Olympics 2021 - How Annie Lazor came back and overcame grief for a chance at a gold medal

Annie Lazor qualified for the Olympics by winning the 200-meter breaststroke at U.S. Olympic trials, five years after she missed out on the Games with a seventh-place finish. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Moments before the start of the 200-meter breaststroke final at U.S. Olympic trials, Annie Lazor, competing in Lane 5, shared a look and a nod with 2016 gold medalist Lilly King.

The exchange lasted only a few seconds and was easy to miss. Still, there was a lot of meaning to it, a lot of pain behind that look.

With the race underway, King maintained a clear lead for the first 100 meters as Lazor maintained a spot among the first four. But something magical happened in the last 75 meters.

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It was as if Lazor grew bigger in the water, more expansive. She pummeled with her arms and dominated the last 50 meters with King closely trailing.

Lazor touched the wall and knew she'd made it. She won, with King finishing second.

Side by side. Just like in practice.

Lazor pounced on King, her hand on her mouth, shocked. "You did it," King yelled.

"No, we did it," Lazor responded.

King laughed as she watched from behind -- recalling the incredible two months Lazor has had and proud of the small part she played in helping her training mate get here.

At 26, Lazor became the oldest American swimmer to qualify for her first Olympic team in 17 years. And she did so just two months after enduring a sudden, life-altering loss, one that made her not want to get out of bed, let alone swim at the Olympic trials.

ON APRIL 25, Lazor's father, David, died suddenly at their home in Michigan, reportedly due to COVID-19. He had played a huge role in Lazor's early swim career. His obituary mentioned that at meets, "he was her ardent cheerleader -- win or lose, he always let her know that she is so much more than her athletic accomplishments."

His death left Lazor devastated. She was unable to talk about the loss or bring herself to go to training.

King and Lazor were good friends, but not best friends by any means. When King heard the news, however, she drove five hours north to Lazor's house, not thinking twice about it. She made a promise to herself and to Lazor's mother.

"She was going to do everything it took to put me on the team, and she was going to pull me through practice every day," Lazor told NBC Sports before swim trials.

For the next two months, King kept her promise, showing up to train with Lazor every day while also helping her through the toughest months of her life. More than anything else, she was Lazor's support system, allowing her to grieve.

"She has been there for me in ways I can't even describe -- words kind of fall short, to be quite honest -- she is my family outside my family," Lazor told reporters after her win. "The last few months for me have been far from easy, but she has dragged me through the mud and pushed me every day and distracted me, and before we got up for the 200 breast, she told me she loved me, and let's just do this, and that was all I needed to hear."

Lazor's journey in the last two months is nothing short of miraculous. But, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Her win was nothing short of remarkable, given that Lazor almost wasn't going to be present at the U.S. Olympic swim trials.

AT THE 2016 U.S. Olympic trials, Lazor, then 21, was in her prime and ready to make her mark at the Rio Games. The year before, she walked away with a bronze medal in the 200-meter backstroke race at the Pan American Games in Toronto.

Yet she finished 10th in the 100-meter breaststroke and seventh in the 200-meter breaststroke, not nearly close enough to make the Olympic cut.

"[I] was disappointed in how the last few months of my career went and wished I could have done them differently, but that's just how it played out for me," Lazor at this year's trials. "I was really frustrated and thought I needed that time ... and didn't really think I was going to come back."

Lazor proceeded to finish her communications degree at Auburn and took a job in Cal Berkeley's athletic department. She was around the school's swimmers all the time but never thought twice about her own career.

"She worked at Cal in 2016 and 2017, and she made a big impact on our program," Olympic backstroke sprint champion Ryan Murphy, a fellow Cal grad, said at this year's trials. "She came down every Wednesday, she would have the iPad, film our practice -- really hard worker."

Still, a thought kept nagging her in 2017. What if she woke up 10 years from then and regretted not giving her everything to the sport?

She wasn't able to shake it. And once that thought took control of her, she knew one thing: She needed to know if she had it in her to make the Olympic team.

IN EARLY 2018, Lazor tested the waters in Bloomington, Indiana, for a week, and something clicked. This was where she would train -- and King would be her training partner. King, who at the time was an undergrad at Indiana, welcomed her with open arms.

That spring, Lazor finished third in the 200-meter breaststroke at nationals with a personal best time of 2:24.42, which qualified her for her second Pan American Games.

At the 2018 Short Course World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Lazor won the 200 breaststroke, her first major international victory since her comeback.

Ever since, her long course season took off. At the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru, Lazor dominated the breaststroke events, winning golds in both the 100- and 200-meter, and helping the USA win gold in the 4X100-meter medley.

As with many swimmers, Lazor could not carry on her momentum in 2020 because of the pandemic. At first, she took a break, then trained as much as she could in Indiana.

Lazor will swim her debut race on Wednesday in the third preliminary heat, scheduled for 6:45 a.m. ET. Of the eight swimmers in her heat, she had the fastest entry time.

"I don't [think] I could have ever envisioned this happening when I came back in 2017 and 2018. There were a lot of times where I questioned myself, I doubted myself," Lazor said. "I think even when I got to Indiana in 2018, I don't think putting myself on the Olympic team was a solidified goal of mine. I just wanted to work as hard as I could and see how good I could become."

At training camp in Honolulu just weeks before the Tokyo Olympics, her coaches and teammates noted how her time away from the pool coupled with her experience as an older rookie served her well. At a news conference prior to the Tokyo Games, Katie Ledecky said Lazor seemed calm and composed, as if she has done this many times in her life.

Wednesday's preliminary heat might be her first and last Olympic race, or it could be the start of newfound success in the pool. But Lazor knows one thing: She will leave the sport on her own terms.

"One of my coaches before we started this Olympic cycle, he sat me down and said you've seen the other side of the sport that pretty much no one else you're swimming against has seen before," Lazor said. "You don't have this target on your back that everyone else who has been swimming for years has.

"So, I think I have that perspective of enjoying every moment of the sport that I have. I've missed it before. I've been on the other side and missed it, and I know when I'm done I want to be done."