Emily McClellan missed out on the Olympics by just over a second, but that didn’t stop the UWM standout swimmer. It energized her.
She is capping off her university career as one of the nation’s top swimmers.
The UWM senior from Delavan recorded the third fastest 100-yard breaststroke time in NCAA history this spring.
The next step: A professional swimming career.
McClellan earned double First Team All-American honors for her performances in the Minneapolis pool, where the national tournament took place.
She finished seventh in the nation in the 200-yard event, and second in the 100, touching the wall in 57.76 seconds and breaking school and conference records in doing so.
“I was hoping to go under 58 [seconds] in the 100 breaststroke,” said McClellan. “I went into it with the mentality that I wanted to race and to have the opportunity to race those girls. They are very, very good breaststrokers that I was up against.”
McClellan ended her college career as the Horizon League’s most decorated ever swimmer. Graduating in May, her thoughts now turn to the future. She is visiting the University of Texas Wednesday – one of several schools interested in developing her aquatic abilities – which has a club team as well as a collegiate program.
“I’m trying to see what my options are and what the best would be for me financially and with the location and coaches.”
It is common for professional swimmers to train with university club teams and compete in USA swimming meets. The top six finishers at the national meets then get paid by USA swimming. McClellan plans to break into that elite category.
Her coach of all four years at Milwaukee, Kyle Clements, expects her first pay check to arrive this summer. Before sponsorships and other bonuses, USA swimming salaries typically start at $35-40,000, according to Clements.
He said working with such an exceptional athlete everyday was an enjoyable challenge for the program’s staff.
“We have women like Emily who are some of the best in the world down to walk-ons,” said Clements. “You forget to realize, until you take a step back, that what she just did in practice no-one else in the world can really do, or at least in the United States.”
Two summers ago, McClellan tried out for the 2012 USA Olympic team. She missed out on a plane ticket to London by 1.4 seconds, but the experience was valuable to her progression.
“I’m finally understanding [the sport] on a whole new level that Olympians understand it,” she said. “They know how to race, and I think I’m getting to that point to where I can control my race instead of just swimming it. It becomes a routine rather than just an all-out sprint.”
The next Olympics are the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. Clements said that pulling on a USA swimming cap in Brazil is “not unrealistic” for McClellan.
“All but one of the girls in front of her [at the last tryouts] retired. In theory, she’s the second fastest remaining swimmer. If Emily keeps improving, she’ll give herself a very good chance.”
With “better training and more confidence,” McClellan thinks she can get faster.
But that won’t happen in Milwaukee’s pool, which she may never have dipped her feet into without advice from those close to her when she was a promising high school swimmer.
“I wasn’t sure about college,” said McClellan. “Honestly, I thought it would be too hard. I was like, ‘Mom, I can’t do it.’ But my coach back home told me not to be dumb and that I needed to do this. He said if I didn’t like it I could always stop.”
She didn’t stop; she flourished. Describing herself as “still new to the sport” as a freshman, McClellan didn’t know what the NCAA tournament in her first season – the biggest stage in university athletics.
“I didn’t know how big of an honor it was, because I didn’t know much about college swimming. I just looked at it as three more weeks of training alone and then going to a meet alone.”
But with each year, she became more comfortable. And last week in Minneapolis, she became the second fastest 100-yard breaststroke swimmer on the planet in short-pool form, which differs from the pool lengths at professional and Olympic meets.
“I had a ton of family there and the environment gets more and more fun for me. It’s exciting when you’re standing behind the block before you race and they announce ‘Emily McClellan from Wisconsin-Milwaukee’ and they erupt.”
Her college achievements and impending professional career didn’t feature much on six-year-old McClellan’s mind when she swam for the Delavan Dolphins in her hometown pool. Her aquatic induction came even earlier.
“My mom threw me in the water at six-months-old and watched me float up to the top.”
The top is where she remained. And whichever pool McClellan chooses to swim in next, the decision can’t dampen the delight of breaststrokers across the Horizon League no longer doomed to splash around in her wake.
(Photo credit: By Christopher Mitchell).