Local teens qualify for Olympic swim trials

Sam Steele and Rachel Cunningham both have qualified to attend the Olympic trials next summer in Omaha, Nebraska for a chance to earn a spot on the 2016 Summer Olympics team. Steele lives in Pelham and is homeschooled, and Cunningham attends Spain Park High School. (Contributed)

Sam Steele and Rachel Cunningham both have qualified to attend the Olympic trials next summer in Omaha, Nebraska for a chance to earn a spot on the 2016 Summer Olympics team. Steele lives in Pelham and is homeschooled, and Cunningham attends Spain Park High School. (Contributed)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

Sam Steele and Rachel Cunningham are swimmers. They are very fast swimmers. On Sunday, July 19, they both did something a tiny fraction of the population can say they have ever done, qualify for the Olympic trials.

Cunningham did not start swimming until she was 10-years old, which is unusual in comparison with most of her peers now. She swam in a summer league that first summer, and with some coercion from her mom, she was back the next year, which is when she began to understand she had a gift.

“My mom made me go back,” she said with a chuckle. “When you’re that age, you don’t want to dedicate yourself to anything. But I started making friends and got to the point where I wanted to go and wasn’t being forced to go.”

That second summer, when she was 11, before the Southeastern championship, her coach told her she was close to breaking into a time category she didn’t even know existed.

“My coach told me I was really close to a time standard that I didn’t even know about. In practice that week, I hit that time. That’s when I thought I should really apply myself.”

Steele has been swimming competitively for a little longer, since he was eight. He started swimming with a branch of the Shelby County YMCA and swam there until his coach told him he should get on with a more competitive team that could help him develop his obvious talent. He began swimming with the Hoover Blue Thunder when he was 11, and stayed there until he was 15, when the Hoover rec center closed down, forcing the club to disband. He has been with the Birmingham Swim League with Cunningham ever since.

The realization that he had a real chance to do something special in the sport came a little later for Steele.

“I realized I had a shot to be really good when I was about 13 or 14,” he said. “I was bigger than everyone and I could manhandle races. At Southeastern races I was dominating across the board. Kids hit their growth spurt after me and got closer to me as we got older, but that’s when I knew I could be good.”

Cunningham, just 16, is a rising junior at Spain Park High School. Steele, 17, is a rising senior who lives in Pelham and has been homeschooled since the third grade. He was in the middle of a practice SAT test when I first reached out to him for an interview. They both decided to make a run at the 2016 Olympic time trials when the time cuts came out last summer and both saw they were within reach, and since then, both Cunningham and Steele have had a one-track mind. Make the cut to get to the Olympic trials.

Cunningham is in the pool six days a week during the school year and twice on Friday’s, roughly about 14 hours a week, by her estimation, with about 10 or so more hours of dry land training added in. She swims the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke, and she’s very fast.

The Olympic time trial cut for the 200-meter breaststroke is 2:34.99. On July 19, Cunningham finally broke through after roughly a year of work, with a time of 2:34.98. She made it by one one hundredth of a second.

“I was just ecstatic,” Cunningham said. “Honestly, it was just a weight off my shoulders. Now that I’ve got it I can relax a little bit. I was so excited.”

Her 100-meter breaststroke time of 1:11.52 is currently three one hundredths of a second away from qualifying as well.

Steele spends just as much if not more time in the pool each week, some weeks eclipsing 40 hours of pool and dry land work. He has recruiting visits lined up with the Naval Academy, West Point, Auburn and Louisville as of now, with more maybe in the future.

His events are the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle races. The Olympic qualifying time for the 400-meter time is 3:58.69, and on the same day Cunningham qualified in her event, Steele swam a 3:58.66.

“I was in disbelief, honestly I still am,” Steele said. “I got out of the pool and my glasses were a little fogged up. I saw the 3:58 and thought, ‘just my luck I probably just missed it,’ then saw the .66. I just started laughing.”

His 200-meter time of 1:52.19 is three tenths of a second away from qualifying as well.

Both Cunningham and Steele will be on the younger end of the athletes who go to Omaha, Neb. next summer to try and earn a spot on the Olympic team. While they are both overjoyed with the prospect of competing against some of the best swimmers in the world, that does not mean they don’t want to have a good showing when they get there.

“I definitely don’t expect to make the team,” Cunningham said. “But making the top 16 or the top eight would be incredible.”

“I’d love to try to make a final heat,” Steele said.