Four months ago, swimmers Cavan Gormsen and Tess Howley were presented with a chance of a lifetime -- and they did not disappoint.
Racing for their chance to represent the United States in the Olympic Games, the 16-year-old students at Sacred Heart Academy, an an all-girls catholic high school in Hempstead, didn’t qualify for the Games, but their times were strong enough for them to compete in the FINA World Cup.
Competing in Berlin during the first week of October, Gormsen, of Wantagh, won a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle and Howley, of Rockaway, won the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly.
"It’s crazy, I don’t think either of us was expecting to win it," Howley said. "We just trained to go and experience the trip, we weren’t expecting anything much. We weren’t expecting best times or fast times or even winning."
Howley won the 200 fly in 2 minutes, 6.09 seconds, and Gormsen won the 800 free in 8:22.16.
Gormsen and Howley were among 43 American swimmers 18 and under competing in FINA World Cup events held in Berlin and Budapest over a 12-day period. They qualified at the U.S. Olympic trials in June in Omaha, Nebraska. Some countries competing in the World Cup had swimmers 18 and older..
"There are just moments that happen that really make me love what I do and make me realize this is what I want to do," Howley said. "This is who I want to be."
The two described the June Olympic qualifying as some of the most exciting swimming they’ve experienced.
"It was one of the coolest weeks of my life," Gormsen said. "I enjoyed watching every single race and there were so many races that were down to the finish to see who would make the Olympic team or not. and just to be able to witness that in person is just so inspiring."
"It’s pretty cool to get to that level and then come together as a team," Howley said. "We were practically strangers. We didn’t know most of them and then we all came together to represent the U.S."
Gormsen set the New York State high school state record in the 500-yard freestyle last year, clocking 4:40.75 at the CHSAA finals. Howley set the 100 fly state record of 52.33 in the preliminaries at the CHSAA finals.
Neither Howley, who has been swimming since age 4, or Gormsen, who started at age 7, could have seen how far their sport would take them.
"There are some times, maybe after the meet where you sit down and go, ‘Wow, that just happened, I did that, that’s pretty cool,’ " Howley said. "But it’s a very short period of time and then you have to get right back to work and go back to work and get back at it again because the grind never stops."
Their success hasn’t come without sacrifice. The two said the grueling schedule of nine practices a week between varsity and club competition, along with managing school work and any semblance of social life can be daunting.
"It’s definitely something you have to really, really commit to," Howley said. "The work you put in is really what comes out of it and you only get it with being mentally strong. And you have to be mentally strong to make sacrifices for it."
The two still have dreams of some day competing for Team USA in the Olympics. Sacred Heart coach Mary White continues to watch them chase that dream with the belief it’s within reach. She is tuned in any time they swim in marquee events.
"It was so thrilling to be in front of my TV and see ‘Howley’ and ‘Gormsen’ in a lane and I’m like ‘Oh my God, I know them,’ " she said. "I knew when they were only ninth-graders that they were incredibly exceptional swimmers but I also learned, and I keep saying this, that they are incredibly exceptional people."
Gormsen and Howley both take pride in their international gold medals. And they hope it won’t be the last ones they earn.
"It’s definitely special," Gormsen said. "A little souvenir and it’s really cool."
"I think it’s also a stepping stone to what we’re going to do next," Howley added. "It gives us a glimpse of hope that we can do it and that there’s more to come."