Jun. 9—The most common route from Baylor School to Auburn University involves Interstate 75 and Interstate 85.
Ellie Waldrep is making her transition to college by way of Nebraska.
Waldrep is leaving Friday along with Baylor swim coach Dan Flack for the Olympic Trials in Omaha. The Auburn signee is scheduled to compete in next Monday's 100-meter backstroke preliminary heats, as well as next Friday's heats in the 200-meter backstroke, but she has already left an impression on Baylor's proud program that Flack won't forget any time soon.
"Ellie has done it the right way," Flack said this week. "She came through the system and never pushed too much at certain times. I joke that I could have made her a lot faster as a little kid, but would that help her now? She's the fastest backstroker in the country this year for a high-school kid. She has really matured and will be a great leader in these next couple of years relative to college swimming, because she gets it.
"She's been to enough big meets, and her legacy here is second to none."
Waldrep's legacy includes program records in three — backstroke, butterfly and the individual medley — of swimming's five primary events. Only freestyle and breaststroke standards were elusive during her seven years at Baylor, and she is quick to laugh about never being in the hunt for the breaststroke prize, calling it "my reaching for Jesus race."
Qualifying for the Olympic Trials in swimming not only takes talent but countless hours of commitment, which Waldrep has consistently produced.
"During the school year, I swim from 6 to 7:30 every morning," Waldrep said. "Then I go to school from like 8:40 to 3:30, and I usually find an hour when I can lift during the school day. Then I come back and swim from 3:45 to 6:15. The rough numbers are like five hours a day."
Before turning 16 and earning her license, Waldrep relied on parents Larry and Melissa for transportation, with Melissa handling most of those rise-and-shine rides.
"She was a trooper," Waldrep said with a smile.
HOW IT BEGAN
Though Melissa was a swimmer, she never forced the sport on her daughter.
"I was set on being a softball player," Waldrep said. "I refused to swim for the longest time, but I started swimming for Ooltewah (in the Chattanooga Area Swim League) when I was 8 and loved it. I mean, I really got into it as soon as I started. Regardless of whether I was good, I was just interested in it."
Waldrep got good in a hurry, qualifying for Junior National meets as an eighth-grader. She made the CASL transition from Ooltewah to Stuart Heights as a 12-year-old, but her roots throughout the year had been planted at Baylor.
Backstroke came naturally to her the quickest, which was followed by a mastering of butterfly and the IM.
"The great thing about being here is that you can take it as far as you want to go," Flack said. "I tell the kids that all the time, and they eventually buy into the dream or they don't. If you do buy into the dream here, it's real."
Waldrep witnessed that while practicing with the Baylor Swim Club before her days as a Baylor sixth-grader. She grew up admiring Kristen Vredeveld, who earned a scholarship to the University of California and competed at the 2012 Olympic Trials in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle events.
"She was like a big sister to me," Waldrep said. "Baylor does such a great job of connecting the ages. We swim in the afternoons right after school, and by the time we're out, the little kids are coming in. From a young age, you get to see the older kids, and it's crazy to think that I'm in that position now.
"For better or for worse, I'm just super excited to represent Baylor on such a large stage."
Amazingly, there has been at least one Baylor School swimming alum to compete in every Olympic Trials since 2000, with Waldrep joining Vredeveld and the likes of Ryan Bishop, Stephanie Napier and Sam McHugh. Trey Freeman, a Baylor graduate who is now a fifth-year senior at the University of Florida, qualified in the 100, 200 and 400 free events this time around after qualifying for three free races during the 2016 Trials as well.
'BETTER IS GOOD'
Waldrep's chances are stronger in the 100 back compared to the 200, but she is a longshot at best when it comes to earning one of the two coveted positions to the Tokyo Games later this summer.
Last month at the Mizuno Atlanta Classic Swim Meet at Georgia Tech, Waldrep was clocked at 1:01.04 in the 100. The world record in the event is 57.57 seconds, and there will be a lot of folks in Omaha who touch in less than a minute.
"The women's 100 backstroke for the United States is the most loaded event I've seen, and I've been doing this a long time," Flack said. "The last time I looked, she was like 36th in the world, and it's all USA in front of her. What we're looking for is progress, so I'm not putting any pressure on her as far as finishing in this place or that place.
"I just want her to get better, because better is good."
Waldrep's greatest strength in the 100 back is off the start and the turn, where she spends 15 meters of each 50-meter lap under water.
"I believe I have a second in me that I can take off, but that's a good amount," she said. "The older you get, the more consistent your times get, so sometimes dropping 0.1 seconds is huge."
Once the Olympic Trials are over, Waldrep has a busy summer that includes Auburn orientation, a vacation to Arkansas and working with the 8-unders at Stuart Heights in an effort to give back the joy she experienced. Waldrep's younger brother, Luke, is an emerging standout as a rising Baylor ninth-grader, but there will be quiet times she seeks out before her college career begins in roughly two months.
"I think COVID has taught everybody to appreciate the down time," she said. "Before, it was like you had to go all the time, and typically I would swim until August and then turn around and start school."
It's that kind of reasoning that supports why Flack has no worries about Waldrep once that flight back from Nebraska lands.
"This is not the end point," Flack said. "It's a part of her journey, and I always try to tell the kids that the best thing you can do for yourself is to arrive on your college campus in the best shape of your life. That way, you can impact your new team from day one. A lot of kids whiff on that. A lot of kids arrive, and they are behind.
"Everything is going to be new — new classes, new roommates, new dorms, new directions to class. Everything else is already new, so if you know that you're rock solid in swimming, you can set a tone for your team. Like I said before — Ellie will be a great leader. She gets it."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.