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Gabrielle Rose, 46, advances to the 100 breast semifinals at U.S. Trials

INDIANAPOLIS – For seven of the eight swimmers in Heat 7 of the preliminaries of the women’s 100-meter breaststroke Sunday morning at the U.S. Olympic Trials, the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta exist as a kind of age-old, gritty highlight reel, some of which occasionally clips are played at the US Olympics. giant video screen suspended above the Lucas Oil Stadium pool. None of those seven were born in 1996. That was still in their parents’ time.

But for the swimmer in lane 5, the one who hit the wall first in a personal best of 1 minute, 8.43 seconds to reach Sunday night’s semifinals, Atlanta 1996 is a real, living memory. The swimmer in lane 5, Gabrielle Rose, swam at those Olympics as an 18-year-old, all the way back – could that really be the case? – 28 years ago.

The math seems impossible, but it’s 100 percent true: Rose is 46 years old, which is seven years older than any other of the 1,007 swimmers who qualified for these Olympic trials (and 33 years older than the youngest competitor here). On Sunday, she was about 20 years older than the next oldest swimmer in her heat and almost 30 years older than the youngest.

“I feel so lucky to feel so young and so strong and have this experience,” said Rose, whose 9-year-old daughter Annie was in the stands. “I don’t really care for ‘eldest’.”

A crowd of 17,697 people – believed to be a record for a preliminary session at a swimming meet – took note of Rose after the announcer announced her age and noted that she was the oldest swimmer in the meet. And the low murmur rose to a crescendo as she headed for the final wall first. When she hit the ball first, more than half a second ahead of the number two, it became a loud roar. Rose hung on the wall for more than a few seconds, her glasses hiding the tears welling up behind them.

“Just relief,” she said when asked what was going through her mind in those moments. “I just wanted to do the swimming I thought I could do.”

As she walked across the pool deck to the athletes’ tunnel, the crowd – full of swim moms and swim dads from Rose’s generation – sustained her applause, with many standing up in appreciation. Rose held her left hand over her heart as she walked, as if she were struggling to keep it in her chest.

“I didn’t expect how loud and amazing it was,” she said.

By the time the final three heats were over, it was official: Rose had earned a spot in Sunday night’s semifinals, seeded 11th of 16. She has no fantasies about this ‘journey’, as she calls it, and goes beyond that. race – the top eight will advance to Monday night’s finals, with the top two of those earning spots on the Team USA squad heading to Paris – but wherever she finishes, she’ll have already accomplished what she came here to do.

“There are no expectations. I’m not going to make the team. But I just wanted to swim,” she said. In addition, it was her mission to prove something to others of her generation. “I just hope I can show people that you can do more. Most of all, I want women to know that they can have much more in the older chapters of their lives.”

The story of Rose’s swimming career soars and craters and twists and eventually returns to itself. The dual national daughter of a Brazilian mother and an American father, she grew up in Memphis as a breaststroke phenomenon and set an American age record at the age of twelve. But as she told the story, somewhere along the way she “lost” the feel for her stroke and eventually turned into a freestyler and an individual medley swimmer.

She swam at Stanford and competed for Brazil in Atlanta in 1996, and then for Team USA in Sydney in 2000, with a best finish of seventh in the 200 IM in Sydney. Her last crack at the highest level came at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials, where she failed to make it to the third Olympics. She spent most of the next twenty years in what she called “real life”: raising a daughter, taking a job as a club-level swimming coach in Southern California, and working on drowning prevention advocacy through a foundation which was founded by her father.

She continued to compete as a masters swimmer – she holds 14 national records in the 35 to 39 and 45 to 49 age categories – and a few years ago she began to feel her breaststroke, the most temperamental of all swims, getting back into shape. Her times continued to drop until finally, in November, she fell under the Olympic trials. She was on her way to Indy.

That’s how she found herself in an NFL stadium on Sunday, absorbing the energy of nearly 18,000, mostly strangers, and struggling to keep it together. In a few days she will return to ‘real life’, mother, coach and advocate again. But first there’s another dive on Sunday evening and – who knows? – perhaps a third, should she sneak into the final on Monday.

“This is a bit like going back to that little girl who was disappointed and wondered what happened to her breaststroke,” she said. “I found it. It took a few decades, but I found it.”