From Lenoir City to London: Claire Donahue embraces underdog role
Lenoir City's Claire Donahue works out with her U.S. Olympic teammates at the University of Tennessee's Allan Jones Aquatic Center on July 12. Donahue made the team in the 100 fly.

Local athlete surprising everyone but herself

By Mike Griffith
Claire Donahue stood atop the block at the edge of the pool at CenturyLink Center, confident for the swim of her life despite starting from Lane One widely considered the most disadvantageous position to start a race.

"Perfect,'' Donahue thought to herself on that pivotal night of June 26 in Omaha, Neb. "They'll never see me coming.''

That has largely been the story of Donahue's life, from her upbringing in Lenoir City, through her collegiate career at Western Kentucky.

Only the trained eyes in Team USA swim camp would have predicted the 23-year-old Donahue could contend for a roster spot in the 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials last month. Dana Vollmer was a fast first. Second place, however, belonged to Donahue.

Donahue, who's seeded No. 6 for the 100 fly at the London Olympics, swims at 10 a.m. (London time) Saturday in the preliminaries, and again at 7:30 p.m. should she swim a top 16 time and advance to the semifinals.

Like many others competing on the first day, Donahue will miss Friday night's opening ceremonies with hopes of conserving energy and getting a good night's rest.

"There's a part of me that still can't believe all of this,'' Donahue said in a phone interview last Tuesday from Team USA's undisclosed training location in France.

"It's strange to be living out a dream come true.''

Donahue had provided an early hint at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials that she might be on the verge of such a breakthrough.

She swam the first 50 meters of the 100 fly preliminary race on pace to break the American record.

The crowd of 10,000 roared its approval when the public address announcer revealed Donahue's startling time through 50 meters.

"I definitely heard it,'' said Donahue, who was passed in the final 25 meters by Vollmer. "I remember thinking, 'Are they cheering for me?' ''

Donahue's semifinal performance didn't measure up to her opening act, but it was good enough to tie for sixth and get her into the finals.

Still, Donahue was starting from an outside lane, and her Cinderella preliminaries performance had faded into the shadows of the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte rivalry playing out in the spotlight.

Besides, there were no less than four Olympians in Donahue's final. So how was a small-town girl from Lenoir City supposed to contend with that?

Connie Donahue vividly remembers the call from the family babysitter.

"She had been watching Claire, and she called me all excited,'' said Connie Donahue, Claire's mother. "She said, 'Connie, you're going to have to come with me to the pool on Saturday, you have to see this.'

"So we get there, and she just kinda lets Claire drop into the water.''

What happened next was magical, particularly since she was only 3 years old at the time and hadn't swam before.

"Claire started kicking, her eyes popped wide open, and she just started paddling away,'' Connie Donahue said. "It was like it was what she was meant to do.''

Swim lessons at Fort Sanders and the West Side Family YMCA followed, and from there it was on to the Tellico Village swim team from second grade through fourth.

After spending her fifth grade year with the Atomic City Aquatic Club in Oak Ridge, Donahue latched on with the Blount Area swim team, while also swimming a short, summer schedule with Maryville's Green Meadow club.

A rising star being recruited by different competitive clubs?

"Oh no, I wasn't the fastest at all,'' Claire Donahue said with a laugh.

"I remember very vividly being 11 and 12 years old at meets, just small meets, and being closer to the bottom of the finishing sheet than the top,'' she said. "But I looked at the people at the front and said to myself, 'I will beat them one day.' ''

BLAST coach John Matson, a former Tennessee All-American who swam for Ray Bussard and John Trembley, never heard Donahue make such a proclamation.

But he saw a champion's passion in her eyes on more than one occasion.

"After Claire's first summer with us, we did a race and she got beat by one of the girls on the team,'' Matson recalled. "I saw her eyes flash; not anger, but an unmistakable 'I don't like to lose' expression. I was thinking that could translate for her.

"Now, when you look and see where she's at, it definitely translated,'' he said. "Claire was the most focused on her goals, but she kept them private. You knew she wanted to be an Olympian, but she didn't go around telling anyone that.''

First things first. Donahue needed to realize it would take a complete focus on swimming to make her dreams come true.

The Transition

Claire Donahue's older sister, Audrey Donahue-Deaton, now 31, was a world champion in her power tumbling age group in her youth. Claire's older brother, 28-year-old Zack, was also an accomplished competitive swimmer at Lenoir City and coached her in high school.

While it was obvious Claire took to water like a fish, she was active well beyond the pool deck.

"Claire also was in cheerleading, she played the saxophone and ran cross country and track,'' Connie Donahue said. "I remember one year at the AAU Junior Olympics, I believe 2002, Claire competed in the track events at the same time the summer swim league championships were going on.''

With both events on the UT campus, the Donahue family utilized cell phones and walkie talkies, shuttling Claire back and forth between the track for her pentathlon events and the pool for races with BLAST.

"She managed to swim two events at the pool and compete in five events at the track,'' Connie Donahue said. "She put her running shorts and jersey on over her swimsuit and went back and forth every event.''

Chris Donahue, Claire's father, remembers growing concerned with his daughter's competitive drive.

