Dream comes true: NC high school swimmer Claire Curzan headed to Tokyo

The Cardinal Gibbons rising senior finished second in the 100-meter butterfly to earn a spot in the Summer Games

Claire Curzan, a rising senior at Raleigh's Cardinal Gibbons High School, reacts after qualifying for the Tokyo Games in the women's 100-meter butterfly during last Monday's U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. (Jeff Roberson / AP Photo)

Some kids dress up as superheroes for Halloween. Others wear costumes to look like ballerinas or princesses.

When Claire Curzan was younger, she wanted to go trick-or-treating as an Olympic swimmer.

“I remember going through the process of getting ready,” the Cary native said, “and my mom saying, ‘Claire, you can’t do that. It’s going to be too cold to walk around in a bathing suit.’”

Now 16 and a rising senior at Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons High School, Curzan has probably outgrown going door-to-door for candy on Oct. 31. But if she does decide to dress up this year, she won’t have to pretend to be an Olympian.

That’s because she actually is one.

Curzan earned the opportunity to represent her country at the Tokyo Games next month by finishing second to fellow teenager Torri Huske in the 100-meter butterfly last Thursday at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska.

She also competed in the 50 and 100 freestyle but missed qualifying for the finals in both events.

After a short, triumphant return home to celebrate with her family and friends, she will join the rest of her U.S. teammates in Hawaii for a 10-day training camp in preparation for the trip to Japan.

“It’s still kind of weird when people come up to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re an Olympian,’” Curzan said in an interview with North State Journal. “But I think I’m getting used to it.”

Swimming the first of her three events, Curzan admitted to battling a case of nerves as she worked her way through the preliminary rounds. But they quickly went away as soon as she dove into the water for the final.

She got off to a fast start and finished strong to post a time of 56.43.

Although it wasn’t fast enough to catch Huske, who set an American record at 55.66, she was able to out-reach Olympic veteran Kate Douglass to the wall to earn the second of two Olympic qualifying spots.

“I just had to remember that I’d done this race like 100 times before,” Curzan said. “The pool is the same length, and I’ve raced the majority of these girls before. I tried not to focus on the stakes and just swim.”

It helped that she didn’t have a lot of time to sit around thinking too much before her race. The 100 fly was among the first events contested at the weeklong Olympic Trials.

“She’s fortunate to be able to knock it out right away,” her father, Mark Curzan, said, his voice hoarse from cheering his daughter on. “It would have been so much harder to be loitering and lingering for a few days.”

Upon finishing the race and seeing her name on the scoreboard in a qualifying position, the younger Curzan said her first reaction was to cry.

Instead, she reached over into the lane next to her and hugged her new teammate Huske.

It was a fitting celebration considering the two high school students have become more than just rivals in their junior careers. They’ve developed mutual respect while pushing each other to keep improving as they advanced to the top of their sport.

“I think it’s so fun,” said Huske, a native of Arlington, Virginia, who is a little more than a year older than Curzan. “I met her I think at a Select Camp. I don’t know how old I was. Then I got to know her a little bit better in Budapest at Junior Worlds, and I admire her hard work and dedication. I feel like she is really driven and those are admirable qualities, so I’m really excited to go with her to Tokyo.”

It’s a trip Curzan may or may not have been in a position to make had the Games gone off as scheduled in 2020.

But because they were postponed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the six-time N.C. High School Athletic Association state champion was able to make up ground on her fellow Olympic hopefuls by getting an extra year to become bigger, stronger, faster and more mature.

“I think, honestly, that’s what put me on the team,” she said. “Last year, while it was a lofty goal, may have been unattainable. Just having that year to get physically stronger and also prepping myself more to get mentally focused, it helped in every way possible. I really used that year to the best of my advantage.”

While most of the sports world was put on hold by COVID-19, Curzan set her sights on rewriting the record books for the 15-to-16-year-old age group.

During a meet at her home pool, Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary — the same facility that has also produced Olympic qualifying open water swimmer Ashley Twichell — she broke national records for her classification in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly. She later added the 100 backstroke standard to her resume.

Setting records is nothing new for Curzan, who will turn 17 on June 30, a birthdate she shares with all-time swimming great Michael Phelps.

She’s been doing it since she was 12 while swimming for Cardinal Gibbons and the nationally recognized TAC Titans. She also got her first international experience at the 2019 World Junior Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

She brought home four medals from that event. Now, she’s considered a legitimate contender to bring home an Olympic medal from Tokyo both in her individual event and as a member of a relay team.

“Honestly, it’s been a whirlwind,” Curzan said, “Just being here, it feels like it’s been a long time coming. I’m really happy to be here.”