By Sharon Robb

August 4, 2016—No one is more deserving or more ready to hang an Olympic medal around her neck than Alia Atkinson.

The South Florida Aquatic Club swimmer started her journey as a 15-year-old junior at Flanagan High School when she made her first Olympic team.

“I was going to the 2004 Olympics asking myself ‘what is that?’”

Twelve years later, the world-class swimmer will make her fourth Olympic appearance for Jamaica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this weekend.

Atkinson competes Sunday afternoon in the heats of the 100-meter breaststroke, her signature event, at 1 p.m. EST. The semifinals are Sunday night at 10 p.m. and finals Monday night at 10 p.m.

For two weeks at SOFLO’s home base, Academic Village Pool in Pembroke Pines, Atkinson did her pre-Olympic workouts, 8-10 p.m. instead of the morning to simulate the time change, competition schedule and conditions of Rio de Janeiro.

Atkinson, 27, is among medal favorites and it shows in her attitude and training.

“Now, there is a difference physically and mentally and even bigger difference experience-wise, but I am still going to feel like that little girl in 2004.”

Atkinson is joined by her longtime coach Chris Anderson and SOFLO teammates Timothy Wynter of Jamaica and Jorge Murillo Valdes of Colombia.

Atkinson’s story is the dream of every young swimmer and also prototype for every young swimmer.

Atkinson has been training with SOFLO since she was 13, three years after her family moved to Pembroke Pines. Two years later, she competed at her first Olympics in Athens, Greece for the experience.

After an outstanding high school career at Flanagan she earned a full scholarship to Texas A&M where she won an NCAA title. At 19, she competed at her second Olympics in Beijing, where she finished 25th in the 200-meter breaststroke.

Atkinson became a serious medal contender at the 2012 London Olympics where she won a swim-off to advance into her first Olympic final. She just missed a medal placing fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Now a world short course record holder, World Championship, Pan American Games, Commonwealth Games and World Cup champion, Atkinson could become Jamaica’s first Olympic medalist in swimming.

“I haven’t changed that much since my first Olympics,” Atkinson said. “I definitely look at the Olympics as another meet. I like to keep it simple. I have always been that way.

“Chris is the same way. He never makes it this big, great achievement when I do something in swimming, even with the world record. He will tell me I did a good job or good meet and down plays what I am doing and I appreciate that.”

When the Jamaican swimming federation failed to give her the traditional Olympic ring like every other country does for its athletes, Anderson presented her with one at SOFLO’s banquet.

“I never realized how big a role Chris has played,” Atkinson said. “I have not given him enough credit over the years. I depend on him.”

Atkinson is in the best shape of her life going into the Olympics. She has been working with weight trainer Kenneth Moore “who whipped me into sprinter shape,” she said.

“For the other three Olympics I was still battling physical issues to see where I was strong, whether I was using the correct weights and regimen. My trainer has helped me to fine tune and switched my ideology when it comes to training.”

Atkinson has gained confidence throughout the years. She is mentally tougher than she has been in past Olympics.

“For me I was always battling my own enemies,” she said. “In 2004 and 2008, deep down I didn’t think I was worthy of making the Olympics. I felt like a filler.

“I think I was too hard on myself. I believe in myself now. I made the “A” cut and I am a contender for the podium. This is a big achievement. Now I have the opportunity to be at the top of the top in my country. It is a pretty big deal. There was a time I didn’t feel that way.”

At 27, Atkinson never dreamed she would still be in the sport. She has a handful of sponsors including Speedo, Rainforest Sea Foods and Grace Kennedy Money Services which have helped with the costs of training and travelling to meets.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to still be here, I never thought I would still be swimming,” Atkinson said.

She has become an inspiration in Jamaica and has helped the growth of swimming among youngsters despite the overwhelming popularity of track and field.

“I think the people of Jamaica see what I stand for, they associate with me and feel they have that fighting spirit,” Atkinson said. “I work hard. They see me on the starting block no matter what the obstacles are trying harder.”

With three days to go, Atkinson is eager to race.

“Sometimes my mind runs on the idea that this could be a medal,” Atkinson said. “And then I think, ‘okay, I have gotten medals before.’ But this is Olympic time.

“I don’t want to say I should have done this or should have done that. As an athlete I have to be okay, I have to be content with what I do.

“Months out I was more anxious and then I went through the worried stage and then the confidence stage. Now it’s this meet needs to get over stage. I know I can swim well. It’s that kind of confidence I need to have on race day. I want to touch the wall, think to myself ‘it is done’ and have a sense of relief wash over me.”

BROWARD, DADE OLYMPIC SWIMMERS

Marcelo Acosta, Azura Aquatics, El Salvador

Gianluca Alberani, Azura Aquatics, El Salvador, coach

Chris Anderson, South Florida Aquatic Club, Jamaica coach

Heather Arseth, University of Miami, Mauritius

Alia Atkinson, Flanagan, Jamaica

Dylan Carter, Plantation American Heritage, Trinidad & Tobago

Randy Horner, Florida International, Botswana, coach

Jorge Murillo-Valdes, South Florida Aquatic Club, Colombia

Jhonny Perez, Azura Florida Aquatics, Dominican Republic

Naomi Ruele, Florida International, Botswana

Jay Thomas, Plantation, USA Swimming official

Renzo Tjon-A-Joe, Westlake Prep, Surinam

David Van Der Colff, Nova Southeastern, Botswana

Timothy Wynter, South Florida Aquatic Club, Jamaica

OLYMPIC SWIM SCHEDULE

DAY I, SATURDAY:

Afternoon Session: noon, Men 400-meter individual medley heats; 12:26 p.m., Women 100-meter butterfly heats; 12:46 p.m., Men 400-meter freestyle heats; 2:02 p.m., 1:30 p.m., Women 400-meter individual medley; 2:02 p.m., Men 100-meter breaststroke heats; 2:22 p.m., Women 4×100 freestyle relay heats.

