INDIANAPOLIS, July 10 — North Baltimore Aquatic Club Coach Paul Yetter attempted to respond to a bystander’s congratulations, but he had difficulty saying anything at all. His words came out stripped of various syllables.
It was understandable: Yetter had just screamed himself hoarse for the third night this week.
His star pupil, Towson’s Elizabeth Pelton, 15, had just won her third silver medal at the U.S. swimming championships Friday night, her latest finish in the 200-meter backstroke ensuring that she would be considered Team USA’s hottest teen star entering the July 26-Aug. 2 world championships in Rome.
With her performances this week, Pelton earned the right to compete in four individual events in Rome, a distinction that, with one day of competition here remaining, only one other U.S. swimmer can claim.
That swimmer, you may have heard of him, is Michael Phelps.
“This team is kind of the ‘next generation,’.” Pelton said. “I think the next generation is starting to make [its] move. I’m really excited.”
Leading the generational shift is Pelton, who also claimed second in the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley earlier this week. Her finish in the 100 back gave her an additional world-team berth in the 50 backstroke, an event not raced here, raising her total of individual events to four.
“It’s always fun to see somebody break out like she’s broken out here,” said Mark Schubert, USA Swimming’s National Team Director. “She’s starting to swim like a veteran.”
Because the 200 medley and 100 back take place nearly back-to-back in Rome, it’s possible Pelton will compete in only three events, perhaps the trio of backstrokes. That likely will be sorted out in the coming days as the U.S. team begins its preparations here before departing for a U.S. training base in Italy on Tuesday.
In any case, it’s an impressive load for a swimmer whose previous biggest meet was last January’s Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Guam. In fact, she didn’t even think to pack a bag for Italy. A suitcase assembled by her brother arrived Friday, carried by the mother of another swimmer competing here this weekend.
In Guam, North Dakota’s Dagny Knutson, 17, had been the unequivocal star, winning seven gold medals. Elizabeth Beisel, 16, meantime, had emerged as a promising prospect years before, having made her international debut at the senior Pan Pac championships at age 13.
Both of those teens were more acclaimed up-and-comers entering this meet. Both have made the U.S. world team — Knutson qualifying for a 200 relay team spot — but neither has shined as brightly as Pelton.
“The meet in Guam, that’s where I kind of realized I could do pretty well at this meet,” Pelton said. “That’s kind of where the motivation comes from for this season.”
Beisel won the U.S. title in the 400 individual medley and Friday’s 200 back, outracing Pelton over the last 50 meters. Beisel finished in 2 minutes, 8.80 seconds. Pelton touched the wall in 2:09.19. Both of them finished ahead of American-record holder Margaret Hoelzer, 26, who finished third in 2:09.63.
Virginia swimmer Mei Christensen, 20, who has represented Curl-Burke Swim Club here, finished seventh in 2:12.28.
“It was really nerve-wracking,” Pelton said. “All of these races are nerve-wracking.”
Pelton, however, swam a smart race. Fifth after the first 50 meters, she made her move during the backstroke leg and swam steadily after.
“I didn’t really expect her to qualify in as many events as she did, but in the back of my mind I expected she would perform at a high level,” Yetter said. “She’s really, really cool, calm and confident. The credit goes to her family.”
Pelton uprooted her family for the sport in the summer of 2006. The Peltons had grown tired of a 100-mile round-trip commute to swim practices from their home in Fairfield, Conn. They realized they had to make a move to ensure Pelton and her brother Greg — who will swim next fall at Harvard — could get the training their talents warranted without wearing out the family.
Knowing the reputation for churning out young stars at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the home club of Phelps and three-time Olympian Katie Hoff, the Pelton family put their house up for sale. Elizabeth Pelton, her mother Anne and three siblings moved to Towson.
But the family patriarch, Greg Pelton, a former collegiate swimmer who competed at the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials, stayed behind. He moved into a studio apartment in Manhattan, close to his job as a professor at Columbia University. He travels to Towson on weekends.
The Peltons have never regretted the move, Anne Pelton said during a recent interview, but in case there was any wavering, Elizabeth Pelton’s performance this week surely erased it.
“She definitely has the potential,” Beisel said, “to medal in the events she is going to swim.”