By Marta Lawrence
Like her horse, Native Badger (Badger), Melissa Gates was born to race. The California (Pennsylvania) senior and reigning Division II 50-yard freestyle champion recently qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but perhaps unlike other elite swimmers, Gates balances her swimming demands with her participation on the school’s equestrian team.
Melissa Gates uses time with her horse, Badger, to balance out her intense swimming preparation.
“I love swimming, don’t get me wrong, but I think I would get sick of it if it was all I did day in and day out,” Gates said.
It is easy to see the parallels between Gates and Badger, a former registered race horse. “I think every horse owner is a little like their horse,” admitted Gates. “It’s just really funny because he still has that racing mentality. When he gets into the zone I can’t do anything to hold him back. I’m just along for the ride.”
“I feel like that sometimes too,” she said. “If I’ve been tapered for a while and haven’t done any long, hard and fast stuff, I almost try and let it build up in me before a race or a meet. That feeling during warm ups… I just want to sprint.”
“If she’s racing a time, she doesn’t do very well,” said Vulcans head swimming coach Ed Denny. “But, if she’s racing against people and trying to beat everybody, she does very well. And in the end that might serve her well in the Trials.”
Melissa Gates chats with head swim coach Ed Denny during during a 2011 meet against Kutztown University.
In fact, Denny said, Gates almost missed the final heat in the meet that qualified her for the Trials because she put in a subpar time against the clock. In the finals, Denny told Gates to “Get up in the blocks and do what you do best, go out and try to beat as many people as you can. I think if you do that, you’re going to go awfully fast.”
Gates will get her chance to test her racing merit at the Trials on July 1, 2012, in Omaha, Neb., where only the top two will advance. “When I started my freshman year, if you would have told me that I would qualify for the Olympic Trials, I would not have believed you,” she said. “I didn’t even place in states my senior year in high school. I was 18th or something like that.”
Gates said in high school Division I schools did not look at her and Denny said he does not recall actively recruiting her. She wasn’t on scholarship her freshman year at California (Pennsylvania), but as her times started to improve and her work ethic became apparent, that quickly changed.
At the NCAA meet her freshman year, Gates came in 11th in the 50 free. Her sophomore year she finished fourth and won the event in her junior year.
Melissa Gates competes at a meet at California University of Pennsylvania.
Since high school, Gates has shaved two seconds off her time in the 50 free.
Although Denny admits he tries not to think too often about one of his star athletes riding and jumping a horse, he said he believes part of Melissa’s success comes from her finding balance in these outside activities.
“I think that if we were to say ‘Melissa, you’re not allowed to ride anymore,’ part of me thinks her success might have still occurred, but I don’t think she would have been as happy about it,” he said.
“When I’m riding, I don’t think about anything else,” Gates said. “No matter what is bothering me, no matter what is going on with school, when I’m ridding, I’m so focused on that and nothing else matters.”
California (Pennsylvania)’s season ends after the 2012 NCAA Division II Swimming and Diving Championships in March. Gates plans to continue her training at Penn State where a high school friend is also training for the Trials.
For now, she’s planning to focus on her senior year and training for the season, which includes, of course, riding Badger as much as possible.