By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, February 8, 2019
Taylor Abbott knows he has two chances to make the 2020 Olympic team – but he prefers to lock down a spot this spring rather than wait until next summer.
One of the United States’ (and world’s) top open water competitors, Abbott will get his first – and best – chance at making next summer’s Olympic team at the Open Water National Championships in Miami in May. The event will occur May 3-5 at the famous Miami Marine Stadium, and the competition will take place in Biscayne Bay.
After having finished among the top 3 Americans last summer in the 10k at Pan Pacific Open Water Championships in Tokyo, Abbott – a junior distance freestyler at the University of Tennessee – feels more confident than ever that he can earn a spot on the plane to Tokyo.
And if that doesn’t happen, he still has the pool events at Olympic Trials in Omaha next summer.
But as far as he’s concerned – and because of the depth of U.S. men’s distance swimming – his best shot is in open water.
“It’s great to train in the pool for open water, so I feel like I’m preparing well for both; I just know my best event is in open water,” said Abbott, who placed fifth at Open Water Nationals last year.
“U.S. men’s distance freestyle competition in the pool and open water is deep and fast, but I feel like I have a better opportunity (to make the team) at Open Water Nationals because I enjoy the competition so much.”
Abbott’s introduction to swimming came as a 6-year-old when he started in summer league at the nearby country club in Austin, Texas.
In the beginning, he was afraid to start his events by jumping or diving off the blocks, so he often jumped in from the side of the pool.
Because he also swam backstroke at first, he didn’t need to jump off the block to start his races.
“That whole first summer I wouldn’t jump off the blocks; I guess I was scared,” he said. “Backstroke made it a little easier because I started my races in the water. But as I became more confident in the water, I started to love diving off the blocks.”
Two years later, he began year-round swimming, and it wasn’t long after that when he got his first taste of open water.
He started his distance acclimation by training for the 500 freestyle, and the distances continued to grow to a mile (he still swims the 1500 free at national meets).
One day when he couldn’t get time in his club pool to train, he and his coach went to Lake Travis.
“My coach was a master kayaker, so he tied tennis balls to strings off the back and I followed behind him,” Abbott said. “I loved it so much that I started mixing this into my normal pool training, and I really grew to love open water swimming.”
He did his first open water meet in Houston when he was 15, and despite the rain and cold temperatures, he wanted more. A year later, he did his first Open Water Nationals and he’s been hooked ever since.
What Abbott said he loves most about open water competition versus in-pool meets is the strategy involved.
“Swimming 10k allows for a lot of time to make choices, and the best open water swimmers make more right than wrong choices, so that’s my game plan,” he said. “The games we play in open water – swimming in packs or leading from the start or coming on strong at the end – makes it more fun for me than just going up and down pool lanes.
“I love the unpredictable nature of open water. It constantly keeps you thinking, planning and strategizing next moves because it’s always changing.”
Abbott also loves the NBA – the Oklahoma City Thunder being his favorite team – and as a marketing major at Tennessee, he would love to work for an NBA franchise or any sports team for that matter.
He knows he needs to get an internship between now and graduation in May 2020 – but with his swimming commitments and summer trips, he’s not sure when he might get a chance to do it.
“I may need to wait until the fall after I graduate because I’m hopeful that I’ll be training and preparing for the Olympics that summer,” he said. “But it’s my dream to work in sports in some marketing capacity – and the NBA would be at the top.”
Having had his fair share of interesting, sometimes scary encounters with marine life during his competitions – jellyfish lining the beach waters in Tokyo last summer at Pan Pacs making a dive off the nearby pier the race starting point the most recent – Abbott said he doesn’t fear much in the water and is able to focus on his race strategy.
Unless he learns that sharks are in the vicinity. That’s a race deal-breaker.
“My mom loves to scuba dive with sharks, but I hate sharks and wouldn’t swim anywhere I knew sharks are around,” he said. “I can’t even see sharks on TV. That even makes me tense. No way I could watch the Jaws movies.
With Open Water Nationals in May being the starting point to the Olympics – the top two at Open Water Nationals earn a spot to compete at Open Water Worlds later this year, and the top 10 finishers at Worlds qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo – Abbott knows a strong showing in Miami will determine the next 18 months of his swimming life.
“I’m excited for Open Water Nationals because I know I’ve gained a lot of experience and confidence over the past year or so,” he said. “I know if I don’t make the open water Olympic team, I still have a chance next summer at (pool) Trials, but I am confident that I can do what I need to in Miami and Worlds this year.
“Regardless, I’m excited to swim on the World Cup circuit after I graduate and live the life of a professional. From there, I’ll decide if I want to keep swimming for 2024. For now, I’ll take it year by year and decide as I go. Four years is a long time.”