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Not saddled by pressure

Citizen Staff Writer



All competing swimmers look alike – slender, goggles, cap – but Lara Jackson is different.

She sports a tattoo on each shoulder and a silver ring in her lower lip, and, away from the pool, she rides a horse to relieve stress.

What really makes the University of Arizona senior stand out, however, is her stealth-like speed when she dives in the pool.

“Her start is insane,” says her teammate and best friend, Taylor Baughman. “She just flies off the blocks.”

Last week at the Pacific-10 Conference Championships, Jackson came within a nanosecond of topping her American record set in December (21.33 seconds) in winning the 50-yard freestyle and resetting a Pac-10 mark.

Makes a mom proud.

“She’s just tapering,” says Tina Jackson, who runs a Lara Jackson Web site with appropriate blogs.

Tina will tell you her daughter has a wild side – something has to spark that motor – but she’s never seen a swimmer so grounded.

“This is a girl who happens to be a swimmer, not a swimmer who is my daughter,” insists Tina.

And she’s a swimmer who happens to have a strong chance to make the U.S. team for the 2012 Olympics in London, although the El Paso, Texas, native won’t get ahead of herself.

First, Jackson will concentrate on helping UA defend its NCAA title March 19-21 in College Station, Texas, after the Wildcats finished second at the Pac-10 meet. She also will swim at the World Championships in Rome in late July in four 50-meter events.

Then it’s down to work – training mostly here, competing everywhere, and going for that Olympic berth the 22-year-old so painfully missed last summer.

But if you check the Dodge Boulevard-River Road pasture area at the oddest times, you might also see a young woman riding with the wind.

“My mental break,” she says.

Her horse, Calypso, a 9-year-old mare, is one of the pretty powerful factors in her life. A UA major in animal science and equine industries, she dreams of owning her own ranch one day.

But, about that Olympic glory: She’s not denying it will happen, driven as she has become.

“I believe in karma,” she says in philosopher mode. “Everything happens for a reason. Spiritual.”

Few, even the 5-foot-8 Jackson, saw much of a reason at first for her jumping in a swimming pool, much less competing for coach Frank Busch’s crack UA swim program.

“She’s still catching up,” says assistant UA coach Rick DeMont, commenting on her torturous, what-am-I-doing-here frosh season when, as a part-time swimmer, she joined the UA team as a walk-on.

“An untouched gem,” says Baughman, who has seen and shared every tear and every triumph with Jackson.

In El Paso, Jackson was not one of those little tykes who take on the existence of guppies from early age.

Instead, her mom says she was a stable rat. National Velvet was real.

“My sister (Carly Rose) was in a swim league and she got in because there was a cute boy there,” says Lara. “I had to go with her and watch before the coach – Melissa Romelli – asked, ‘Why don’t you just join?’ So I did. I was just a silly 10-year-old doing what silly 10-year-old girls do.”

Not too long after some significant youth records and time for college, she bribed her parents into buying Calypso, then on lease.

“She spent the first year (at UA) miserable without Calypso,” says Tina. “Then, when we managed to transport her out (to Tucson), Lara broke a school record. If we had known it would have had that effect . . .”

Busch admits “the first year almost killed” Jackson when she joined UA’s 200 individual medley relay team at the NCAA Championships.

Assistant coach Greg Rodenbaugh tried to take some of the pressure off her.

“God bless him for taking me under his wing,” says Lara. “He would say, ‘Lara, why don’t you just sit this one out? I guess he saw my potential.”

The heart of an overachiever responds to adverse circumstances, large or small.

Part of Jackson’s drive toward London in 2012 comes from her near-miss at the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer, when she beat eventual Beijing silver medalist Dara Torres in the preliminaries, setting an American record in the 50 free.

But she was nosed out for the team in the finals by former Pac-10 foe Jessica Hardy of California, who placed second over Jackson.

Hardy was disqualified for using a banned substance, but the lobbying to replace her with Jackson was ignored by officials.

“Too late to go through the paperwork,” says teammate Baughman.

“Lara didn’t talk much about it, but she’s all about going forward anyway. She has the third-place medals (from the Trials) framed on her desk with the word ‘motivation’ on it.”

Jackson is an analyzer, says Baughman, “down to the nitty gritty.”

“Everything she must do in a workout, every turn, and she knows what’s going on with her body as an athlete,” Baughman says. “She has this way of dealing with pressure.”

In other words, motivation doesn’t mean swimming with a vengeance.

“That sounds kind of negative,” Jackson says. “It gives the credit of negative energy to someone else.”

The positive energy flows from Calypso.

“At first when we leased her, it was a challenge,” Jackson says. “She didn’t have any manners and I’ve never had any formal riding lessons.

“It hurts a little on a day I don’t see her. Sometimes, with all the things going on my senior year, I have to be a bad mommy, but when I see her and can ride, she’s my freedom.”


Age, class: 22, senior

Hometown: El Paso, Texas

Highlights: Owns U.S. record in 50-yard freestyle (21.33 seconds); won 50 free at the 2008 NCAA Championships and helped UA capture team title with first places in the 200 and 400 free relays and 200 medley relay.

High school: Three-time state champ, El Paso Chapin.

UA major: Animal science (owns a horse)

Favorite music: Tom Petty, Sublime, Megadeth

Favorite movies: “Pulp Fiction,” “Starsky & Hutch”

Next up: NCAA Championships, March 19-21, Texas A&M

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