- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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OMAHA, Neb. -- Since she's arrived in Omaha, 20-year-old Breeja Larson has wanted to say hello. In the lobby of the hotel or the hallway of the arena or on the deck of the warm-up pool, she's seen the stars of swimming and wanted nothing more than to extend her hand, introduce herself and feel like she belongs.
But her coach told her to be a swimmer, not a fan. There would be time for camaraderie later. But little did anyone know that time would come so fast. Lost in the shuffle of another Ryan Lochte/Michael Phelps showdown and the passing of the torch between Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin on Wednesday night was Larson's shocking upset of Rebecca Soni in the 100-meter breaststroke final.
Larson didn't begin competitive swimming until three years ago. It was her first Olympic trials. She was seeded sixth in the event, behind the likes of Soni, world record-holder Jessica Hardy and two-time Olympic silver medalist Amanda Beard. Yet, at the end of the night, she was the one standing on top. When her hand touched the wall and she looked up at the scoreboard, a twisted mix of shock, amazement and genuine delight overcame her. And minutes later, she was thinking about, what else -- finally getting to extend that hand and say hello.
"I see them walking by and I want to introduce myself," she said. "Now I get to meet 'em and I'm really excited."
Larson was the first swimmer from A&M to win at trials and the second Aggie to make the team. She was barely recruited out of Mesa, Arizona, and struggled in her early days in College Station. Yet A&M coach Steve Bultman believed in her.
"It was really hard," Larson said. "I was the slowest kicker. I probably moved backwards a little bit. All of the drills and everything, I was the last one to the wall and everyone had to be patient waiting for Breeja to come in so we could finish."
But that year, as a freshman, she set four A&M records and finished second in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke at NCAAs. After returning home that summer, her world was rocked by a cancer scare. She was at a birthday party at a friend's house when one of her friend's moms noticed a couple lumps on her neck when she swallowed. The next day doctors told her it was likely cancer.
"After that, it got really hard to get out of bed," she said. "Why go and work hard when I might not be able to swim?"
Several biopsies were done, and about a month later, the diagnosis changed -- a voicemail message informed her the lumps were benign.
"I took that opportunity as my second chance," she said. "I only have three more years to have the time of my life with this college team and I wanted to give it everything I had."
Every day, she would write on her hand the time she wanted this year at NCAAs. And then at that meet, she went out and set the American, U.S. Open and NCAA record in the 100 breast with a time of 57.71 seconds.
That performance prompted swimming insiders to start taking notice. And after Wednesday night, the rest of the world is quickly following suit. Perhaps now, Larson doesn't need to worry about introducing herself to any of America's big-name swimmers. Perhaps they should introduce themselves to her.