On a muggy Midwest night in June, Kelsi Worrell climbed out of an Omaha pool as an Olympian. The Century Link Center scoreboard, which after the 100-meter butterfly final flashed a "1" next to her name, confirmed that.
Walking off the deck, one hand covering a mouth still open wide in joy and surprise, she spotted her family. That's when she cried, the same way Olympic champions often do when the National Anthem plays, and their country's flag rises slowly above their heads.
If Worrell, a Westhampton, N.J., native, finds herself atop a medals podium next week at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, it won't be any more improbable than the journey that took her there.
The swimming team at the neighborhood pool where she discovered her passion was an unplanned stop. Her parents didn't swim and knew little about the sport. They were merely looking to keep their children busy during the summer. Worrell, the oldest of six, suffered from asthma and at first hated the cold water and early-morning practices.
While she persevered, improved and eventually prospered, at 19, the prime of many world-class swim careers, she was still swimming for what was then a middling Division I college program, Louisville. She was not on the Olympic radar and bristled when anyone suggested she should be.
"I used to hate it when I'd win a race and people would say, 'You're going to the Olympics,' " she said. "They just didn't realize how difficult a thing that is to do. Only .0001 percent of swimmers actually get there."
But, to herself, Worrell vowed she'd be one of the fortunate ones. And in 2015, she kicked and stroked that dream into another gear.
Beginning that year, she swept the butterfly events at two straight NCAA championships. At the 2015 event, she became the first woman in history to swim the 100-yard fly in less than 50 seconds. In the process she broke one of the oldest records in the sport, set by Natalie Coughlin in 2002. Then, at June's U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, she coasted to victory in the 100-meter butterfly and earned a trip to Rio.
"It wasn't like anything really crazy happened," Worrell, 22, said recently of her rapid and belated ascent. "I just kept getting better year after year. It was a really steady progression. At Louisville, I had an ankle sprain my freshman year and mononucleosis as a sophomore. When I was finally healthy in 2015, that's when I really had my breakthrough."
Her win at the trials completed an unlikely story, one that began 15 years earlier when, after seeing a meet at her neighborhood pool, she convinced her mother to let her join the team, the Tarnsfield Tornadoes.
"My mom didn't know much about the sport, still doesn't," she said. "I didn't like it at first. The cold water and the early practices. But then I won a few races and I said, 'Hey, this is OK.' "
Soon she was the Tornadoes' star. At Rancocas Valley High School, she won three consecutive state championships in the 100-yard butterfly.
"In high school, I started to get decent. But I was never at the Olympic level," she said. "There are a lot of great swimmers from New Jersey, but we don't have the depth a lot of others states have. I was never on the junior national team or anything like that. But by the time I was a senior, I was good enough to go Division I."
It was in 2015 at Louisville when the dream came into sharper focus.
"When I had that breakout summer, I realized I was good enough to compete with the best in the country and the best in the world," she said. "That's when I thought, 'OK, I might really have a shot at this.' "
And when she won the 100-meter fly at Omaha this June, against brutally tough competition, in the second-fastest time in the world this year, she became Louisville's first Olympic swimmer.
After the trials, she and her American teammates retreated to San Antonio and then Atlanta for intensive training and team building. The swimmers were also trying to alter their sleep patterns since most of their events will take place at night. The 100-butterfly final is Aug. 12.
"We've started staying up later," Worrell said. "I've been staying up till midnight and waking up around 8 or so. I'm eating all of my meals a little later. It's a little bit different, but I think it will make it easier for all of us."
In Rio, if she is to win a gold medal, Worrell will have to defeat Sweden's Sarah Sjöström, the 22-year-old world-record-holder in the event.
"I try not to worry about what everyone else is doing," Worrell said. "[Sarah] has had some really impressive swims this year, and I know she's going to be a competitor. But I'm just going to focus on myself and my training."
That impressive and emotional victory in Omaha, said her college coach, should fill her with the kind of confidence Olympic victory requires.
"The Olympic competition is always tough, but the trials may be even more difficult," said Louisville coach Arthur Albiero. "That's not a knock against anyone or any country, but the depth of swimming talent in the U.S. is really incredible.
"And at the trials, Kelsi put it all together. That's what's needed to win at this level, being your best when your best is what's needed."