Kearney High swimmer calls competing in 2024 Olympic Trials a ‘cool experience’

This year’s U.S. Olympic swimming trials took place at a football stadium: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

And one Kearney High School junior-to-be was right there, in the middle of it all: Whitaker Steward, 16, qualified in March to compete for a spot on Team USA for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Steward, 16, competed in the 400-meter freestyle, finishing fourth — not quite fast enough for the team that America will send to France, but well worth the trip.

“I just really loved this meet,” said Steward, who clocked a fast time of 4 minutes, 01.26 seconds at Indy. “It was just so cool to see all of the biggest people in swimming, and just all of the idols that you kind of grew up around when it comes to the Olympics — just seeing all of these world record-holders and world records being broken, and just being able to see people that you’ve idolized your entire life.”

Steward’s two older brothers swam, too, and took up the sport at a young age. He now swims for both Kearney High, under coach Trevor Woehrman, and KC’s Tsunami Swim Club, under coach Tom Kleiboeker.

So far, Steward is a two-time MSHSAA champion (200- and 500-yard freestyle as a sophomore and 500-yard freestyle as a freshman). The first freshman to take home a state title in the 500-yard event, Steward made history again with his Olympic trials qualification, which he earned earlier this year in the Central Region Sectionals at the University of Missouri.

Now, the first Kearney swimmer to compete in an Olympic trials while still in high school is looking forward to what’s next.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this meet is that there’s so much to do, especially for me,” he said. “I’m so happy to see where I’m at and just being able to see kind of a checkpoint of where I’m at compared to other people in the country and work from here for four years until the next one.”

The experience of swimming against the best in the country should only help him in future competition.

“You only get so much out of seeing the names pop up from results of meets across the country,” Steward said. “Being able to see all the fastest people in the country, and especially the other people in my age group that were able to qualify, it’s just so cool to race them and actually put faces to names and talk to them.”

Steward noted that he had the chance to talk to 2024 Paris Olympic qualifiers Shaine Casas and Carson Foster at the trials. He called the opportunity “inspirational.”

Steward also had Tsunami teammate Ellis Crisci, a rising sophomore at Lawrence Free State, to keep him company in Indianapolis. Crisci finished with a time of 4:06.69 in the 400 free.

“Having him there,” Steward said, “it was cool to kind of experience it with another person and get to just take it in.”

With the “cool experience” of the 2024 swim trials behind him, Steward is turning his focus to the July 24-27 Summer Junior Nationals in Irvine, California.

“It was just cool to see how all of the high-level athletes, like elite-level athletes, were just able to carry themselves and the mental games — all of it,” Steward said. “They’re training for and trying to get spots on the Olympic team, which is one of the most high stress points in swimming, so it’s cool to see how they reacted and how they were able to bounce back from specific situations.

“I think that’s something that I’m going to need to carry into my swimming throughout the next couple of years.”