Across the country, swimmers are putting in their final laps before this month’s Olympic trials. For many, the dream of making the U.S. swim team has been what gets them out of bed for a predawn practice. But on the men’s side of the pool, the superstars of swimming often leave little room for anyone else.
At a recent swim practice in Nashville, Dakota Hodgson, 20, puts in laps. And speed-walking to keep up, stopwatch in hand, is his gray-haired coach and father, Charlie Hodgson.
Charlie calls out Dakota’s time: “29.24.”
Dakota Hodgson — or Kote, to his father, — makes the butterfly look much easier than the complicated stroke it is — arms swinging in tandem, coordinated with an undulating kick that rolls from his chest to the tips of his toes.
The younger Hodgson left Auburn University’s swim team in 2010 to train fulltime. John Morse, with the Nashville Aquatic Club, says Dakota put in the work and has a shot at going to the London games.
“It can happen, and that’s the beauty of it,” he says.
Over the decades, Morse has sent more than 40 swimmers to Olympic qualifying meets. Most recently, though, the long-shot odds have only gotten longer for his male swimmers.
“You got Ryan Lochte and you got Michael Phelps — and they’re arguably the two best swimmers in the world,” Morse says. “And they’re very versatile; swim all kinds of events. But they take up a large number of slots on that Olympic team.”
Each event has just two openings. And Dakota has put all his eggs in one basket: the 200-meter butterfly.
When asked who else is pretty good at the 200-meter butterfly, Dakota answers, “Michael Phelps, who just happens to be the best swimmer in world history. So, that’s nice. So in the 200 butterfly there is just one spot, essentially.”
Dakota had the privilege of racing the world record holder for the first time earlier this year. In that race, Phelps surged to the front, leaving one commentator to gush, “Michael Phelps has got the perfect butterfly.”
“I’m like, all right, I’m going to just pretend he’s any other person, and try and beat him,” Dakota recalls. He adds with a laugh, “But he beat me.”
Dakota finished a distant third in that race, and he knows the odds are against him, but the Olympics have always been the goal, says his dad, who helped coach the 1984 team.
“This is kind of a dream, or a plan, since he was a child,” Charlie says.
The boy started showing promise at age 9. By that time, Phelps was already breaking records.
“He just had this special ability to really race well, keep his composure,” Charlie says. “And nobody can beat him on the last part of a race.”
“I just get another adrenaline rush,” Dakota says. “I have another gear to go into, and I just — I go for it.”
In the Olympic trials, Dakota is realistically going for No. 2. It will still take the race of his life, and then some. Today, he’s working up to race speed, one length of the pool at a time. Dakota still needs to shave off 4 seconds — in a sport where winners are often by separated by hundredths of a second.
But if it doesn’t happen this year, everyone’s odds are set to double in 2016 — when the giant wake of Michael Phelps is expected to have left the pool.