"Claire was a good runner, and she broke some records at North Middle School,'' he said. "But I remember one summer, she was pushing herself so hard on the track she was throwing up at the end of races, and it was taking a physical toll.''

Matson had already asked Donahue to stop running and focus on swimming, but he knew the determined young athlete would have to figure that out for herself.

"I think Claire ran a 5:08 mile in eighth grade, and that's pretty good,'' Matson said. "But I told her I didn't think it would be a good idea to run anymore, it was too much. Well, she ran cross country again her freshman year at Lenoir City while also swimming five days a week.

"The first time we did nine swimming workouts in a week, she was hanging her head. She told me she wasn't running cross country next season.''

In the meantime, Connie Donahue had worked with other parents to get an organized swim club going at Lenoir City High School.

"We couldn't find pool time, we had to practice at 8:45 in the evening at the West Side YMCA,'' Connie Donahue said. "UT was already booked with other high school teams. We ended up getting into Maryville College's pool.''

But Claire's freshman run at the state swim meet was foiled when her goggles fell off. As a sophomore, she finished sixth in the state in the 100 fly.

It was good, but not good enough to satisfy Claire, who was growing frustrated at that point in her career.

"I just wasn't getting better even though I was doing all the things I was supposed to do,'' Claire Donahue said. "I got into a rut, and I got upset. That just gave me that much more motivation to work harder and to push through practices.''

Chris Donahue learned that when he made the mistake of suggesting his daughter take a day off.

"I remember there was one really cold morning, and Claire was up at 5 o'clock as usual getting ready to drive to Maryville College for a morning swim workout before school,'' Chris Donahue said. "I said, 'You know Claire, you don't have to do this. You can take a day off.'

"She was like, 'No!' It was not an option to her.''

Claire Donahue finished second in the 100 fly as a junior before winning the state meet in the event her senior season.

Finishing Kick

Despite her state championship, the full-ride scholarship offers were not exactly rolling in.

UT swimming coach Matt Kredich, solely responsible for the women's team at that time, said he knew of Donahue. In hindsight, he admits he didn't know enough.

"I remember (former assistant) Joe Hendee giving me a scrap of paper with Claire's name, number and six events and times,'' Kredich said. "She was very good, but I don't believe she was top 25 (nationally). It may have been the best thing that happened that I wasn't able to find that piece of paper.

"Swimming is a lot about being in the right place and the right environment, and with everything Claire has accomplished in becoming an Olympian, no one can say she should have done things differently.''

Louisville came in with an offer, but Western Kentucky coach Bruce Marchionda saw enough of Donahue at the Tennessee high school state swim meet her senior year to offer the scholarship she was seeking.

"Claire did a number of things I liked in the water, but I also knew I saw things I could improve on,'' Marchionda said. "Each year, she was able to get a little faster.

"Her freshman year she didn't qualify for the NCAA meet. As a sophomore, she qualified, but didn't place. But her junior year she got fourth, and her senior year she got second.

"Claire is one of the most coachable swimmers I've worked with. She's able to process what we're telling her to do, and she puts it into practice.''

Since graduating from Western Kentucky with a bachelor's degree in Social Work, Donahue spent the past year working as a volunteer in the Bowling Green, Ky., community. That is, when she wasn't putting in 20 hours a week of pool time or traveling to international events.

Donahue's global emergence began when she placed second at the U.S. Nationals in California last summer and followed up with a gold medal, meet-record performance at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, last October.

No wonder NBC commentators referred to her as a "late-bloomer" when introducing for the finals of the 100 fly at the swimming trials in Omaha.

Donahue was the last to take her mark before the pivotal 100 fly race began, using the precious moments to collect her emotions one final time.

"I tell myself I don't need to be nervous; a little is fine, but breathe,'' Donahue said, sharing thoughts from her pre-race routine. "I want to be ready to race, but for me the key is getting my mind relaxed.''

Donahue is among the fastest women in the world if not the fastest in the first 50 meters of the 100 fly. The key for her has been, and will be, the 50 meters after the flip turn.

In finishing second behind Vollmer to make the U.S. team, Donahue swam the fastest second-half split of her career.

She did it from the outside lane without the five Olympians having the first clue that she was coming.

"I love coming from a small town, and going to a mid-major school, and being able to accomplish things,'' Donahue said. "It makes the success a little bit sweeter.''

Those driving by Lenoir City High School this week can see Donahue recognized on the school's marquee, just as she is celebrated all over the Tennessee River town known as the "Lakeway to the Smokies.''

"Our athletics case will definitely include a picture of Claire in her Olympic uniform,'' said Lenoir City athletic director Janet McGee. "I don't think it gets any bigger than being an Olympian. We had Chris Wampler come out of here, graduated in 1979 and played (football) at Tennessee. Tyler Hood is at Samford University playing Division I basketball. But this is a whole different bracket.''

Steve Millsaps, Donahue's principal in middle school as well as high school, said the ripple effect won't likely crest until the students return to campus.

"I believe Claire's Olympic appearance will be even bigger after the fact,'' Millsaps said. "Claire has and will provide a lot of inspiration for our upcoming athletes. I knew she was a very good student, a hard worker and a great swimmer, but I can't say that I saw this coming.''

And that's just the way Claire Donahue has always liked it.