As a history major and elite swimmer at the University of Michigan, Roman Willets knows how much it means to compete in the same meet as Olympic great Michael Phelps.
Willets, a St. Francis de Sales graduate, is among 11 swimmers with ties to northwest Ohio that have qualified to compete next week in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Willets, a native of Whitehouse who is a junior at Michigan, will be going up against Phelps in the 100 and 200-meter freestyle.
"It's a humbling and exciting experience," Willets said. "The U.S. trials is the fastest meet in the world. Getting a chance to be in that atmosphere on the biggest stage is staggering. I'll be able to look back and know I got to compete with a guy with that clout."
Willets is among four former St. Francis swimmers who have qualified to compete in the trials, which begin next Monday and run through July 2 in Omaha.
The meet determines which swimmers will represent the U.S. in the London games next month.
Eight swimmers, including four women from the University of Toledo, will represent the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club. Three swimmers from Bowling Green State University also have qualified.
Willets, Mike DiSalle, and Rowan Williams all won state championships at St. Francis and have gone on to successful collegiate careers in the Big Ten. The trio has posted qualifying times to compete at the trials along with St. Francis senior D.J. MacDonald, who at 17 is one of the youngest athletes.
Willets, who won a state title in the 200 free in 2009, earned All-Big Ten second team honors this season. His time of 50.66 seconds in the 100 free is currently the 62nd-best time out of 176 competitors. Phelps, who has won 16 medals and captured an American-record eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, has the second-fastest time (48.08).
"I started this when I was 8, so I've been at it for a while," Willets said. "We've worked so hard for this. I sometimes get a little anxious about the meet. But I just want to have a good experience and enjoy the meet and the process."
Williams, who is a freshman at Ohio State, has qualified in the 200 backstroke. In 2011, Williams won a state title in the 500 free. He has the 39th-best time in the 200 back (2:03.04).
"It really is a dream come true," Williams said. "It's been a goal of mine for a really long time. To be able to reach it is something else. It makes waking up every day at 5 in the morning every day and training so hard worth it. It's great to be able to race with the big names in the sport and to be accepted at a meet of this stature."
Tony Kurth, who is the head coach of GTAC, said the club has had swimmers compete in every Olympic trials since 1972. But the eight swimmers who have qualified this year set a new record for the club based at the natatorium at St. Francis in West Toledo.
"Other than making the Olympic team, this is the highest meet you can aim for," Kurth said. "For most of the kids, they have their eyes set on the Olympic trials. It only comes around every four years, and there is a lot riding on it."
DiSalle, who is a freshman at Ohio State, has qualified in the 100 free and the 200 free. DiSalle, who won a state title in the 100 free in 2011, has a time of 51.08 in the 100 and 1:52.59 in the 200.
"He's swimming in the two hardest events," Kurth said. "But his times over the past year at Ohio Sate have shown his maturity level. He has been able to really build."
Just three months ago MacDonald competed in the state meet where he helped the Knights' 200 medley relay team take second place. MacDonald, who will compete for Ohio State next season, has qualified in two breaststroke events. His time in the 100 breast is 1:04.44 and 2:20.42 in the 200 breast.
"He is a hard worker and has a lot of ability," Kurth said. "He's a strong kid and is really focused. He has everything going for him."
Willets said he takes great pride in representing St. Francis and GTAC.
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"There are a lot of good things going on in Toledo for swimming," Willets said. "The proof is in the pudding. It says a lot about [former GTAC coach Keith Kennedy] and how he prepared us."
Kurth, who also swam at St. Francis and Michigan, qualified for the trials in 1996 and 2000.
He said the competition at the U.S. trials is stronger than it will be at the Olympics.
"This is ultimately the fastest meet in the world, so the kids are getting the best possible competition they will ever see," he said.
Kurth said the local swimmers should treat the event as "a stepping stone." He said making the Olympic team will be very difficult. Only the top two in each event (except the 100 and 200 free) will make the U.S. team to compete in London beginning July 27.
"It will take a lot, but at the same time it's a young group of kids that have a lot going for them, not only this year but also four years down the road," he said. "They'll learn from this first experience to know what it takes to be the best."
UT WOMEN REPRESENT GTAC: Four swimmers from the University of Toledo that led the Rockets to a Mid-American Conference championship in February also have qualified for the trials.
Rachel Johnson, Maria Bargardi, McKenzie Bagan, and Beth Rogers also compete for GTAC in the offseason.
Johnson, a sophomore, has qualified in three events (400 IM, 200 back and 400 free). She won a MAC title in the 400. Her time in the 200 back (2:15.37) is the 42nd-best time going into the trials.
"Rachel has a lot of ability," Kurth said. "She really is focused."
Bargardi, a freshman who was part of two MAC relay champion teams, will compete in the 200 backstroke.
Bagan, a junior, and Rogers, a sophomore, will both compete in the 100 fly. Rogers set the MAC record in the 200 butterfly to win the conference title.
"We have a nice group," Kurth said. "They feed off each other."
FALCONS REPRESENTED: Three BGSU swimmers, Alexa Harris, Alexis Kain, and Amanda Rom, also have qualified to compete in Omaha.
Harris, a junior, qualified in the 200 backstroke (2:17.62) and made the cut on the last day of qualifying.
Kain, a junior, and Rom, who completed her college career in 2011-12, both qualified in the 100 breast.
BGSU coach Petra Martin said having three swimmers at the trials is a huge step forward for the program.
"These ladies will bring back stories of some great experiences to tell the rest of the team, and we hope to keep building upon that," Martin said.
Bedford grad places 21st in diving at trials
Bedford graduate Cheynne Cousineau placed 21st of 32 divers Wednesday in the platform event at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Federal Way, Wash. Cousineau, a Temperance native who won a Big Ten platform title as a redshirt freshman at Ohio State last season, registered a score of 259.40. The top 18 divers advanced to the semifinals.
Blade sports writer David Briggs contributed to this report.
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.