NORMAN — It didn’t take long for Paul Le to discover he was in a new world.
After an impressive season at Missouri State, the former Southmoore all-state swimmer qualified to compete at the he 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials last week. In his first in-the-water encounter with all-world Ryan Lochte, Le found out he has a ways to go to catch up to the world’s best.
“In the warm-up pool, coach gave me a workout and I was swimming,” Le said. “Ryan Lochte was in my lane and I saw him push off the wall right before I flip-turned to push off the wall too. He pushed off the wall right in front of me and Ryan Lochte is well known for his underwater kicking. I tried to copy him and do a lot of underwater kicking just like he did, but I noticed I wasn’t going anywhere because he was in front of me and his kick was so strong it was basically pushing me backward.”
Le admitted that he was nervous leading up to his first swim, but he got the best of those nerves during the fifth heat of the 100-meter backstroke June 26.
Despite drawing a far outside lane, Le swam a lifetime best in the event and climbed up the rankings with his time of 56.59. He was originally seeded 93rd, but with his 0.72-second drop, he shot all the way up to 38th.
“Before the race I had a really good warm-up with coach,” Le said. “I’ve been preparing for this for over 10 years and it finally got down to the point where I had to swim it and I felt really good.”
In comparison to the rest of the field, Le was just 1.10 seconds behind the 16th-place finisher . Matt Grevers, who won silver in the 100 back at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, recorded the morning’s fastest split (52.94) and was a few hundredths shy of the Trials record.
“Before the meet I was seeded 93rd so there wasn’t much room to go down, so the only way to go was up,” Le said. “There wasn’t much pressure on me.”
Le, who placed third in the 100-yard back at the 2012 MAC Championships behind Eastern Michigan’s Jacob Hanson and Buffalo’s Matt Schwippert, avenged his loss at the Century Link Center on Tuesday, defeating the two by more than 0.40 seconds.
Le also competed in the 200-meter backstroke Friday. He came into the event seeded 70th in the nation in the event.
On the right pace for his first 100 meters (59.05), Le was unable bring it home in the second-half split that he was hoping for. His time of 2:04.64 was not enough to advance to the semifinals, however, the 2012 All-MAC first teamer still finished within a second of his career best. With the 2:04.64, Le finished the preliminaries ranked 58th out of 107 swimmers.
“This is an atmosphere that he had not been exposed to before, but he swam a very smart race today,” Missouri State coach Dave Collins said. “In a meet where there are very few people dropping time, for him to do what he did was phenomenal.”
He didn’t qualify for the London Olympics, but the sophomore is off to a good start for 2016.
“It was very exciting, but at the same time, very stressful because I worked for a really long time to reach this point,” Le said. “I put my heart and soul into this huge meet where I was only able to swim two events. It was very exciting because I got to swim with some of the top athletes in the world. It was a really fun experience and after the meet, I learned a lot about myself. Going into the meet, I didn’t want to be too confident because I was at an elite meet. It made me realize that I still have a lot of room to improve.”