As a teenager, Claire Curzan was one of the top age group swimmers in the United States.

As a high school student in Raleigh, North Carolina, she won four medals at the 2019 World Juniors just two months after turning 15, winning silver in the 100m backstroke. She set multiple national high school records at Cardinal Gibbons High School and currently holds the national high school record in both the 100 yard butterfly and 100 yard backstroke, challenging the American record in both events.

The times she swam in high school were comparable to the times swum by the best college swimmers at the time. Her success in the pool led to her being named the national high school swimmer of the year by Swimming World Magazine in 2022.

Her high school and club swimming success quickly translated to the international scene. In 2021, she finished second in the 100m butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Trials to secure her spot on the Tokyo Olympic team at age 17.

In 2022, she qualified for four individual events at the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, and won five total medals. At the 2022 World Short Course Championships in Melbourne, she again took on a big event load, and walked away from the six-day meet with seven medals.

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With a shortened Olympic cycle, 2023 proved pivotal in the lead-up to the Paris Olympics. Curzan had changed her training base from Raleigh, North Carolina with her club coach Bruce Marchionda to Palo Alto, California to train at the renowned Stanford University with the head Olympic coach Greg Meehan. She won an NCAA title in the 200 backstroke in her freshman season, and she was a favorite to make the World Championships in multiple events that summer.

But 2023 didn’t work out as she might have intended.

A week before the World Championship Trials, Curzan was severely hampered by illness, to the point where she required hospitalization and considered withdrawing from Nationals. Her swims were still worthy of recognition, as she finished third three times, putting up times worthy of being in the top ten in the world in all of those events.

Despite her strength in the face of adversity, Curzan did not qualify to represent the United States team for the 2023 World Championships.

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“In the moment, it was heartbreaking,” Curzan said of missing the Worlds team last year. “I would have loved the opportunity to represent the U.S. Looking back now, I was fated to do that if fate plays a role. I was able to learn a lot about myself as a swimmer. I had not been in the water for a week before that meet so I went in and was like ‘this is a lot of taper, I guess!’

“I was still able to swim pretty fast all things considered and a lot of those races were more painful than they ever had been in the past so everything is gravy from there. Nothing will hurt as bad as that did!

“It let me take time and recognize what I wanted for my year in preparation for the Olympics. Redshirting and being closer to home and having the support of my family was a priority. I turned it into a good thing instead of letting it drag me down.”

Go Back East

After the school year at Stanford finished, Curzan changed training bases to be closer to home on the east coast - joining one of the top training groups in the United States at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a three hour drive north of her hometown in Raleigh.

Under coaches Todd DeSorbo and Blaire Bachman, the University of Virginia has produced World champions Kate Douglass and Alex Walsh as well as Worlds medalist Gretchen Walsh, and the success of the program has attracted the likes of World Juniors champion Leah Hayes to join the team next year.

“I have loved it here,” Curzan said of being in Charlottesville. “I think Todd has a very eccentric way of approaching swimming and I have really enjoyed that so far. I’m kind of homeless in terms of a group I’m designated to.

“I’ll do racks with Gretchen and 100 power in Todd’s group and I’ll actually swim with Blaire to do aerobic red sets which is not my favorite but it’s apparently good for me. Sometimes I’ll train with coach Jake (Shrum), who controls 200 speed sometimes. I like it because I get to train with everyone.

“Kate and I are always together because we are the two girls that aren’t really a part of the college team. It’s been nice having her as a buddy. She is a great training partner. I really like being able to have a different schedule every week and train with a lot of different people.”

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Because Curzan transferred from Stanford to Virginia outside the designated transfer window, she is required to do a “year of residence” where she can take classes at Virginia but is unable to compete for the school for two semesters. This year for her is similar to what an Olympic redshirt would look like where long course is the top priority.

“Part of me was happy about that because last year I knew I wanted to focus on long course,” Curzan said. “I might as well make a go of it. It actually worked out that that rule prevented me from swimming collegiately because I would have redshirted anyways. I did take classes last semester to initiate that year of residence. I’m not taking any classes this semester and then I’ll start my classes in the fall and I’ll finish out my year of residence, and I’ll be able to compete in the next spring (of 2025).”

