Ayear and a half ago, Longmont's Christine Jennings was lying on a beach in Rio de Janeiro with a horrific leg injury.
The open water swimmer had been running to the finish line as part of a race that alternated between swimming and running when she felt her right leg buckle beneath her. She had hyperextended her knee on the uneven sand, and looked down to see her knee and calf twisting in opposite directions.
Now, Jennings is back on top, having won the U.S. open water national championship 10K race last weekend in Los Angeles in two hours, two minutes and 14.336 seconds, which earned the 26-year-old a berth to the world championships this summer in Barcelona, Spain.
It's a comeback that astounds Jennings father, Stephen Jennings.
"I don't think I could've done what she did," he said. "For her to come back this far and win a national title, I would applaud any athlete that can do that."
He said he could hardly stand to watch the race because he was so nervous but forced himself to watch with 400 meters to go. When Stephen Jennings saw his daughter about a body length in front of the pack, he knew she could win it.
Stephen Jennings isn't alone in feeling nervous while watching open water swimming, where athletes battle for position by kicking, slapping and scratching each other, all while drafting and strategizing moves like when to pass, when to take their water and food breaks. Christine Jennings' coach, Grant Holicky, said it's more like a cycling peloton than pool swimming, all while dealing with heat exhaustion, often polluted water and even hypothermia.
But Christine Jennings thrives on the fierce competition and intense strategy. She's not built like a swimmer -- she's not exceedingly tall or long, Holicky said -- but she's tough.
"(In open water swimming) you have to battle the elements, you battle other people," Jennings said. "Anything can go wrong and you have to respond to it appropriately. You have to have patience, and nothing is ever going to work the way you think it's going to work. A lot of people struggle with open water because they have to give up that control, and my favorite part is the strategizing and constant changing of game plans in your head."
A strong start
The Jennings family moved to Longmont in 2003, and Jennings started school as a junior at Niwot High. She graduated in 2005 and went on to swim Division 1 for the University of Minnesota, where she earned All-America honors in the 500 free and 800 free relay, and helped Minnesota with the 2008 Big Ten title.
Jennings tried open water swimming for the first time when she was 13, and then tried again in 2007 just to see how well she could do. There's no time to beat, no lanes, no pressure, Jennings said. She can swim however she wants, and there's no set definition of "the perfect swim" in open water swimming.
She's had her share of successes in the sport, including a gold medal at the 2010 Pan Pacific championships and top-five finishes at 2010 and 2011 U.S. nationals, but she's also dealt with a string of setbacks. She watched her friend and fellow open water swimmer Fran Crippen, a medal-winning U.S. national team member, die in the water at a 2010 race in the United Arab Emirates. The water was 86 degrees that day, and Jennings and other swimmers at the race suffered heat exhaustion. Jennings was so dehydrated that after the race, she went through two IV bags at the hospital to feel normal again. Crippen had likely passed out due to the extreme conditions that day.
Not only did she partly blame herself for not noticing when Crippen went under, she kept thinking, it could've been me, she said. Emotionally, Jennings said she was wrecked after Crippen's death, and would find herself hyperventilating before races for months after.
'Setback after setback'
Throughout her career on the world cup circuit, Jennings dealt with various illnesses, probably from swimming in polluted water across the world.
Then she injured her knee on the beach in Rio de Janeiro in late 2011. When she got off crutches 10 weeks later, she had three months to prepare for the London Olympic qualifiers -- not nearly enough time. Her Olympic hopes were dashed again -- she'd tried to qualify for Athens, at age 17, and Beijing.
She'd moved to Southern California to train with prolific swimming coach Bill Rose. But their styles didn't mesh, and a year ago, Jennings left California feeling discouraged and exhausted, both mentally and physically.
"It was just setback after setback," Jennings remembered.
So she moved back in with her parents in Longmont and began training again with former professional triathlete Grant Holicky, of Apex Coaching.
Working with Holicky has helped her work through some of the uncertainty that followed her injury. The two just click, Jennings said. Holicky is consistently positive and upbeat, and the two collaborate on her training schedule based on how she feels.
"Christine and I have this relationship where her training is a group effort," Holicky said. "We sit down and look at it and plan out what we're going to do together. Sometimes I tell her she's crazy. Sometimes she tells me I'm crazy, but it's made for a good relationship and a great deal of trust."
Jennings often works out with young kids or the RACE team at Rallysport Health and Fitness, which reminds Jennings to watch how she reacts to adversity in her life. Impressionable people are watching, she said.
But what's pulled Jennings through everything, though, is her faith, she said. Though her parents Stephen and Gail Jennings raised her in a faith-based community, Stephen Jennings said it was Christine who ran with her belief in God and made it part of who she is as an athlete.
She talks to God constantly, before, during and after races, she says.
"I feel like God has been my support in everything," she said. " God's been my best friend through it all."
In late July, Jennings will head to Barcelona for the world championships. But after all the setbacks she faced, one of Jennings' favorite Bible verses reminds her not to worry too much about the future just yet.
"The Bible says let tomorrow worry about itself," she said.
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.