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Lopez reaches pinnacle of career at US Olympic trials

After ‘surreal’ experience, Maui native ready to move on to post-swimming life

Maui native Rylie Lopez smiles in the pool at CHI Health Center Omaha during Wave I of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials earlier this month in Omaha, Neb. The 18-year-old Lopez, who moved to the Mainland with her family in 2016, competed in the 200-meter freestyle and finished 15th in Wave I. Chris Coghill photo

Rylie Lopez left Maui with her family in 2016, but Maui never really left her heart.

Lopez’s stellar swimming career that began as a youngster on the Valley Isle is coming to an end this summer, but she reached a point few do — the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb. — earlier this month.

She started her competitive swim career here for Island Aquatics under coach Shawn Donahue.

“I swam for like six years on Maui and I think I would not be where I am right now without having that time there,” Lopez said via phone from Bellingham, Wash., on Wednesday. “I think Shawn set me up really good for me to be where I am now at a younger level. The whole experience that I had there was really, really good and I think it couldn’t have been better for me.”

Lopez, who moved with her family to Austin, Texas, five years ago, swam a lifetime best of 2 minutes, 1.66 seconds in the 200-meter freestyle in July 2019 to record a qualifying time for the trials.

Rylie Lopez and coach Chris Coghill pose for a photo in front of CHI Health Center Omaha during the U.S. Olympic swimming trials earlier this month. Jenny Lopez photo

“Just for my whole family, we wanted more opportunities,” said Lopez, who was born on Maui and is now 18 years old. “So we felt like leaving (Maui) was just the best option for all of us at the time and it definitely was the right decision.”

At trials earlier this month, Lopez finished 15th in the 200 free in 2:05.02 in the Wave I portion of the trials, which were added to allow for the overflow of swimmers with qualifying times due to COVID-19. Her heat time was 2:04.88, which was 14th and good for a spot in the B final to decide ninth through 16th place.

It was a major accomplishment for a swimmer who can see the end of her career in the near future. Lopez decided to forgo college altogether a while ago and says her swim career will end in a little over a month.

“It was such a cool experience, super surreal actually getting to see it in person and be there,” she said of competing in Omaha. “It was a lot of fun.”

Lopez grew up in Kihei before moving to Texas — she still has family living here, including grandfather Alan Spencer. She moved to Washington three months ago to reunite with her coach in Austin, Chris Coghill.

“It’s really been an amazing journey and I’ve just been honored to have the privilege to be a part of it in the roles that I’ve played throughout Rylie’s time in the sport of swimming,” Coghill said via phone on Wednesday. “Every swimmer has their own unique path and each one is special in its own way. I just know Rylie well, it’s had its ups and downs and she’s learned so much about swimming, but more importantly she’s learned so much about herself and how to interact with the world.

“To be able to do that while continuing to pursue this great athletic achievement and dream of her’s has just been an opportunity that I hope everyone has in their own way some day.”

To reach the Olympic trials is something that few in the sport accomplish.

“A percent of a percent of the participants in the sport of swimming will get to that level,” Coghill said. “There’s something like 400,000-something athletes in the United States and trials is somewhere around 1,000, maybe 1,500 on a big year, participants total.”

Coghill is fairly certain that Lopez may not be done with competitive swimming forever.

“She is both the kind of swimmer and kind of person that I will look to coach swimmers and people to be for the rest of my career,” Coghill said.

When asked if he saw coaching in Lopez’s future, Coghill laughed.

“I’ve told her that now a couple times, ‘When you come back to coaching, just let me know,’ “ he said.

Lopez’s parents are still in Texas, but she relocated seven months after Coghill took a job in Bellingham. She couldn’t have imagined herself at trials without Coghill coaching her.

She qualified for trials as a 16-year-old, but now at 18 she knows her swimming career is very near the end.

“I’m going to retire after this summer,” she said. “I’m not going to college and I just feel that this is the time to stop swimming and progress further in my life, so I’m calling it quits after this summer.”

She will end her career at sectionals in Austin in three weeks and at the International Swim Coaches Association Futures meet in California in August. She had planned to end her career last summer after trials but delayed things due to the pandemic.

“I know I will (miss swimming), but I’m excited to grow up and have a life, see what’s out there for once,” Lopez said. “I just kind of want to work, get a job, work on being able to support myself, move out of my parents’ house and live on my own.”

She loves dogs, so she plans on working in “dog boarding or daycare or grooming, something in that area I’d like to do.”

As far as college, Lopez said, “I’ve kind of always known it wasn’t right for me.”

She knows that she got as far as she wanted to and as far as she could in swimming.

“I’d say it’s a very satisfying ending to my career,” she said.

• Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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