only a few meets, a time commitment equal to a part time job that all comes down to an assessment at the end of the year. The toll that can take on their focus is why Muncie stresses improvement. If each day you are better than the day before, you will stand out.
"You’ve only one shot to see how good you can really be, so you might as well give it your best,” he said.
For Carlton, there is no finish line. She wants to take her love of swimming as far as she can and enjoy every competition along the way.