Caroline Queen remembers the feeling she had when she didn't make the U.S. Olympic kayaking team going to Beijing in 2008. She finished behind Heather Corrie, who had grown up in England.
"I was pretty [engrossed] in the process," Queen recalled recently. "There was an emotional explosion when it didn't work out."
Queen could be forgiven for such an outburst.
She was 16 years old at the time and the youngest woman in the history of the U.S. national team, which she made at age 15 in 2007.
Four years later, Corrie is retired and Queen, now a 20-year-old college student from Montgomery County, is headed to Corrie's homeland as the lone U.S. representative in the women's K-1 slalom competition at the Olympics in London.
Not that this was an easy process, either. Queen, who will be going into her junior year at Davidson College in North Carolina, edged out longtime rival and Darnestown neighbor Ashley Nee for the spot after a series of three qualifying events in the United States and Europe.
"It's been a friendly rivalry for a long time," Queen said. "We grew up a mile apart. We've had the same coaches and the same kind of kayaking upbringing; we both made the national team for the first time the same year. We're pretty different people, but I think we've learned a lot from each other."
That only one of them qualified in an event that previously allowed three "is hard, it's rough," said Queen, who won the spot with the help of a tiebreaker point she earned during the world championships last fall in Slovakia. "I wish we could both go but we can't,"
Qualifying helped Queen fulfill a dream that has been more than 10 years in the making. She started paddling at Valley Mill, a local summer camp, when she was 9 years old. She had played competitive sports and "kind of fell into" paddling.
Queen still does some of her training at Valley Mill, where campers are constantly wishing her "good luck in London" as she lugs her kayak down to the lake. Unlike many in the sport, she wasn't raised in a family that paddled. In fact, Queen, an only child, is the only member of her family who does.
"Every kid at the camp has done canoeing or kayaking," she said, sitting near the lake before a recent training session. "They do a job of integrating kids into slalom, too. It's intriguing because it challenges a person to improve on one's own best, so it's a little different than a lot of U.S. sports that are more head-to-head. Coming from a team sports background, it was new and interesting to take on that challenge."
Queen started racing at age 12, and it was during the 2004 Olympics in Athens that she focused on making the team in the future. She and other members of the Bethesda Center for Excellence (now the Potomac Whitewater Racing Center) watched the competition in the home of its president, Richard Perlmutter.
Queen and her teammates watched Rebecca Giddens take home a silver medal for the United States.
"It was the last time the U.S. won a medal, and it was in the women's category," Queen said. "I think that seeing the success of the U.S. athletes was very inspiring and it made me want to chase that same success."
The chase was briefly interrupted when Queen tore the anterior cruciate and meniscus ligaments in her right knee playing field hockey in high school. After she healed, Queen missed "70 to 80" days of school trying to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
This year's training and competition cost her two weeks of her fall semester at Davidson. She wound up taking the spring semester off, though she was able to wrangle some independent study credits for her pursuit of a spot in the Olympics.
Queen doesn't know how long she will keep paddling. The thought of competing in the 2014 world championships at Deep Creek in Western Maryland is certainly enticing, but she seems excited about chasing a professional career outside kayaking.
A psychology major, Queen has recently become involved in combining an interest in public relations with social media.
"It's kind of hard to say. I think I will reevaluate when I graduate," she said. "The world championships are in Maryland in 2014 and that's an event worth training for. It just depends on where I'm headed career-wise. It's a great sport. I love it, but it's not something I can make a sustainable career out of."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun