Morgan Liberto hit the wall and, for a brief second, was disappointed.
Racing in the 200-meter backstroke during the Virginia Speed Championship Eastern Zone Southern Region Long Course Sectionals, the incredibly competitive Liberto initially only was paying attention to the fact that she had finished in second place. It was shortly after, however, that she realized there was plenty to celebrate.
Teammates and other swimmers began coming over and congratulating her performance, which was an Olympic qualifying time.
"I had people on other teams on Maryland that were cheering for me. I had like Eagles and MAC (Monocacy Aquatic Club) people cheering for me on the side of the pool and when I got out I was like, 'What are they cheering at?' And then one of the kids on the team yelled over and was like, 'You got it, you got it,'" recalled Liberto, who is in her eighth season with Columbia Aquatics Association. "I was so excited and then everyone came over and hugged me. It was great."
"I knew right away," said Clippers coach Jeff Schivener. "I waited because all her teammates were behind the blocks with her. She talked to all of them first and then she ran over to me after that. She had been close to it at winter Junior Nationals when we tried, so I knew she was capable of it."
Liberto swam a personal best time of 2 minutes, 16.58 seconds and narrowly qualified for an Olympic trial cut by 1/100th of a second. Overall, around 164 women qualified in the 200-meter backstroke across the country, with roughly 140 now scheduled to swim in the event at the Olympics in Omaha, Nebraska on July 1.
With ages ranging from 13 years old all the way up to 46-years of age, only about 36 swimmers are within the same age-range as Liberto, who will be entering her junior year at Howard High School this fall.
"It kind of makes you want to go faster knowing that there are younger kids that can beat you, but also knowing that (there is) a 46-year old. Like I have all this time I can get it hopefully," Liberto said. "I'm still not satisfied. I know it's really great that I'm going, but I always want more. I always want to do better and I know I can do better if I practice hard enough and I have the right mindset. So this is great and I'm so happy with it, but I want to do better than I am. Right now I'm in last place in my event and I want to get higher than that. That's my goal is trying not to get last place right now. I can only go up from here, so we'll so how that goes."
Liberto was always a natural at swimming. She taught herself how to swim at six-years old in her own pool. Her parents, Tara and Tony, saw how much she enjoyed the sport and with the influence of their neighbors, whose children also swam with CAA, they decided to have her join the Clippers a year later.
"I kind of learned on my own I guess. We did lessons a little bit. I guess you can say that (I'm a natural), but I just really like it. It's a lot of fun," Morgan Liberto said. "Neither one of (my parents) actually swam. I kind of picked it up on my own. We had a pool in our backyard and I just swam around all the time and I ended up really liking it, so they put me on summer swim team."
CAA is the largest team in Maryland with over 300 kids, but it doesn't have the notoriety of the NBAC (North Baltimore Aquatic Club), which has produced Olympians such as Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt.
But Liberto said she's enjoyed her time with the Clippers and has relished the relationships she's made with the rest of her teammates.
"Right now, during the summer, we pretty much train with all of our groups together, so we have kids a lot younger than us … It's kind of cool because we show them how they're supposed to be, but they also show us how to have fun and stuff. It's kind of cool how we all come together after practice," she said. "We had quite a few girls who I can push against. I don't like to lose, that's my whole big thing and everyone knows that. I'm always the person in practice, where I'll sprint when we're not supposed to be sprinting. I push myself, but I also have plenty of people to push me when I need it and honestly, I would not pick another team.
"I've had so much fun and I've done so well here – I love them. They're like family. I don't have any other brothers and sisters, so having like more than 30 — not just my group but even the groups younger than us — as brothers and sisters is the best."
Although Liberto proved very skilled in the sport right away, it has been a gradual process in terms of competing against the highest level of competition. It wasn't until this past year that she started working with Schivener and began extending her practice schedule to nearly seven to eight times per week.
"She's always been a good little swimmer. She's always been tough on herself, which is good and she hates having anybody beat her," Schivener said. "I probably first saw her swim when she was around 9 or 10 (years old)."
Liberto's competitive nature is what prompted her to concentrate on swimming year-round.
"She used to just swim short-course season and she played softball too. She would stop in March and go back in September and the kids that she was faster than, would be faster than her because they trained through the whole thing and she didn't like that," Tara Liberto said. "She was like, 'I'm done with softball. I'm swimming year-round.' She didn't like how long it took her to get her endurance back up to be able to compete against them."
Liberto quickly became one of the CAA's best swimmers, but Schivener believes it has been the past few months where she has grown the most.
"Her attention to detail has gotten a lot better and she's really willing to work on the little things to help her get better," Schivener said. "I think we've really seen her maturity come out in the past few months and it has really helped out a lot."
Keeping her goals as realistic as possible, Liberto is concentrated on getting the most out of the experience at the Olympic Trials.
"I don't really care where I place because (right now) I'm last. I just hope I place better than last. And as far as my time, I'm just hoping I go out there and I'm not shaking and all that. I just really want to do my best, try my hardest and I will be fine after that. I'm going to have so much energy I feel like I'm going to do better," she said. "Anything can happen when you're there, but it's probably not likely that I'll be in the final seed. But if I have the right mindset, you never know. If you think you can get there, you could, so that's how I play it."
Liberto is joined at the Olympic Trials by a former CAA member Jack Saunderson (200-meter butterfly), who just finished with Rookie Swimmer of the Year honors while swimming for Towson University.
"Making it to the Olympic Trials is something swimmers work so hard for, and it is a great achievement for these two," Schivener said. "I am honored to be taking Morgan and Jack to trials and I'm excited for them to experience this level of competition."
With her junior year of high school looming on the horizon, this September also marks the time that the college recruiting process officially begins. Swimming collegiately is a major goal for Liberto, but as a long-term goal, her sights are also set on another possible Olympics run in 2020.
"It's more play it by ear. I definitely want to swim in college, that's something I really want to do, but I have to see how well I do in college and see if that's the way to go or if I'm more going to be focused on my career at that time," she said. "Just so I have that (experience) under my belt, because hopefully when I go to college — I'll be going into my junior year — I'll be able to go again. So maybe I might not be as nervous and I know what to expect and maybe get higher up and maybe place better. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm just there for the experience. I'm there to have fun and I really want to get out there and maybe see how other people react to their swims, all the Olympians and stuff, see how well they do and see how it comes out. It's just going to be fun in general. I'm really excited, swimming at that big of a meet is really cool."
"It's funny because all of our friends and family are like, 'Is she going to make it? You never know,'" Tara Liberto added. "Realistically we don't think so, but anything can happen right? But we keep telling everybody, 2020 though, 2020 is possible."