Lazor digs down to swim for her dad

Annie Lazor is the reason we love the Olympics, the reason we root for fellow Americans who represent the best of us by becoming one of the best in the world.

We do not know all of the names and faces of U.S. Olympians before the Games begin unless we have been up close and personal with them or their fame is so great they have appeared on a Wheaties box.

By the time the Tokyo Summer Games conclude in August, whether she emerges as a golden girl, a medalist or only someone who gave her best in the pool, Lazor’s story will be known.

Lazor has come to this crossroads moment in her life the hard way. Her journey, at 26, has required dodging potholes, making daring decisions, heartbreak and vindication.

Many, in different corners of the United States, will claim kinship if Lazor claims the ultimate prize, Detroit, where she hails from, Auburn, Alabama, where she swam collegiately, and Indiana, where she traveled to start all over again.

Lazor is affiliated with the Indiana University Swim Club, an elite group training and competing under coach Ray Looze who ask him to coax another couple of seconds, or even tenths of seconds, from their stroke.

Just maybe, they hoped, before entering the everyday work world, all those years of chlorine overdose will gain them a spot on the American Olympic team.

U.S. swimming is the deepest program in the world. It has been so good so long the squad is permitted to enter no more than two individuals in any event. It is not even possible to sweep gold, silver and bronze.

Lazor did not make the cut in 2016 and retired. But she still had the itch. So after a year off, she moved to Bloomington.

“I thought, ‘The best breaststrokers in the world train here,’” Lazor said in a recent interview.

And now, she is one of them. The Tokyo Games were postponed a year, and for a time in the spring of 2020, IU swimmers scrambled for water. Their tour of southern Indiana paused at ponds that might have had snakes and to a much friendlier Shields Park Pool in Seymour.

Lazor and the others, including pal and fellow champion breaststroker Lilly King, kept a laser focus. It was all about preparing and peaking and being the top two in Omaha in mid-June when the American team was selected.

Seymour’s was long-course, a 50-meter pool, but it was better than a bathtub, a swamp or being in dry dock like a parked boat.

“It definitely humbles you, for sure,” Lazor said while in Seymour.

Gradually, the world seemed to rotate on its axis somewhat back to normal and the Indiana gang counted down.

King won two Olympic gold medals in 2016 and even got a tattoo to commemorate the occasion. Lazor and King were heated rivals and close friends, a difficult trick work as they ruthlessly swam their fastest workouts.

In races, they are always going for 1-2. Naturally, they each want to win, but even more so, King said, “We don’t want anyone else to beat the other. We just want the one.”

Lazor’s decision was paying dividends. Then came April 25 when no amount of concentration could fend off her emotions. Father David Lazor, 61, died from the coronavirus. Dad was Annie’s all-time supporter, the main nurturer of her passion for the sport and the one, who when she was a kid, drove her around the most to meets.

King is naturally cocky and outgoing, also a two-time world champion, yet she has formed a sisterhood bond with Lazor, who might be the person with the best chance of beating her in Tokyo.

When David Lazor died, King drove five hours to the visitation. Knowing how hard Annie worked for so long, she absolutely refused to let her fade in the home stretch. Lazor said King told her, “I’m going to pull you through this, like, ‘I’m going to drag you through the mud if I have to…I’m going to help you every day.’” At the visitation, King made the same pledge to Stacey Lazor, Annie’s mother.

King won the 100-meter breaststroke in Nebraska, but Lazor finished third, .32 shy of qualifying. After everything, Lazor was down to one last highly pressurized chance.

“It’s a big bummer,” Lazor said. “I had the swim of my life and ended up being third.”

There was some anger and disappointment, she said.

Lazor and King were next to one another on the starting blocks for the 200-meter breaststroke and King mouthed to Lazor, “I love you. We’ve got this.”

In fairytale fashion, they did. Lazor won the race, edging King by .68. They went 1-2 and together will represent the United States in that event together.

All of the IU swimmers rejoiced in Lazor’s achievement.

“Everyone in our program wanted Annie to make that team,” Looze said.

Lazor has grieved publicly. She is in the limelight, an Olympic athlete. She was rocked by her father’s passing, sheds tears over his absence, but they didn’t call off the trials for her and they won’t delay the Olympics for her.

She perseveres. What she has done to adapt, hoping to be a symbol for others who don’t have such a broad forum to talk about their sudden loss of a loved one.

“I hope it is an inspirational story,” Lazor said. “I hope it touches someone else.”

Maybe the story is not finished. Maybe Annie Lazor will win an Olympic medal and be able to tell millions of others what her dad meant to her.