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Paez shines at USA Swimming winter championships

Sophomore Isa Paez provided the highlight swims of the weekend for a quartet of Blue Devils racing at the USA Swimming winter championships.

Paez and classmate Leah Goldman, junior James Peek and freshman Yusuke Legard made their Olympic Games and Olympic Trial bids at the AT&T Winter Nationals in Federal Way, Wash., wrapping up the three-day competition Saturday with one new British Olympic Trials cut and three swims in evening finals. Paez led the way with top-20 finishes in both of her events.

“Isa had some great performances, especially that really magnificent 100-fly and making the 200 A final the next day,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “I know she would like to be a little bit quicker in that 200, but she has some more opportunities as the spring goes on.”

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Paez competed in Friday’s 100-meter butterfly and Saturday’s 200-meter butterfly in hopes of earning a spot on her home country’s Olympic roster. Venezuela will not hold a trials meet in the months leading up to the Summer Games but can select up to two representatives in each event to send to Rio de Janeiro, provided that both swimmers have earned an Olympic Qualifying Time since April 2015, or a single athlete with a slightly slower Olympic Standard Time if none of its swimmers achieved an OQT in the past year.

Paez snuck into the championship final of the 200-meter butterfly Saturday, posting the eighth-fastest time in the morning preliminaries of 2:13.54—a one-hundredth of a second faster than California's Kelly Naze. She finished eighth in the evening final, again touching the wall under the OST of 2:13.86 with a time of 2:13.18.

But three lanes away from Duke’s Olympic hopeful, Venezuela’s top 200-meter butterflier Andreina Pinto claimed the silver in 2:10.95, a tenth of a second behind new national champion Haley Anderson of Trojan Swim Club.

Racing in Friday’s C final of the 100-meter butterfly, Paez posted a time of 59.99 seconds—more than a half-second faster than her previous personal-best of 1:00.58 at the 2015 FINA World championships in Kazzan, Russia, at which she was Venezuela’s top finisher.

The sophomore was last in her heat at the 50-meter mark but turned in the fastest back-half split to work her way up to second in the C-final and 18th overall.

As the only Venezuelan swimmer under the minute mark in the event—but just off the OQT of 58.74 seconds—Paez made a strong bid for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team. But she will have to wait until the spring to find out if she will be the first Blue Devil swimmer to compete in the Olympics since Nancy Hogshead in 1984.

“It’s really tough with a lot of these countries because they don’t have an Olympic Trial and it gets very political,” Colella said. “Venezuela is talking about maybe bringing a medley relay to Rio. Nothing is definitive after this weekend, but that 59.99 definitely put her in a good light for the medley relay. We will have to see how things unfold in the coming months.”

Paez had turned in a new personal-best of 1:00.36 to qualify for finals in 17th alongside her teammate Goldman in 24th. Goldman also earned a new personal-best in the event, touching the wall in 1:00.33—good for third in the C-final heat and 19th overall.

Goldman, who entered the meet having already earned Olympic Trials cuts in the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley, competed in three more events over the course of the three-day championships. She finished 52nd in Thursday’s 200-meter individual medley in 2:21.82, 63rd in Friday’s 100-meter breaststroke in 1:13.91 and tied for 64th in Saturday’s 100-meter freestyle in 57.79 seconds.

On the men’s side, Legard earned his first British Olympic Trials qualifying standard in the 50-meter freestyle. The Weybridge, Surrey, United Kingdom, native surpassed the cut time of 23.62 seconds with a time of 23.36 seconds in a time trial heat Thursday.

The freshman also competed in a 200-meter freestyle time trial, touching the wall in 1:54.94 and finished 80th in the 100-meter freestyle in 52.07 seconds, less than a second slower than the British Olympic Trials qualifying time of 51.42 seconds.

“We are thrilled for Yusuke to make his trials. It’s really exciting for him and for the program,” Colella said. “He was hoping to make the 100 free but came up short, so we are going to have to do that later in the year.”

Also competing in the men’s sprints, Peek placed 47th in the 100-meter event with a time of 51.12 seconds and finished tied for 27th in the 50-meter event in 23.11 seconds. The Forest Row, Sussex, England, native has already earned British Olympic Trials cuts in both events.

The Blue Devil divers will look to turn in strong performances of their own Dec. 15-20 in Indianapolis at the USA Diving Winter Nationals. 

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