For much of next week, Madisyn Cox will be under water at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, the site of the 2016 Olympic swimming trials.
But she’d prefer to be under the radar, too.
It’s not that the Texas junior fears the pressure of the biggest stage this side of Rio de Janeiro. Or that she lacks confidence. She actually has thrived on pressure since taking up the sport at age 4, but she loves being the underdog.
It’s just that she seems to perform better that way.
“When she swims best,” said Carol Capitani, her coach at Texas, “she’s chasing people.”
Cox will be chasing a whole bunch of people at Omaha. Her times in the 200 and 400 individual medleys aren’t the tops, but she’s used to finishing on top.
She has long before she arrived on the Austin campus out of Lubbock as the prized pupil of long-time Lubbock Swim Club coach Trey Hayes and a two-time state champion, the first when she was a sophomore. They still speak weekly.
“She doesn’t like losing,” Hayes said. “She uses it as motivation. If she and I were trying to decide who could eat their ice cream the fastest, she wouldn’t want to lose that. She doesn’t like losing at all.”
Hayes remembers seeing that fire most clearly when Cox was competing in an Olympic Trials cut meet in 2011 at Stanford — the school she strongly considered before Capitani’s sales pitch and warm personality lured her to Austin — and was swimming, well, horribly.
“We were big fish in the pond in Texas,” Hayes said. “But we were going up against girls we had been reading about. We entered a whole bunch of really difficult events, and everything was going wrong. She was frustrated.”
Hayes searched through his bag of motivational tricks to snap Cox out of her pity party. Finally, he asked her before the 200 individual medley finals if she was going to “just lay up.”
A stunned Cox asked what that meant. Hayes explained the golf term and wondered if she was just going to coast through the last event and not go for it.
She then swam the event of her life and trimmed more than three seconds off her previous best. Although she finished fourth in a star-studded field, she had proven herself.
“That’s how mad she was,” Hayes said. “That’s my favorite race. That was the ah-ha moment.”
Cox has had plenty of those since. She’s won a silver in the World Games. A two-time All-American in the 200 IM, she will swim four events at the Trials, starting Sunday with the 400 IM. The top two in each event make the team. Hayes said Cox is “much better at climbing the mountain than being on top of the mountain” and praises Capitani’s coaching to push Cox there.
“She’s just so real,” Cox said. “She just has something that draws people to her.”
Same as Cox, the All-American girl both in and out of the pool. She was the salutatorian of her Lubbock High graduating class with a 4.89 GPA. She’ll read books like her favorite, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Nicholas Sparks novels. When she’s not running or doing yoga, she’s probably binge-watching “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Oh, and her career plans? She wants to be a neurosurgeon.
No wonder Capitani calls her “a diamond in the rough.”
The 2015 Big 12 swimmer of the year won’t be favored to make the U.S. national team. Her best time in the 200 IM ranks her fifth in the nation, but that won’t stop her from giving her all in what will be her second Trials experience.
She competed in her first in 2012, but she was overwhelmed by the pressure and the company of older, more accomplished swimmers. Of course, she was only 15.
“I got experience, but I didn’t perform well,” she said. “Did I finish last? Oh gosh, no. But I may have been closer to last than I was to first.”
For the record, she came in 66th in the 200 IM, one of her favorite events because it offers so much variety of strokes.
As she put it, “if you’re not feeling good in the backstroke, you’ve still got the breaststroke. And so on. I love how diverse it is.”
Kind of like Cox herself. She hates it when strangers define her only as a swimmer.
“I get to the pool, I’m 100-percent focused,” Cox said. “But I have a lot of interests.”
For next week, though, it’ll be all swimming. Only a fool would count her out. Hayes doesn’t.
“I mean, I’ve seen the girl have a broken foot, stand on one leg on the block and dive in and go her best time. That’s the kind of person she is,” Hayes said. “I believe she is in the (Olympic) conversation. If everything falls right, she can be on the team. I tell you one thing, she’s not going to lay up.”