From Utah to Tuscaloosa to Tokyo: How Alabama swimmer Rhyan White became an Olympian

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

The call couldn’t wait until swimming coach Ron Lockwood reached home. He had to make it in the car. 

Lockwood, of Wasatch Front Fish Market competitive swim team, needed to know what to do with Rhyan White.

White had just completed a stunning performance where she blew past the competition in Murray, Utah. Another coach, Allen Jones, turned to Lockwood and said they might have just captured lightning in a bottle from the young teenager.

What now? Lockwood knew he needed to call Todd Schmitz, known for his time having coached five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin.

“I said, ‘Todd, man, I think we’ve got something special going on here, and I need help. I don’t want to screw this up,’ ” Lockwood said.

Don’t be afraid to challenge her, Schmitz said. But also, be patient.

Nearly a decade later, White is in Tokyo, set to compete for Team USA in the women’s 100 and 200-meter backstroke. White has continued to ascend step by step, starting from that performance in Utah to becoming one of the best swimmers in the SEC at Alabama and now, the world.

“I’m trying to make the most memories as possible and go into each of my races focusing on trying to stay in the moment,” White told The Tuscaloosa News from Tokyo. “Not expecting anything. In my opinion, if I add expectations, it adds a little pressure. I am trying not to do that and just be in the moment.”

USA SOFTBALL:How Olympian Haylie McCleney went from fiery freshman to leader for Alabama softball, Team USA

SHALLON OLSEN:How Shallon Olsen juggled Alabama gymnastics while preparing for her second Olympics

The Olympic dream started at 10

It's a moment for which she’s been waiting since she was 10. The second youngest of six children, she first learned to swim in her family’s inground pool. Then she joined rec league by the time she was 6. But she truly fell in love with swimming around the time she set a Utah state record at age 10. That’s also when the Olympic dream began. Her parents, Jeff and Jenny White, recalled her telling people that swimming in the Olympics was how she wanted to represent her country.

By the time she reached high school, she was all in. Some days, her mom said, she would leave at 5 a.m. and not return until 8:30 p.m.

“She’d come home and her dinner would be in the microwave,” Jenny White said.

Although swimming was the main reason for that, White also snuck in time for cheerleading. White wanted to try something a little different, and her older sister was always talking about how much fun it was. 

Cheer forced White to miss a few swim practices, but it helped her make non-swimming friends. She had to manage her time well, though, to keep chasing her Olympic dreams. She qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2016. She’d get out of the pool some mornings five minutes before she needed to be at cheer practice.

She’d put her hair in a bun and join the others with wet hair.

Although it allowed less time to focus on swimming, cheer and some experience with gymnastics may have actually had long-term benefits, if you ask Alabama interim head coach Ozzie Quevedo. 

“She is very flexible,” Quevedo said. “Her ankle flexibility is something I have hardly ever came across anyone. That would explain why she hyperextends a little bit in her joints and her knees and her elbows. She has a very special feel for the water.”

Lightning in a bottle 

Quevedo, once an Olympic swimmer for Venezuela, joined Alabama at the end of White’s freshman year in 2019 as associate head coach. He thought she had potential but, at the time, he didn’t see a swimmer who really caught anybody’s eyes.

White described her freshman year as rocky, yet she still earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team and competed in the 100 and 200 backstroke at the NCAA championships. Still, she had a ways to go to become an Olympian.

Lockwood developed White into a collegiate athlete. Now, she needed Quevedo to turn her into an Olympian.

The most significant transformation may have come outside the pool. The new staff, of which Quevedo was part, put more focus on dryland training. She also began paying more attention to the food she ate, taking advantage of resources she had, such as a nutritionist and dietician. 

With more strength training, cardio and healthier eating, White became more fit and set herself up for more success in the pool. 

“Outside of getting me stronger, I definitely think it’s built a little confidence,” White said.

Confidence that fueled success. She was named the SEC Swimmer of the Year in February and earned silver medals at the NCAA championships in the 100 and 200 backstroke.

Then, at the U.S. Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, she won the 200 back in a personal best of 2 minutes, 5.73 seconds, beating world-record holder Regan Smith. Smith added a second in the 100 back.

Lockwood couldn't be there. He was coaching in Utah, at the same exact meet when White got her first Olympic trial cut years ago. He  asked the meet director to pause the event for five minutes. It was time for the 200. 

The meet stopped, and about 100 swimmers stared at the live stream of the race on their phones. When White won, Lockwood turned to Jones and gave him a colossal hug. Both had tears in their eyes.

That lightning in a bottle had finally struck.