Madison White, 13, heading for Olympic swim trials
Imagine: It's the Santa Clara Grand Prix, an international swim meet where the best swimmers from all over the world compete. The 200-meter backstroke race is about to begin. Madison White, 13, is up against a group of athletes whose average age is 21, including an Olympic gold medalist and a World Champion.
But Blackhawk's swim star is known for pulling through under pressure. She finished the race in 2 minutes, 14.4 seconds - fast enough to seize the bronze medal. And what's more, her time qualified her for the Olympic Trials, where she'll compete next month for a spot on the U.S. team at the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
"It was like a wave of shock," says Madison, describing the moment three weeks ago when she realized she'd made the cut. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' I couldn't really think; I was just so happy. I saw all my friends and family in the stands and they were really happy, and I was just so excited.
"It was one of my goals for that meet. It has always been one of my dreams to go to the Olympics."
A star on the rise
Madison started swimming when she was 4 years old at Sue's Swim School in Alamo. She started competing at age 6. That year she won the Contra Costa County Swim Championship in her specialty, the backstroke. She then went on to win the championship the next five years in a row.
She hit the swim scene with a splash, breaking record after record, oftentimes her own. She currently holds five U.S. Pacific records and is the best 13-year-old backstroke swimmer in the nation, closing in on holding the record for the best in U.S. history for that age.
"It's hard work and it's part talent, too," Madison says. "My dad, he would say, 'You have a gift and you need to use it, and you need to work hard at it, and you need to keep going with it.'"
To progress so quickly is pretty uncommon, said her coach, Dan Cottam, a co-head coach of Madison's swim team the Crow Canyon Sharks, along with Ethan Hall.
But Madison's not the only White making waves. Her younger brother Forrest, who also swims for the Sharks, has already broken about 40 swim records at the age of 11. Madison says the two get along pretty well, and Forrest shares his sister's dream of going to the Olympics.
"He's on his way," she says.
Coach Cottam credits Madison's success to her dedication, her work ethic and her attitude.
"She doesn't fold under pressure," he says. "She's a pretty resilient young lady for her age. A lot of kids when they get to that type of environment would sort of freak out, so to speak, but she's very calm, cool and collected. Actually she thrives on that kind of pressure.
"There were Olympians (at the Grand Prix) from our country and there were Olympians there from Japan and Australia - all over the world. To get top three at that event was pretty elite, so that was incredible."
One of those Olympians was 26-year-old Natalie Coughlin, one of Madison's all-time favorite swimmers. Coughlin, who grew up in Concord, has won five Olympic medals including two golds. Madison remembers meeting the famous swimmer at age 6, when she first won her own gold medal at the County Championships.
She's since competed against Coughlin in several meets, and the two will meet again at the Trials. Madison says they have a friendly relationship, though. Coughlin has even gone to Sharks practices to give technique tips to the young swimmers. Tips from a five-time Olympic medalist? Not too shabby.
Madison practices every weekday from 5 to 7 in the evening, and Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5:15 to 7 a.m. That means three days a week she wakes up, swims, goes to school all day, swims some more, does her homework, and goes to bed!
"It was really hard in the beginning," she says. "Now it seems so normal."
She admits there are some things she has to give up. Like if a friend is having a sleepover birthday party she can usually go but can't spend the night, especially if there's a big swim meet that weekend. She can't risk being too tired, or worse, getting sick.
"You basically have to be a 24-hour athlete," says Cottam. You have to pay attention to nutrition, get plenty of rest and have good time management - no getting behind on homework and staying up late to catch up.
Saturdays are usually spent at local meets, or sometimes bigger competitions. If there isn't a meet, there will be a Saturday morning practice.
"It's not uncommon when they're going through these rigorous practices to have some of the kids get down on themselves," says Cottam. "Madison's not like that. She's always upbeat and positive."
He says she's very "coachable"; she handles whatever is thrown her way, listens well, and never complains.
