The road to Omaha runs through Ocala for Elise Bauer

Elise Bauer hates to sweat.

Elise Bauer during a UF swim meet. [Submitted]

That meant playing tennis or softball like her parents did was out. But the Ocala native did inherit an intense level of competitiveness.

The only thing Bauer hates more than sweating: Losing.

The pool was the answer to satisfy her itch for competition and hatred of perspiring.

Bauer was two years old when she first hit the pool at the Newton A. Perry Aquatics Center in a “Mommy and Me” swim class taught by Central Florida Marlins’ coach Bill Vargo. As Bauer continued swim lessons, instructors began to recognize her potential.

“Our program director at swim lessons said, ‘Hey, you know, she’s got the ‘it’ factor,’” Vargo said. “And I said, ‘Hey, she’s four, I’m not worried about it.’”

But by 12, Bauer was heading to state meets as one of the “top dogs,” Vargo said.

By 14, the two were talking about national competitions.

Now 19, Bauer recently finished her first season with the Florida Gators and is preparing to fly to Omaha to swim in the Olympic trials – for real this time.

A year ago, the former Forest Wildcat swimming standout received an invite to the Olympic trials, then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“When we finally got the news that it had been postponed to the next year, I was pretty defeated about it,” Bauer said. “Just training my entire high school career and really my whole life for this, and then for me not to be able to finish it at the end of my senior year was kind of disappointing.”

Bauer was fortunate to have a place to swim during some of the most turbulent months of the pandemic.

The pool at the Perry aquatics center at the College of Central Florida remained open but with limited capacity. Because other swimming facilities around the state were closed, competitive swimmers flocked to the CF pool.

But the feeling of defeat, unfamiliar to Bauer, paired with the unknown, made it difficult to focus.

“At the time, I was very conflicted with my emotions,” Bauer said. “I was like, ‘There’s no meets going on. Do I really need to be swimming right now?’”

She wasn’t alone.

“She was like every other kid that had qualified for trials. It wasn’t just her. It was everybody,” Vargo said. “It was a massive hit to the stomach.”

Lacking motivation, Vargo and Bauer focused on the little things: Less yardage, more technique.

The relaxed practices mirrored those of her youth, Vargo said.

“I would say it took her four to six weeks just to mentally get back into it,” he said.

Her pending move to Gainesville and the start of the UF swim season also got her motivated.

In March, Bauer joined 15 other UF swimmers at the NCAA championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Gators’ had the most participants of any other program.

As a freshman, Bauer qualified for the NCAA championships in the 500-yard freestyle and 1,650-yard freestyle.

“She’s a distance swimmer, and there’s a huge difference between a distance swimmer and the rest of the pack,” Vargo said.

In Omaha, Bauer will compete in the mile and the 1500-meter.

Much like distance running, being a distance swimmer requires extensive training – a challenge Bauer has always welcomed.

“She’ll go through the wall if that’s what it takes,” Vargo said. “She’s got no pain threshold. I’ve tried to find it. I’ve tried to find it over the years, and she amazes me sometimes what she does.”

Vargo admits that he has given Bauer practice sets that he doesn’t expect her to complete. But more times than not, she does.

Considering all that Bauer has accomplished in the pool with Vargo on the pool deck, it’s no surprise she wanted him to go to Omaha with her for the Olympic Trials.

But there was one condition. If he went to Omaha, Bauer would have to come back to Ocala to train.

Meanwhile, in Gainesville, Jeff Poppell, who recruited Bauer to Florida, announced he was leaving to take over the men’s and women’s swim programs at the University of South Carolina.

With Poppell’s departure, Bauer knew her rock was back in Ocala.

“Coach, I’m coming home,” Bauer told Vargo.

She moved back to Ocala in April to train with Vargo during the off-season.

“That felt good,” Vargo said. “Because she was making a commitment to me.”

Vargo flies out to Omaha on June 11, while Bauer and her family depart a day later.

Bauer will compete in the 1500-meter on June 15, followed by the 800-meter on June 18.

“Knowing that this is probably the biggest meet in the country, it’s very nerve-wracking,” Bauer said. “But at the same time, I’m very excited to go. I’ve been looking forward to this for over a year now… I’m just trying to have fun with it.

“Making the Olympic team isn’t on the front set of my mind. I know that I’m a bit away from making the actual team. But if it were to happen, it would be a dream come true.”

Echoing Bauer’s mentality, Vargo hopes the Ocala native simply takes in the sights and sounds of the biggest swim meet in the country.

“The trials are going to be around in three years again,” Vargo said. “She could be barking at the door for that mile and that 800. That’s three years away, but she has the ability to do that… She has that God-given ability to knock on that door.”

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