And Curzan has made the transition seamless. Early in the calendar year 2024, she is ranked third in the world in the 100m butterfly at 57.26, tying her time from the TYR Pro Swim Series in May of 2023.

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Preparing For Any & All Outcomes

With 2024 being the Olympic year, athletes all over the world are getting in their final preparations for the quadrennial showcase. Although the Olympics is viewed by many swimmers as “just another swim meet” as a means to calm nerves, getting up and racing in the environment is a skill learned and mastered over time.

The Paris Olympics will feature a nine-day programme for the first time since the eight-day heats/semi-finals/finals format was implemented in Sydney 2000, and it’s the longest since the 1968 Mexico City Games featured a ten-day swimming programme.

The competition is long. The food in each host country is different. There’s jet lag to account for coming from all around the world. The warm-down pool is a further walk than it would be for a domestic meet. These are all factors that one must adjust to when swimming at a big international meet, something Curzan learned the hard way.

Curzan was breaking out in long course meters during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, meaning she was confined to racing in familiar environments in the state of North Carolina leading into the delayed Olympic Trials. So when she qualified for the Olympics and travelled overseas to Japan to compete in the biggest meet of her life, the unfamiliarity of it all pushed her off her game.

In Tokyo, she finished 10th and out of the final of the 100m butterfly, despite being ranked fifth in the world coming into the meet.

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It was a learning opportunity, and when she took on four individual events the next year at the World Championships in Budapest, she was able to adapt to swimming in another country better, and came home with her first individual medal - a bronze in the 100m backstroke.

This year at the 21st World Aquatics Championships, she will be racing six individual events in Qatar, another country she has never raced in, but her past experience will help her navigate the new city.

“The biggest thing is learning how to adapt,” Curzan said. “I am someone that has a restricted food diet with a lot of food allergies. The first couple of meets I went to I found it hard, because the food in Japan is completely different and the food in Budapest is completely different. The biggest challenge was making sure I was getting the right nutrients for my body to be able to race. I think every big meet is different and has its own challenges.

“At the Olympics, I’ve never had a mixed zone before and that was terrifying. The next Worlds, I never had a schedule that big, but you pick up things as you go and you become a pro at it and it doesn’t faze you anymore. Domestically, I’ve done enough meets where I know how it goes and I’m finally figuring that out internationally. I’m learning to keep it cool even if the bus schedules get messed up or there’s traffic. You just have to roll with the punches and try your best given the circumstances whatever they are.”

Racing is the best training

Curzan will be racing the 50m and 100m butterfly, as well as the 50m, 100m, and 200m backstroke and the 50m freestyle in Doha. It’s a big lineup for her, where a medal is a possibility in nearly all of them.

18 swims in a week is a similar event-load she would take on at an NCAA conference championships where she would swim upwards of 13 events in a three day span. Although a long course World Championships in February is uncommon, getting up and swimming fast in February is not, and that was a draw in accepting the invitation to compete in Doha.

“Todd knows his methods work really well so he sat Kate and I down after Knoxville and said, ‘this is kind of like that time between ACCs and NCAAs where at ACCs we were not rested and swam fast, and now we come back and lock in and rest a little bit for Doha / NCAAs.’

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“I think I am someone that likes to get up and race a lot so the more meets for me the better just to break up the monotony of training. It falls at a perfect time for me. As a sprinter, it’s not like I need to grind yardage - I can have more flexibility with being able to rest a little for Doha and ramp training back up and have a taper for Trials. I think it’s going to be a great flow for me and I am excited it does fall where it is.”

Curzan is using these World Championships as a test run for what she will take on at Olympic Trials this June, with this being her first opportunity to see how she swims rested for coach Todd DeSorbo and see where to adjust in training before this summer.

“Historically, I’ve had a pretty busy schedule at Worlds. I have six individual events, which I think I was close to that number in Budapest,” Curzan said. “It’s great practice for the prelims, semis, finals format we are going to see at Trials. My philosophy is the more times you race, you can only get better from that so I’m learning more about my race plans and perfecting everything. Any time you get to represent the US in that many events is definitely an honor so I think it will be fun.”