Three other girls on the Sharks team qualified for the Trials this year, in the breaststroke event. They are Page Bradley, 16, and Kirstyn Colonias, 17, of Danville, and Shaila Yoder, 17, of Walnut Creek.
"We're very proud to have four kids out of the 62 on our team qualify for the Olympic Trials," says Cottam. But one thing that makes Madison special is how young she is; there are other 13-year-olds that have qualified but it's pretty rare, says the coach.
"I kinda like being the underdog, you know, the younger person," Madison says. "Swimming against people who are older than me, it's just a bigger challenge. A bigger step."
45 minutes of signing autographs
"One of Madison's greatest features, in my opinion, is she's very humble. She's not very cocky," Cottam says. "That's one of the things that I really love about her. She's very down to earth, doesn't have a big head."
After the race at the Santa Clara Grand Prix when Madison found out she was going to the Trials, she climbed out of the pool and was mobbed by 50 or so kids vying for her autograph.
"She signed every one. She was signing autographs for maybe 45 minutes," boasts her proud grandmother, Jan Gilbrook. "It was really something."
The following Monday, back at St. Isidore School in Danville, Madison showed up to the daily morning assembly like any other student only to find she had become a celebrity.
"The principal called me up," she remembers. In front of the entire student body Principal Jean Schroeder presented Madison with a bouquet of two dozen roses and interviewed her about how it felt to be going to the Olympic Trials.
Madison's family celebrated her victory with a surprise gift: They set up a date at Faz restaurant for her and two of her friends to meet teen actor Taylor Lautner, who was in town for the Children's Film Festival.
Lautner is starring in "Twilight," a movie based on the enormously popular "Twilight" book series, Madison's absolute favorite. "It's like all I think about, besides swimming," she says.
As far as other hobbies are concerned, she says she was never any good at other sports.
"I tried soccer ... it just happened that my first goal was in the other team's goal," she said with a laugh. "I did ballet when I was young but I'm not much of a dancer. And basketball, I'm not very coordinated."
But when it comes to swimming, there's no question the girl's got talent.
"It's something that I love to do and I'm good at," she says. "I also think that I like the challenge of it. It's not just, you know, easy. You have to work hard to go to the Olympics. It keeps me going every day."
From the Trials to the Olympics
The times needed to qualify for the Olympic Trials are 1:04.59 seconds for the 100-meter backstroke and 2:17.99 for the 200 backstroke. Madison made the cut in both these events, coming in at 1:04.17 and 2:14.4, respectively.
The top two swimmers in each event at the Finals of the Trials will make the Olympic team.
"It's pretty elite but you never know," says Cottam. "That's one of the neat things about the Olympic Trials: It's whoever's the best on that given day."
This year the competition will take place June 29 through July 6 at the Qwest Arena in Omaha, Neb. The event itself is huge - the 2004 Trials hosted 700 participants and 10,000 spectators. The competition will also be broadcast on national TV.
"I just think it's a unique experience to go and compete at that level, be around those athletes," says Cottam.
Madison will be competing against Coughlin in the 100 backstroke. In the 200 she'll be up against Olympic gold medalist Elizabeth Beisel and Olympic hopeful Mary DeScenza, who missed a spot on the team by a hair in 2004.
"It's good for the resume to be in that type of environment, so next time they're at a high-level meet they can be that much more confident," Cottam says. "Now as she builds up and builds up it's going to be more and more familiar to her, and not so intimidating."
The next month will be spent preparing for the Trials, he says. With school getting out next week there will be more time to focus on swimming, resting and getting ready for the big competition.
"I'm not really nervous," says Madison. "I'm just going to look at it like a really big normal meet. I think I'm really just excited."
Is a trip to Beijing in the cards for Madison White?
"I'm gonna try," she says. "There are so many fast people. You just go there, and you do your best and whatever happens, happens."
Watch Madison White in Olympic Trials
Madison White records