This past September, freshman Samantha Arsenault gave a golden performance on the world”s biggest stage. From half a world away, her actions cast a light on Michigan swimming for all the world to see. Not only did she win a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle relay, but her opening leg also contributed to a new Olympic record. The mark of 7:57.80 broke the record previously held by the United States” 1996 squad by over two seconds.
“When you look back, the memories just get stronger,” Arsenault said. “But for me the journey was just as emotional and just as important.”
Arsenault began her days in the pool at the local YMCA program at the tender age of eight. She credits the time spent watching her older brother”s meets as the catalyst for her career. This year, Christopher Arsenault has posted the top conference times in five separate events for Massachusetts.
Samantha continued to race and train near her hometown of Peabody, Mass. until she turned 16 and decided to adopt a more intense program.
The new facility was a full hour away from where the Arsenault family lived. She even switched high schools to accommodate her training.
With two practices daily, Arsenault would often spend the night with friends that lived closer to the pool, only returning home a few times per week.
“It was killer on my family and myself,” Arsenault said.
Even after the logistics of balancing home, school, and traveling time had been managed, Arsenault had a tremendous amount of swimming to deal with.
Enter coach Don Lemieux.
Sixty miles away in the town of Gardner, Mass., coach Lemieux, a former Mr. Universe contestant, runs a swimming club that has produced a number of Division I caliber swimmers.
But Arsenault would prove to be his best disciple yet.
Under the cold, dark backdrop of his tiny five-lane, 25-yard “dungeon pool,” Lemieux lit a fire under Samantha.
Lemieux said that truely driven athletes don”t need special facilities.
“The atmosphere of that place, and coach, really helped me find the fun in swimming again,” Arsenault said.
And the long hours of training and technique work paid off for her.
Coach Lemieux “knew I had the talent, but it took awhile for me to believe that I could get to this level,” Arsenault said.
After committing to Michigan in December of 1998, Arsenault decided to defer her education and concentrate on her dream the Olympic Games.
“Her family relationship is so tight,” said Lemieux, who still speaks regularly with Arsenault. “They were so supportive with her traveling, even letting her take a whole year off to train.”
That year passed quickly as Samantha geared her entire training regime around one meet the Olympic trials.
“It was kind of scary, because you put all that work in, and it”s a one-shot deal,” Arsenault said. “But I loved those pressure situations. The pool is all decorated and the officials are in sync. It just makes me feel better in the water.”
Arsenault came in believing that she would win her event, the 200-meter freestyle.
And after the preliminary races, she appeared well on her way seeded first heading into the final.
That night”s excitement, coupled with seeing her friend and fellow New Englander Eric Vendt qualify, kept Arsenault awake into the morning hours.
But when morning came, she was all smiles relaxed and looking to have fun.
“I was calm going into that final race, I had confidence because of how hard I trained,” Arsenault said.
She started out the race in a fury of pure adrenaline, and, consequently, she didn”t have the energy to bring it home.
“I swam it so stupidly,” she said. “I looked up after I touched and saw “third” on the board and I was instantly upset and really disappointed.”
Only the top two would qualify individually for the event.
But, her feelings changed quickly as the reality hit her she was going to the Olympics in the relay.
“They played the anthem and wrapped us in the Olympic flag. It was an amazing feeling,” she said.
When it was all over, Arsenault flew back home to Massachusetts. She had just two days to accept congratulations and pack her things for the adventures ahead.
“There were so many tears, happy and sad, it was such a special time,” Arsenault recalls.
Almost before she could realize what was happening, Arsenault was whisked off to Pasadena, Calif. for a month of training with the U.S. Olympic Team.
Following that month of training and team building in California, Arsenault again boarded a plain this time to Australia and the Olympic Village.
There, she returned to her training in quiet obscurity.
“They did a great job keeping us focused,” Arsenault, said. “We didn”t really realize where we were until it was all over.
“Watching in “96, it was so different because I had to prepare for my race. I was nervous. I was confident. You really need to just live for that moment.”
One notable break from that concentration occurred during the 200-meter freestyle final the event that Arsenault came up short in at the trials.
“I watched, and I couldn”t help being disappointed. I know I could have competed with them,” she said.
But that didn”t keep Arsenault from scoring a personal best in the preliminaries good enough to secure her position as the opening leg for the Olympic final.
The race itself was memorable, but it wasn”t until after she emerged from the water that the real drama began.
“Watching the three other girls finish, it was such a rush. We had always competed against each other but we bonded so well for that race,” Arsenault said.
The race concluded and the numbers flashed up on the board Arsenault and her teammates were Olympic champions.
She was then immediately rushed down for drug testing, but all she could think of was seeing her family. After an all-to-brief meeting with the family came the always-emotional national anthem and press conference.
“It was so much better than I ever could have dreamed,” she said. “The more you look back, the stronger those memories get. And you realize these are some of the best days of your life.”
The college years
At this point, Michigan was a month into its fall semester. Chemistry class and dorm life were calling Arsenault”s name.
After adjusting to living on her own, Arsenault”s first season in the pool for Michigan took an unexpected turn in Hawaii over winter break when she sustained a shoulder injury the first serious injury of her career.
Arsenault now had to refocus and re-evaluate her goals.
“In September, I wanted to swim on the World University team,” Arsenault said. “I wanted to go after an NCAA title, but now my body is telling me “stop.””
Samantha withdrew from the World Championship trials to concentrate on helping Michigan to a Big Ten team title.
After sacrificing personal glory for her team, it was fitting to see Arsenault finishing the final relay and securing the Big Ten championship for the Wolverines.
“I”m so proud of us,” she said. “This tops everything. (It”s) the icing on the cake.”
The world will miss Arsenault this year, but she will return her focus already set on Athens, 2004.