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updated: 6/27/2012 12:35 AM

Trials a terrific honor for St. Charles' Popp, Smith

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By Darryl Mellema
Daily Herald Correspondent

On the wall facing the bleachers at the Norris Center pool in St. Charles is a series of black and orange banners, bearing the names of every one of the city's swim club members who have participated in the U.S. Olympic trials.

There are currently 17 of those banners, and they're going to have to hang two more -- one bearing the name of Meagan Popp and another for Emma Smith.

Smith, a recently graduated St. Charles East senior, qualified in the 200-meter individual medley as well as the 400 IM in the trials, which began Monday night in Omaha, Neb. Smith already swam in the 400 IM and she swims Wednesday in the 200 IM.

"It's really exciting," Smith said. "I'm really excited to go. It's supposed to be a meet that's different from other meets with fanfare and excitement on deck. I'm excited to see how that pans out."

Popp qualified in the 200 breaststroke and swims that event in the trials on Friday.

"It's kind of nerve-racking," Popp said. "But I'm excited to see what the experience is like. To be with all these Olympians, I think it's going to be a good experience for me."

Popp and Smith had very successful 2011 high school seasons, which continued through their club seasons. In her freshman state meet, Popp finished fourth in the 200-yard individual medley and swam a leg of the North Stars' 200 medley relay.

Smith became the latest Saints swimmer to win a state title, and the first since the St. Charles became a two high school city when she won the 200 individual medley. Smith also finished third in the 500 freestyle.

"I'm just wanting to go in to have a good time, enjoy the experience and swim fast," Smith said. "I want to do as well as I can. It's a long way away to get the top two."

The U.S. is one of the most competitive swim nations in the world and only the top two finishers qualify for the Olympic team with no provision for star athletes being added to the team should they fail to perform. The talent in the water combined with the limited roster spots available makes the intensity in the finals incredible.

"This is the hardest cut that there is," Popp said. "I'm hoping to swim my best and get a best time and give it all I've got. No matter what the time is, I'll be happy with it, so long as I know I gave it my all."

Neither Smith nor Popp are expected to challenge for national team spots. But both worked incredibly hard to train and then taper for the trials.

Beyond the difficulty in making the national team, there is a real star presence to this year's trials. They are the final Olympic qualification meet for Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte is another U.S. male swimming star. Among the stars on the women's side are some of the great names of U.S. Swimming -- Natalie Coughlin and Janet Evans, who have returned for another attempt to make an Olympic team.

In addition to the national and international names, the list of swimmers with Illinois roots involved in the trials is extensive.

"It's just cool to be on the deck with those people," Popp said. "You see them on TV and in magazines and now I get to meet them in-person."

Smith and Popp have plenty of swimming left in their lives. The trials are nearly the final meet as a St. Charles Swim Club athlete. She leaves her home since age 13 this fall to swim for Yale.

"There are a couple of other Yale swimmers who will be there and there are two other incoming freshmen who will swim there," Smith said.

Popp, meanwhile, will begin preseason training for her sophomore season with the North Stars in August.

"I think it'll just give me confidence to be able to say that I made it to the Olympic trials and I feel like I can do anything after that, I feel like."

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