Alia Atkinson was 15 at Flanagan High School when she made her first Olympic team.
“I was going to the 2004 Olympics asking myself ‘what is that?’”
Twelve years later, the world-class swimmer will compete in her fourth Olympics for Jamaica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 5-21.
“Now, there is a difference physically and mentally and even bigger difference experience-wise, but I am still going to feel like that little girl in 2004.”
Atkinson, 27, is among medal favorites in the 100-meter breaststroke, her signature event. The swimming competition is Aug. 6-13. Her prelims and semifinals are Aug. 6 and final on Aug. 7.
Atkinson and her longtime coach Chris Anderson leave for Rio and pre-Olympic preparation on July 19.
For the past two weeks at Academic Village Pool in Pembroke Pines, Atkinson has been doing her pre-Olympic workouts, 8-10 p.m. instead of the morning to simulate the time change, competition schedule and conditions of Rio de Janeiro. Atkinson and Anderson will stay in a condo instead of the Athlete Village to control her surroundings, food, sleep and transportation to and from the pool.
“We are leaving nothing to chance,” said Anderson, the Jamaica Olympic coach, who is also coaching his South Florida Aquatic Club (SOFLO) swimmers Timothy Wynter of Jamaica and Jorge Murillo Valdes of Colombia.
Atkinson has been training with SOFLO since she was 13, three years after her family moved to Pembroke Pines. Two years later, she competed at her first Olympics in Athens, Greece for the experience.
After an outstanding high school career at Flanagan, she earned a full scholarship to Texas A&M where she won an NCAA title. At 19, she competed at her second Olympics in Beijing, where she finished 25th in the 200-meter breaststroke.
Atkinson became a serious medal contender at the 2012 London Olympics where she won a swim-off to advance into her first Olympic final. She just missed a medal placing fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Now a world short course record holder, World Championship, Pan American Games, Commonwealth Games and World Cup champion, Atkinson could become Jamaica’s first Olympic medalist in swimming.
“I haven’t changed that much since my first Olympics,” Atkinson said. “I definitely look at the Olympics as another meet. I like to keep it simple. I have always been that way. Chris is the same way. He never makes it this big, great achievement when I do something in swimming, even with the world record. He will tell me I did a good job or good meet and downplays what I am doing and I appreciate that.”
When the Jamaican Swimming Federation failed to give her the traditional Olympic ring like every other country does for its athletes, Anderson presented her with one at SOFLO’s banquet.
“I never realized how big a role Chris has played,” Atkinson said. “I have not given him enough credit over the years. I depend on him.”
Atkinson is in the best shape of her life going into the Olympics. She has been working with weight trainer Kenneth Moore “who whipped me into sprinter shape,” she said.
“For the other three Olympics, I was still battling physical issues to see where I was strong, whether I was using the correct weights and regimen. My trainer has helped me to fine tune and switched my ideology when it comes to training.”
Atkinson has gained confidence through the years and is mentally tougher than she has been in past Olympics.
“For me, I was always battling my own enemies,” she said. “In 2004 and 2008, deep down I didn’t think I was worthy of making the Olympics. I felt like a filler.
“I think I was too hard on myself. I believe in myself now. I made the “A” cut and I am a contender for the podium. This is a big achievement. Now I have the opportunity to be at the top of the top in my country. It is a pretty big deal. There was a time I didn’t feel that way.”
At 27, Atkinson never dreamed she would still be in the sport. She has a handful of sponsors including Speedo, which have helped with the cost of training and traveling to meets.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to still be here, I never thought I would still be swimming,” Atkinson said.
She has become an inspiration in Jamaica and has helped the growth of swimming among youngsters despite the overwhelming popularity of track and field.
“I think the people of Jamaica see what I stand for, they associate with me and feel they have that fighting spirit,” Atkinson said. “I work hard. They see me on the starting block no matter what the obstacles are trying harder.”
With the Olympics two weeks away, Atkinson is eager to race.
“Sometimes my mind runs on the idea that this could be a medal,” Atkinson said.
“And then I think, ‘okay, I have gotten medals before.’ But this is Olympic time. I don’t want to say I should have done this or should have done that. As an athlete I have to be okay, I have to be content with what I do. Months out I was more anxious and then I went through the worried stage and then the confidence stage. Now, it’s this meet needs to get over stage. I know I can swim well. It’s that kind of confidence I need to have on race day. I want to touch the wall, think to myself ‘it is done’ and have a sense of relief wash over me.”