As a 6-year-old, Cal’s Liv Jensen found the 1996 Atlanta Olympics captivating. As she watched the races in the pool, she told her mother that swimming lessons would no longer suffice.
“I told my mom, ‘I don’t want to do lessons anymore — I want to race,” Jensen said, adding: “I’ve just always been competitive. It wasn’t like I had this grand vision of how my life would unfold.”
But now the Palo Alto native will get a shot to qualify for the London Olympics when she competes in the women’s 200-meter individual medley and 100- and 50-meter freestyle and races this week (prelims Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb.
Despite her early attraction to competitive swimming, Jensen (her name is pronounced Leaf Yen-sen) wasn’t an overly talented racer growing up. In youth swimming, she didn’t compete at the national meets or even make an all-star team.
“She did have some success along the way, but she was always a half-a-step behind,” said coach Tony Batis, who trained Jensen at Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics.
But she was always the first swimmer on the pool deck for practice at 5 a.m., the first person in the water for warmups; the kid who helped the coaches set things up while her teammates straggled in.
“While other people were making some of these all-star teams, she kept plugging away,” Batis said. “By her senior year, she was the fastest high school sprinter in the country.”
The big breakout came at junior nationals in April 2008, when Jensen grabbed first place in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races.
Her ascent continued at Cal as she won NCAA titles as part of the 800- and 400-yard freestyle relays as a freshman. She was also named Pac-10 Conference Newcomer of the Year.
As a sophomore, Jensen brought home her first individual NCAA title in the 50 free, and a year later, she won three more relay titles while finishing as the national runner-up in her signature race. Jensen recaptured her title in the 50 free in March, setting a school record in the process. She also won an eighth NCAA title in the 200-yard medley relay.
As the awards piled up, Jensen’s confidence exploded and she became a vocal leader on the deck.
“She went from being a 6-foot-2 girl, who wanted to be 5-foot-8, to being a 6-foot-2 girl that wants to be 6-foot-5,” Cal associate coach Kristen Cunnane said.
Despite her success, Jensen is rarely considered a favorite on swimming blogs and Cunnane said she thrives off of that doubt.
“It doesn’t make her scared, it inspires her to prove them wrong,” she said.
That mindset could prove useful in Omaha this week, as Jensen is one of a handful of contenders in the wide-open women’s 50 freestyle.
“I plan on being in the mix and I plan on being dangerous,” Jensen said. “I know I haven’t achieved the level of success that some of these athletes have yet, but if I start thinking about that I’ve already set myself back.”
U.S. Olympic trials
WHEN: Today through July 2
WHERE: CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
JENSEN’S RACES: 200-meter individual medley, 50 and 100 freestyle
TV: NBC and NBC Sports Network