Times Staff Writer
When an athlete’s dreams extend to the national stage at a college or university, no one knows for certain what the future will hold. Everyone hopes of winning a league title. Maybe even a national title. But nothing is guaranteed.
“I honestly didn’t think I would make it to nationals at all,” said senior Western Colorado University swimmer Randi Yarnell. “Coming in, the times seemed unachievable and then I made it, and was the first to do so my freshman year. After that, it was just always a goal to be an All-American and be better than the previous years.”
While Yarnell never thought she would win a national title when she first arrived at Western, she became the first woman swimmer in Western history to do so on Thursday, March 14 in the 200-yard freestyle.
“It all feels surreal, almost like a dream,” Yarnel saidl of achieving the feat. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I just did and what it all means for myself, my team and school. Even thinking about it now, it still makes me speechless.”
The only other Western swimmer to win a national title was Nelson Shibasaki, who won the men's 200 backstroke in 1968.
But for Yarnell, the writing was on the wall from the moment she arrived at Western.
Off to a fast start
In her freshman season, Yarnell broke numerous school records and became the first-ever Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference champion in women’s swimming for Western — winning the 50, 100 and 200 free. Yet, she wasn’t done there.
She made history at the 2016 Division II National Championships, becoming the first ever All-American swimmer among Western women in the 200 free — despite being sick.
Yarnell’s success as a freshman came as no surprise. After all, she came to Western as a state champion in the 50 free and runner-up in the 100 back and 100 fly for Bonneville High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“High school was not a big thing like it is in Colorado,” said Yarnell. “We didn’t get recognized at my school because it wasn’t a funded sport. Once you got to district and state for high school, it was basically just another meet with all the year-round club swimmers. Club swimming was where it was at.”
Yarnell began swimming competitively at 6 years old for Clovis Swim Club in California, but she began to lose interest in the sport a few years later. However, she got back into swimming after moving to Idaho when she was 12 years old, and the next year a passion for the sport was re-ignited when she decided to compete year-round.
“I say I really started seriously swimming at 13, and I’ve absolutely loved it ever since,” said Yarnell. “The sport is a love-hate relationship, meaning there were times I hated morning practice or called my mom crying, but in the end I loved the team, my friends, the memories. Looking back, it is a lot more love than hate.”
Bringing home the gold
While Yarnell made it to nationals all four years at Western — earning six separate All-American honors — she never was able to bring home the highest trophy. Until this year.
“I don’t know why I was able to win a national title this year,” said Yarnell. “I was standing behind the blocks getting ready to walk out for the race and just said to myself, ‘I don’t care. I don’t care anymore. I just want to get in and swim as fast as I possibly can and if I die so be it, maybe I’ll get a best time out of it.’”
In the 200 free at nationals this year, Yarnell swam 24.88- and 26.92-second splits to start the race — before slowing down slightly with a 27.85-second split in lap three. As she hit the final turn, she left everything she had in the pool to claim the victory.
“I’m not sure I can even express how amazing it was,” said Cindy Yarnell, Randi’s mother. “(I’m) so proud of all her hard work culminating in such an amazing race. It was fantastic!”
With Yarnell’s swimming and college career coming to an end, she plans to move home to live with her parents, work and take additional classes for graduate school — for which she plans to apply in 2020 and study occupational therapy. Yarnell also will treat herself to a trip to Hawaii to visit her friend and former teammate, Akemi King.
Yet, looking back on her time at Western, it’s impossible not to see a career that will be remembered for decades to come. Yarnell holds nine records as a Mountaineer — five individual and four relay. Those include the 50, 100 and 200 free; 100 back; 100 fly; 200, 400 and 800 free relay; and 400 medley relay.
Yarnell will graduate from Western on Saturday, May 11, with a degree in Exercise and Sports Science and a minor in psychology.
“Believe it when someone says four years of college goes by in the blink of eye because it really does,” said Yarnell. “The memories you make, the people you meet, the experiences you have follow you everywhere. All the friends I made I consider family, freshman year to now with all the laughs I’ve had. I cherish everything I have done here and in the name of Western.”
(Brandon Warr can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)