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Sports Olympics

Pelton back on the international stage after failing to qualify for 2012 Olympics

Elizabeth Pelton says she felt like "the little kid in a candy store."

From a swimming standpoint, why wouldn't she? She had just finished second in the 200-meter backstroke final at the Phillips 66 National Championships on June 25 and swam a personal best for the first time in almost three years.

It was about as sweet of a moment that the swimmer from Towson remembers, for about one year earlier at the United States Olympic Team Trials, she was on the brink of a nightmarish meet that would change the path of her career.

But that is in the past now. Starting on Sunday in Barcelona, Spain, the 19-year-old Pelton will swim for the United States in her third straight FINA World Championships. She will compete not only in the 200 backstroke, but also the 100 backstroke and 4x100 freestyle relay.

As her roller coaster journey culminates this week, she concedes that she couldn't be more excited for this next meet.

"I really think I have a chance at doing something special now, possibly medaling or finishing in the top five in Barcelona," Pelton said. "But there's no doubt, at the time of Olympic Trials last year, it was pretty devastating."

For any swimmer on the brink of making a senior national team, placing third in finals is mostly never a good thing. Only the top two typically advance. As Pelton says, "There's something about getting third that's a stick in the gut, and it does not go away."

When she arrived in Omaha, Neb., for Olympic Team Trials last year as a national team veteran at the age of 18, she had no reason to believe she would be in that position.

She made the world championships team a year earlier by finishing second in the 200 backstroke. Before that, she was a finalist in the 200 back at the 2009 world championships and a silver medalist in the 200 back at the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships.

But then, the results played out otherwise. In June 2012, she finished third in the 200 individual medley. She missed making the team by 0.26 of a second.

She still had her best event remaining, but it happened again. Three days later, in the 200 backstroke final, she finished third and failed to qualify for the Olympics completely by 0.49.

From there, she went back to the drawing board.

"It seemed like it was just not meant to be," Pelton's mother, Anne, said. "We made sure to make her know that, no matter what, we love her and support her. Tomorrow's a new day, and she needed to realize that everything was going to be OK and people were still proud of her."

Pelton returned home to Towson and took the next five weeks off to clear her head, while her peers swam in London under the world's watchful eye.

Luckily, a change came with perfect timing. In August, Pelton left for Berkeley, Calif., to start college at California. The move also gave her a new coach, Teri McKeever.

"It's really difficult to comprehend the type of disappointment that comes with finishing third at Trials," McKeever said. "But when Elizabeth got here, she had to put that behind. She was very open to it. She's very easy to coach."

She got into the groove of balancing morning practices, classes, homework and her social life. After getting into a routine and making new friends on the team, she regained the focus and drive she used to have when she trained at North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Regaining a competitive edge came easy, too, having Olympians Caitlin Leverenz and Rachel Bootsma swimming next to her every day.

"Getting into this new routine took a lot of pressure off swimming and helped me be more relaxed in the pool, and I think that's helped me keep my nerves down," Pelton said. "Heading into world trials, it wasn't going to be the end of the world if I didn't make it. People say moving to California changes you. I think there's something to that."

As her freshman year went on, the accolades piled. She won the 200-yard individual medley and 100- and 200-yard backstrokes at the Pac-12 championships.

At NCAA championships in Indianapolis, she set the American record and won the 200-yard backstroke title in 1 minute, 47.84 seconds. She was named Swimmer of the Meet.

By the time her first year of college was over in mid-May, Pelton decided to stay in Berkeley and train full-time with McKeever. She felt she was ready to return to the international scene.

"When you start with Teri, you kind of take on a different outlook on swimming," Pelton said. "She and I are on the same wavelength, and she knows what I need to do to succeed. [The wins] are just something I kept in the back of my mind. I knew I was showing a little bit of my stuff, but I had to keep it when it mattered."

On June 25, at the same pool in which she won her NCAA title, Pelton's parents watched their daughter raced her best 200-meter backstroke of her career. Pelton swam a 2:06.29 for second place. Her time, which remains second fastest in the world this year, made her the seventh-fastest swimmer in the event's history. It also topped her previous best by almost 1.2 seconds.

This time, on her first try, she clinched her spot at the world championships.

"It was so much fun, because she has really looked great," Anne Pelton said. "It was kind of a huge sense of relief when she qualified knowing that she was back in the game and just back swimming like we know she can.

"I knew moving to California was going to be great for her. It was perfect timing."

On a wall in the Pelton family's house in Towson, there is a world map inundated with thumbtacks. The family uses it to plot where they have traveled for swim meets and to remind each other how special of an experience each meet has been.

Guam, China, Italy and Australia are just some of the countries they have knocked out. And though Elizabeth was unable able to seal them a trip to England, by no means are they disappointed. They'll just use that pin to conquer Spain.

"It's just such a sense of relief knowing I can still do this," Pelton said. "And now I realize missing the Olympics wasn't the end of the world."

jlittman@baltsun.com

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Elizabeth Pelton bio

Age: 19

Hometown: Towson

College: California

Class: Sophomore

2013 top times

200-meter backstroke: 2:06.29; No. 2 in world; 7th fastest swimmer ever in event

100-meter backstroke: 59.27; No. 4 time in world;14th fastest swimmer ever in event

200-yard backstroke: 1:47.84; American record

Her swims at FINA world championships in Barcelona, Spain:

Sunday

4x100-meter free relay heats

4x100 free relay finals

Monday

100 backstroke heats

100 backstroke semifinals

Tuesday

100 backstroke final

Friday

200 backstroke heats

200 backstroke semifinals

Next Saturday

200 backstroke finals

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