Ex-Fitch stars Dignan, Koelle are living a dream

Prior to attempting to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team trials, Emmett Dignan received a dose of inspiration.

Cathy Koelle, whose daughter, Addison, already had earned her spot in the trials, gave a pep talk to Dignan.

"(Addison) and her mom were an inspiration for me to go," Dignan said. "I've been swimming with her for my whole life. I was hoping that I'd get to go, too. Her mom had a conversation with me before I had my trials. She was like, 'you better get that trials cut (time). I better see you in Omaha.' ''

Dignan took the message and swam with it, making the cut in the 100-meter breaststroke in late February for the U.S. Olympic trials, which start June 25 in Nebraska. Koelle qualified in both the 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly.

The pair of Fitch graduates - Dignan in 2010 and Koelle in 2009 - plan to root for each other, just as they've done during their college careers at Atlantic Coast Conference schools. Dignan just completed his sophomore year at Virginia Tech and Koelle will be a senior this fall at Maryland.

"We've been friends forever," Koelle said. "I'm really excited that he's going to be there with me."

Both talented swimmers are considered long shots to make the U.S. Olympic team. The competition will feature the country's elite swimmers.

Dignan and Koelle are realistic about their chances, focusing on enjoying their moment on the grand stage. Just to qualify for the trials is quite an accomplishment.

"I can't wait," Dignan said. "It's going to be basically the biggest meet I'll ever go to for pretty much my entire swimming career. It's the peak of my swimming career. It's going to be a little overwhelming."

The trials will be a bit bittersweet for Koelle.

In February, Maryland announced that it is dropping the program, so the trials will be the last meet for Koelle, who's been competing since the age of seven.

"I think I'm ready to be done and go out with the Olympic trials," Koelle said. "It kind of adds a little bit more meaning to it and more pressure to do well. But I'm not trying to think about that."

Both Dignan and Koelle took similar routes to reach this point, developing into Division I athletes through hard work, dedication and sacrifice. They've gone from all-state high school swimmers to key contributors on the Division I level in college.

This season Dignan competed in several events, including on the 200 medley relay team that set the school record.

At the ACC Championships in late February, Dignan helped the Hokies post their best finish in program history, placing second.

The day after the ACC meet ended, Dignan was back in the pool. He fell short by a second in his first attempt to qualify for the trials. Discouraged and still exhausted from the ACC meet, he considered skipping a second attempt later that night. His college coach "forced" him to give it another shot.

"I didn't think I'd get it that night," Dignan said. "I was really surprised. I have to give my (college coach) an assist."

Koelle, a three-time selection as The Day's Swimmer of the Year, qualified for the Olympic trials last summer at the Canadian Cup in Montreal. When informed that she hit the qualifying time, she started crying.

Now Koelle is preparing to cap her outstanding career. Since school ended, she has been training at school with her teammates.

"I'm super excited," Koelle said. "It's a big accomplishment. There are so many swimmers and only a handful that actually make the Olympic trials."

After the Olympic qualifying meet, Koelle and Dignan will take a break.

Koelle, a government and politics major, has an internship set up with the Secretary of State's office in Connecticut. She someday hopes to work in Washington, D.C., in the area of environmental policy.

Dignan, an industrial and systems engineering major, plans to vacation with his family. He will return to school later this summer to train for the U.S. Open, a high level national meet in Indianapolis in August. He's already qualified in the 100 breaststroke.

g.keefe@theday.com

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