As a member of the Cheshire Y/Sea Dog Swim Club, teenager Ali Tyler greatly anticipated getting to participate in the Eastern Zone Speedo Super Sectional Championship held from May 13-16 in Richmond, Virginia. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, she hadn’t been able to travel outside Connecticut and compete since December of 2019.
“Going into the meet, my goal was to get best times,” recalled Tyler, a senior at Cheshire High School. “As a team, we only found out about the trip three weeks before. We were going to swim for fun and enjoy being around everyone.”
With many close friends cheering from the pool deck, she exceeded her expectations and earned a dream opportunity. Tyler clocked personal records in all of her seven races and qualified in two events for the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I was surprised by how much time I took off,” stated Tyler. “I was hoping for a breakthrough.”
Tyler won the 100- (1:01.84) and 200-meter (2:14.76) backstrokes, adding second places in the 200-meter individual medley (2:17.31) and 50-meter freestyle (26.18) at Collegiate School Aquatic Center. She made the trials in the 100-meter backstroke and 200-meter IM.
“Since I was (age) 14, it has been a goal of mine to qualify for the trials while in high school or college, but wasn’t expecting it this year,” reflected Tyler.
“Ali is so talented,” stated Sea Dog Coach Sean Farrell. “It is not surprising that she is as good as she is, but nobody goes in a straight line. She has overcome adversity in her career and is now being rewarded for sticking with her training.”
Tyler feels fortunate to get to compete nationally in Omaha, Nebraska. The Summer Olympics Games were scheduled to run in 2020, but the pandemic caused the event to be pushed back to this year from July 23 to Aug. 8 in Tokyo, Japan.
For the U.S. meet, trial qualifiers will compete in the first wave from Friday through this coming Monday, June 7. Tyler will swim the 100-meter backstroke on the opening day and perform the 200-meter IM on the last day.
After the meet, top finishers return for the second wave from June 13-20. Tyler had looked forward to attending her senior prom (Friday) and graduation (June 16), but now hopes to be able to skip both traditional events if she can advance in the process.
While she will be the only Cheshire swimmer at the meet, Tyler will compete with a friend, Greenwich High School senior record-holder Meghan Lynch.
“I’m very excited for this opportunity ahead of me,” stated Tyler. “I’m not worried about my times. I just want to have fun and do my best.”
Recently in Virginia, she earned her 200-meter IM milestone on the opening night of the meet. Tyler finished just .09 behind champion Zoe Skirboll, but still joined her opponent as a national qualifier.
“I moved up three or four spots from the prelims,” said Tyler. “It was announced three or four times that the winner and I had both qualified for the trials, but I didn’t hear it until I got out of the pool and my teammates hugged me.”
Two nights later, she qualified again in the 100-meter backstroke and won the finals by almost two seconds.
“It was very rewarding,” said Tyler. “The backstroke races are important to me because that was my best stroke growing up.”
She came up just short of making the trials in the 200-meter backstroke, but was happy to get a best time and take first place.
“Ali put everything together at the right time,” reflected Farrell. "That doesn’t happen all the time, but it is great when you see someone benefit from their hard work.”
Mostly high school swimmers participated in the zone meet, but there were college athletes, as well.
“I love competing in big meets because it pushes me to do faster times,” Tyler explained. “I thought that everyone on our team did amazing on this trip. Considering that we hadn’t been training in long course, I was impressed with our times.”
To get ready for the Olympic Trials, Tyler and her father Jonah flew out to Nebraska on Tuesday. Tyler’s mother, Lisa, and younger sister, Julianna, will come out on Friday.
Julianna swims for the Sea Dogs and CHS Rams.
“The support of my family has meant the world to me. They push me more than I can even explain,” said Tyler. “I’m fortunate to be around such positive people.”
Farrell will also travel to Nebraska to coach Tyler.
“To get ready, Sean and I have gone back to normal training,” said Tyler. “We want to build up yardage, so that I have leeway to start resting and tapering for my events.”
In contrast to the majority of her club meets, Tyler will have a small swim program at the trials.
“I think that I can definitely conserve some energy,” Tyler said. "I feel that the strong competition will push me to great times.”
Backstroke has been her top stroke since she started swimming at age 5.
“I work really hard on it. I focus on little things like faster turns and kicking off the wall,” explained Tyler.
She also practices and competes in butterfly, freestyle, and breaststroke.
“I train every stroke and I think that has played a role in my success over the years,” stated Tyler. “I’m very appreciative of Sean (Farrell) for allowing me to swim a lot of different races.”
After starting her competitive career with the Wallingford Dolphins, Tyler joined the Sea Dogs club at age 11 and went on to set 20 state records between individual and relay races on the youth level.
In coming to CHS in 2017, she helped the Rams win the Southern Connecticut Conference and Class L titles. Tyler set the Class L record in the 100-yard backstroke (56.98) and teamed with Liz Boyer, Julia Stevens, and Sophie Murphy to set the state mark in the 200-yard medley relay (1:43.99).
Tyler also earned three school records and two All-American times, but prior to her sophomore year, she made the decision to stop swimming at CHS and focus instead on competing for the Sea Dogs.
“I think switching to being a club swimmer was the right decision,” reflected Tyler. “Through dealing with the pandemic, I’ve learned how important training is. As a swimmer, I benefit more from practice than having multiple meets in a week to break it up.”
Tyler has enjoyed a historic career with the Sea Dogs, contributing to a record nine national relay crowns from 2017-19.
“Swimming on those relays really impacted my career,” said Tyler. “It was amazing to share those experiences with my friends.”
From 2017-18, Tyler helped the Sea Dog club win their first three national team crowns on the women’s side. In consecutive meets, she combined with Boyer, Murphy, and Mia Leko to seal the championship in the final relay race.
“From my first (YMCA) national meet, I wanted to score points for the team and build up to winning an event,” stated Tyler.
While earning crowns and accolades in the last few years, Tyler has persevered through obstacles to eclipse best times she set as a child. She battled through sickness as a freshman and worked her way back after having surgery a year later.
Because of the pandemic, Tyler hasn’t been able to swim at YMCA Nationals in the last two years. She feels that making the 2021 Olympic Trials shows how important it is to trust your training process.
“It meant a lot to get best times in Virginia and push through the challenges that I’ve been through,” reflected Tyler. “Hard work pays off even if you don’t see the results right away.”
After competing in the trials, Tyler will continue to train to prepare for her transition to swimming at George Mason University in Virginia. She was excited to sign her college scholarship last year, but adds that it will be tough to say goodbye to her local teammates.
“Without the team we have in Cheshire, I don’t think I would have gotten to the point where I am right now,” said Tyler. “They have played a key role in my career.”