MESA, Ariz. — As a young girl, Breeja Larson always dreamed of going to the Olympics and imagined she would make it there doing the event she enjoyed most — gymnastics.
Then she grew to be 6 feet tall.
Her dad, Kjell, who is 6-foot-4, said he always told her she would be too tall for gymnastics.
“She did not like me for a while,” he admitted. “She thought I was a dream-crusher and did not believe in her. I told her, ‘Look, I will support you in your Olympic dreams, but do something you have a shot at.’”
Breeja Larson went on to participate in volleyball, softball and track throughout high school. It wasn’t until her senior year that she started competing in the sport that would fulfill her Olympic dream.
Now Larson, a sophomore at Texas A&M from Mesa, Ariz., has won first place in the 100-meter women’s breaststroke of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. Larson and world champion Rebecca Soni will represent the United States in London this summer.
Larson participated in noncompetitive swimming events in her youth and showed potential. Others gave her a hard time for not competing, but she hated swimming and wouldn’t do it.
“We encouraged her in whatever she did, but she knew where I stood on swimming,” her dad said. “I said, ‘I think swimming is your best shot.’ She said, ‘Dad, it’s boring. You just swim from one end of the pool to the other.’”
His daughter finally came around to swimming when she realized she needed a scholarship for college. She moved to Arizona to live with extended family her senior year and started to swim seriously for the first time.
Larson was recruited to Texas A&M her freshman year and is now the first Aggie to make the Olympics in an individual event. She said she’s mostly excited for the sake of her coach, Steve Bultman.
“I’m really happy for my coach to finally get the recognition he deserves,” Larson said. “He has had a lot of swimmers who’ve been Olympians for other countries, and now he gets one for the U.S. team and I hope he gets more handshakes for it.”
Larson’s winning time was one minute, 5.92 seconds, just .07 ahead of Soni, who has already won an Olympic medal and hasn’t been beaten in four years.
Larson’s father was at the trials in Omaha, Neb., to watch her race. Kjell said when the race finished, at first he couldn’t tell if his daughter had won, but knew she was in the top two and started screaming. Then the times were posted indicating that she had won first place, and his excitement was renewed.
“I had recruited the whole group around me to cheer for Breeja,” he said of the people sitting by him in the stands. “There were old retired folks, little kids, moms and dads — everyone was screaming and happy.”
Larson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that a few days before the trials she was feeling pain in her knee. To help, her family had a few different wards in her town fast and pray for her.
“After all their sacrifice for this purpose, I got in the pool the day before and didn’t feel a thing,” Larson said. “It was a super testimonial experience for me.”
Right before her big trial race, Larson was feeling nervous and wanted a priesthood blessing. Together they managed to find another swimmer from Brigham Young University whose father was able to join Larson’s father for the blessing that she would be able to remain calm and collected. Larson said it made her feel much better — and the result speaks for itself.
Larson’s grandmother, Joan Davidson, said her granddaughter is not just a champion, but a sweet, compassionate girl.
The Larson family lived in her grandparents’ home while the couple was serving an LDS Church mission in Africa, and Davidson said Larson became well-known among the ward as she regularly visited five different elderly women who lived alone, just to sit and talk with them.
Larson also recently worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool in an Indian reservation and would spend extra time with the kids because, her grandma said, she knew how much it meant to them.
Larson’s mother, Marni Jo, said her daughter’s success has come from her strength, her drive and the influence of her first coach in Arizona, Brad Hering. “He opened her mind to her possibilities,” Marni Jo said. “He taught her to break down the walls of ‘I can’t.’”
Marni Jo said when her daughter first started training she would whine and moan, and the minute she said “I can’t,” Hering would pull her out of the water and make her do push-ups. Eventually, Larson stopped saying it and realized she could do whatever she wanted.
Though Larson has only been swimming for the last three years, her accomplishment has come at no small price.
“Her freshman year she would call me from Texas A&M and say, ‘Mom, I can’t lift my hand up to eat my food,’” Marni Jo said. “The height of training is very hard for her, but the glory at the end of swimming and winning makes it all worth it.”
Larson has to keep a strict schedule. She is careful with her diet and takes good care of her body.
“It’s hard to train in general,” Larson said. “I wake up, eat, swim, sleep, then wake up, eat, swim and sleep again. I stay in on weekends to get enough recovery and rest.”
Larson said this determination came from her first real job at a Subway sandwich shop when she was 16, where the restaurant trainer had a big influence on her.
“She was really hard on me and never let me slack off,” she said. “I worked so hard because I wanted to pay for my braces. I would work as many hours as I could trying to get a raise. I think that is where my work ethic started.”
Her advice to young girls in pursuit of their dreams is to do what makes them happy.
“If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then why are you doing it?” she asked. “You only get one life on this earth. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, go do something else.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company