It may not have gone down exactly how she imagined it when she left for Rio, but in the end Kelsi Worrell is returning to Louisville with the title she had always dreamed of attaining: Olympic gold medalist.
Worrell carved her place in Olympic history by being a part of the United States women's 4 x 100 medley relay team. She swam the 100 butterfly in the preliminary race with a time of 56.47 to help the U.S. win the semifinal heat, and then watched as Lilly Ling, Kathleen Baker, Dana Vollmer and Simone Manuel topped the rest of the world in the finals.
"I responded to all my texts, I had probably 200 people reach out to me, but I haven't gotten through the Facebook messages, I'm not sure I ever could," Worrell told the Associated Press. "It's been incredible. For example, my neighbor when I was two months old wants to be my friend. My life is a lot different right now."
A four-time NCAA champion, Worrell's gold medal made the 22-year-old the first Louisville Cardinal to win a swimming medal of any color, adding to her claim of being the most decorated individual athlete in the history of UofL sports. Still, her time in Rio didn't come without some misfortune.
In June, in front of a national television audience on NBC, Worrell became the first American swimmer ever from UofL to qualify for the Olympics when she swam the the second fastest 100-fly in the world this year. In the finals of that event, Worrell bested Dana Vollmer, the 2012 gold medalist in the event. The upset instantly made Worrell one of the faces of USA swimming's youth movement, and one of the favorites to medal in the 100-fly in Rio.
After winning her first round heat with a time of 56.94 seconds, Worrell swam a 57.54 in the event semifinals. That was good enough to place her fourth in her heat, but left her a heartbreaking 0.03 seconds short of qualifying for the last spot in the final. Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom went on to win the gold medal in the event, with Vollmer claiming the bronze.
"It obviously wasn't what we planned for," UofL swim and dive coach Arthur Albiero said. "That's just athletics. I couldn't be prouder of her for getting to this point. She's the ultimate team player, and her first concern afterward was Team USA and feeling like she let those people down. Obviously, this was a bitter pill for her to swallow, but this is just the beginning of Kelsi's journey, and she knows that."
Despite the disappointment, Worrell wasn't about to let failing to medal in the 100-fly ruin her Olympic experience. Her presence cheering on her U.S. teammates in the pool was a common site throughout NBC's coverage of the swimming events. She even managed to make it back into the national news thanks to some crowd photos with NBA superstars/fellow USA swim fanatics including Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green.
When Worrell got the call to get back in the pool during week two of the Games, she was ready. Her gold medal days later was the icing on top of what has been without question the most successful year of her swimming career to date.
Worrell's monster 2015-16 season began when she won three medals, including a gold in the 100-fly, at the 2015 Pan American Games. She then became a world record holder in the 400 short course meter medley relay thanks to her team's performance at the 2015 Duel in the Pool in Indianapolis. For good measure, she tossed in a pair of NCAA championships, another year of All-American honors, an American record, becoming the first woman in history to swim the 100-yard butterfly in under 50 seconds, and finally, a gold medal.
As UofL athletics continues to shake the dust off an up-and-down 2015-16 season and prepares to begin what everyone hopes will be an overwhelmingly successful 2016-17 campaign, Worrell's resilience and her grace on the grandest of all stages should serve as the perfect jumping off point.
A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice Tribune