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Jessica Hardy sets record in 50-meter breaststroke at nationals

Jessica Hardy won the 50-meter breaststroke with a record time of 30.12 seconds at National Championships

She doesn't remember falling in, but she remembers the feeling of pure panic. She remembers choking and not being able to see anything. She remembers it being the worst kind of chaos.

Jessica Hardy was 3 years old, attending a birthday party with her mother, Denise. They were in the backyard of Denise's friend's house, a backyard with a pool.

Denise looked away for maybe 20 seconds. By the time she turned back around, Jessica had disappeared, wandered off, and Denise couldn't find her.

Jessica, who hadn't had swim lessons, was now in the deep end of the pool and sinking fast. The harder she tried to break the surface, the farther down she fell. The 3-year-old was drowning.

Today, the 27-year-old Hardy is an Olympian and one of the best breaststroke swimmers in the country. The Long Beach native is competing close to home in the 2014 National Championships in Irvine, and on Friday night, she won the women's 50-meter breaststroke and set a Nationals record with a time of 30.12 seconds. Her time, the second fastest in the world this year, also broke the Nationals record she set earlier in the day in the preliminaries.

But back then, in that backyard pool, she had to depend on another partygoer to save her life. A male friend of Denise's jumped in fully clothed and pulled Hardy out. The crowd surrounded them on the deck. She still remembers the shade of his yellow shirt.

In a way, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Besides the mental shock, Hardy was relatively unharmed. The next week, Denise signed her up for swim lessons, and she's been in the pool ever since.

The swim school, called Blue Buoy, is a little more than three miles away from the pool where Nationals are being held this week.

Hardy joined the swim team a few years after those initial swim lessons, more for the social than competitive aspect of the team. She didn't realize that she could swim professionally until she was 17.

Hardy has won a combined 26 international medals since turning pro in 2007. Her best event is the breaststroke, both 50 meters and 100 meters, as she holds the American record in both of those events. In her first Olympics, Hardy won a bronze and a gold medal in the 2012 Games in London for being a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay team and the 400-meter medley team, respectively.

But even with the success she's had in the water, 24 years later, Hardy still has vivid memories of what it felt like to be helpless in the water.

"You have no control over your situation," Hardy said. "It's the worst kind of chaos … I can't imagine a worse feeling."

According to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 1-4, which is why USA Swimming has a national campaign that aims to raise awareness of learning how to swim called "Make a Splash."

They had an event in Long Beach in May, and Hardy helped by giving swim lessons and giving a speech on the importance of water safety.

"I gave lessons to kids that have never been in a pool before," she said. "It changed my life, honestly, to see them go from being panicky to comfortable in the water. That touched my life in the coolest way."

When recalling her near-death experience, Hardy estimates that she was underwater for 30 seconds before the man in the yellow shirt saved her.

Her winning time in Friday's 50-meter breaststroke final?

30 seconds.

Follow Everett Cook on Twitter @everettcook

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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