Evening Session: 9:03 p.m., Men 400-meter individual medley final; 9:11 p.m., Women’s 100-meter butterfly semifinal; 9:30 p.m., Men 400-meter freestyle final; 9:49 p.m., Women 400-meter individual medley final; 10:05 p.m., Women 100-meter breaststroke semifinal; 10:24 p.m., Women 4×100-meter freestyle relay final.

DAY 2, SUNDAY:

Afternoon Session: Noon, Women’s 100 backstroke heats; 12:17 p.m., Men’s 200-meter freestyle heats; 12:54 p.m., Women’s 100-meter breaststroke heats; 1:14 p.m., Men’s 100-meter backstroke heats; 1:31 p.m., Women’s 400-meter freestyle heats; 2:03 p.m., Men’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay heats.

Evening Session: 9:03 p.m., Women’s 100-meter butterfly final; 9:08 p.m., Men’s 200-meter freestyle semifinals; 9:26 p.m., Women’s 100-meter breaststroke semifinals; 9:53 p.m., Men’s 100-meter breaststroke final; 10:01 p.m., Women’s 400-meter freestyle final; 10:09 p.m., Men’s 100-meter backstroke semifinals; 10:33 p.m., Women’s 100-meter backstroke semifinals; 10:54 p.m., 4×100-meter freestyle relay final.

DAY 3, MONDAY:

AFTERNOON SESSION: Noon, Women’s 200-meter freestyle heats; 12:32 p.m., Men’s 200-meter butterfly heats; 12:54 p.m., Women’s 200-meter individual medley.

EVENING SESSION: 9:12 p.m., Women’s 200-meter freestyle semifinals; 9:21 p.m., Men’s 200-meter freestyle final; 9:30 p.m., Women’s 100-meter backstroke final; 9:38 p.m., Men’s 100-meter backstroke final; 9:54 p.m., Women’s 100-meter breaststroke final; 10:07 p.m., Men’s 200-meter butterfly semifinals; 10:33 p.m., Women’s 200-meter individual medley.

DAY 4: TUESDAY

AFTERNOON SESSION: Noon, Men’s 100-meter freestyle heats; 12:26 p.m., Women’s 200-meter butterfly heats; 12:48 p.m., Men’s 200-meter breaststroke heats; 1:15 p.m., 4×200-meter freestyle relay heats.

EVENING SESSION: 9 p.m., 100-meter freestyle semifinals; 9:19 p.m., Women’s 200-meter freestyle final; 9:28 p.m., Men’s 200-meter butterfly final; 9:34 p.m., Women’s 200-meter butterfly semifinals; 10 p.m., Men’s 200-meter breaststroke semifinals; 10:29 p.m., Women’s 200-meter individual medley final; 10:38 p.m., Men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay final.

DAY 5: WEDNESDAY

AFTERNOON SESSION: Noon, Women’s 100-meter freestyle heats; 12:23 p.m., Men’s 200-meter backstroke heats; 12:45 p.m., Women’s 200-meter breaststroke; 1:07 p.m., Men’s 200-meter individual medley; 1:29 p.m., Women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay.

EVENING SESSION: 9:03 p.m., Men’s 200-meter breaststroke final; 9:09 p.m., Women’s 100-meter freestyle semifinals; 9:25 p.m., Men’s 200-meter backstroke semifinals; 954 p.m., Women’s 200-meter butterfly final; 10:03 p.m., Men’s 100-meter freestyle final; 10:08 p.m., Women’s 200-meter breaststroke semifinals; 10:55 p.m., Women’s 4×200-eter freestyle relay.

DAY 6: THURSDAY

AFTERNOON SESSION: Noon, Women’s 800-meter freestyle heat, Men’s 50-meter freestyle heats; 12:26 p.m., Women’s 800-meter freestyle heats; 1:14 p.m., Men’s 100-meter butterfly heats; 1:34 p.m., Women’s 200-meter backstroke heats.

EVENING SESSION: 9 p.m., Men’s 50-meter freestyle semifinals; 9:17 p.m., Women’s 200-meter breaststroke final; 9:26 p.m., Men’s 200-meter backstroke final; 9:32 p.m., Women’s 200-meter backstroke semifinals; 10:01 p.m., Men’s 200-meter individual medley final; 10:18 p.m., Women’s 100-meter freestyle final; 10:31 p.m., Men’s 100-meter butterfly semifinals.

DAY 7: FRIDAY

AFTERNOON SESSION: Noon, Women’s 50-meter freestyle heats; 12:38 p.m., Men’s 1500-meter freestyle heats; 2:28 p.m., Women’s 4×100-meter medley relay heats; 2:46 p.m., Men’s 4×100-meter medley relay heats.

EVENING SESSION: 9:03 p.m., Women’s 200-meter backstroke final; 9:12 p.m., Men’s 100-meter butterfly final; 9:20 p.m., Women’s 800-meter freestyle final; 9:44 p.m., Men’s 50-meter freestyle final; 9:56 p.m., Women’s 50-meter freestyle semifinals.

DAY 8: SATURDAY

EVENING SESSION: 9:03 p.m., Women’s 50-meter freestyle final; 9:11 p.m., Men’s 1500-meter freestyle; 9:49 p.m., Women’s 4×100-meter medley relay final; 10:04 p.m., Men’s 4×100-meter medley relay final.

Open water swimming is Aug. 15, Monday, 8 a.m., Women’s 10K; Aug. 16, Tuesday, 8 a.m.

Sharon Robb can be reached at sha11cats@aol.com

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