For many athletes in Olivia Bray’s position, an invitation to the Olympic Trials might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A one-year postponement has held up a second trip for Bray, who was 14 when she competed in three events in the 2016 swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska.
“It was unbelievable,” said Bray, a recent graduate of Lord Botetourt High School. “I was over the moon … on cloud nine. I did what I could to let it all sink in.”
Since then, Bray has signed a letter of intent with the University of Texas, which won its eighth-straight Big 12 women’s swimming championship this past season.
Her top five included perennial women’s swimming powers Stanford, Virginia, Indiana and N.C. State
“She was Texas’ No. 1 recruit and that’s a top-five program in the country,” said Doug Fonder, Bray’s coach with the Roanoke Gators year-around program.
Bray graduated from Lord Botetourt this past December with what she recalls as a 4.3 grade-point average.
Bray did not swim for Botetourt after her sophomore year, when she won the 100-yard butterfly event in the 3A state championship.
“That was my call,” said Bray, who regularly would rise before 5 a.m. “In my junior year, I was taking [advanced placement] classes and I didn’t want high-school swimming to be a distraction from my schoolwork or club swimming.”
At 5-foot-10, there’s no telling what kind of contribution she might have made to a Botetourt girls’ basketball team that collected two state championships in three years.
“I’m not good on land,” Bray is eager to point out.
The arrival of the coronavirus has made for a variety of schedule conflicts, although the Gator program has been able to train early in the morning at the Hunting Hills Country Club pool.
Bray also took a recent break to travel to St. Louis, where she spent two weeks at McCallum Place, home to one of the nation’s premier eating-disorder programs. Her disorder is called Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
“I wasn’t aware that I had an eating disorder until a few months ago,” she said. “I just thought I was a picky eater.”
Picky, according to her mother, was two or three items.
“She only ate carbohydrates,” mom Kimberly Bray said. “No fruits, no vegetables. It was a very scary experience for her and very brave of her to try and tackle it.
“I believe she did well, leaving Missouri with a plan of action. She saw lots of kids with lots of eating disorders that were so much worse than what she had experienced. She felt like she could conquer this and eat with more variety.”
Olivia Bray is one driven young woman.
“She has always put her goals out there, not only mentally, but she’s not afraid to put them down on paper,” James Bray, her father, said. “She’d tape her goals on the mirror and on the ceiling above her bed. Right now, it’s all about Texas and when she can get down there and start preparing.”
The Bray family originally was from Greensboro, North Carolina, before moving to Botetourt County. Olivia was 6 and her sister Rachel was 9 when they first started swimming for the Ashley Plantation summer-league team headed by Susan Bleecker.
Olivia never went off the blocks during the regular season but medaled at the season-ending city-county meet.
“We didn’t really know the talent she had,” Kimberly Bray said. “We enjoyed watching her swim but didn’t really understand the gift that she had. After two seasons in the RVAA, she asked if she could swim year-around.”
It wasn’t a case of parents pushing a child to swim. Just the opposite.
“I used ‘You won’t be able to go to swim practice today’ as a means of disciplining her,’ ” Kimberly said. “She always wanted to go to swim practice so she always did what I asked her to do.”
It wasn’t too long before Olivia joined the Gators year-around program.
“She’s got God-given natural feel,” Fonder said this week. “She just slides through the water.”
Clearly, Bray ranks among the top swimming prospects to come out of the Roanoke Valley.
“Absolutely,” Fonder said. “She’s the fastest 18-and-under [girls swimmer] in the United States in the 100 butterfly. Her biggest thing is, I think, her confidence to compete at that level. That’s really important for the next step.
“She doesn’t show emotion a lot. As far as consistency, coming to practice and all that, she probably has 100 percent attendance over the last four years.
“She’s got to get more assertive with herself. You see this in a lot of sports. Kids who are really fluid don’t realize how much better they can get by just pushing a little harder.”
In Fonder’s estimation, Bray is one of the top three or four female swimmers to come out of the Roanoke Valley. In 2016, when four swimmers from the Roanoke Valley were invited to the Olympic Trials, Bray was the only female.
“I think 2024 will be my best shot [for a medal] because I’ll be right out of college,” she said.
At various points in her younger years, Bray played soccer and gymnastics and took part in horseback riding, as well as dance.
“Then, swimming just took over my life,” she said. “I loved it from the start.”