OMAHA, Neb. -- She had signed just two autographs before in her entire life. She is only 14, after all. There are braces on her teeth, and her mind is just as focused on her first day of high school later this summer as it is on competitive swimming.
But on this day, in this moment, Allie Szekely was a star. She had energized the CenturyLink Center crowd by beating Gisselle Kohoyda in a swim-off for the first alternate spot in her event and she couldn't get off the pool deck. Though the paper said she had only finished 17th in the event, missing the semifinal cut by one spot, none of the teenage girls waiting for her autograph seemed to care. They saw someone who looked just like them, acted like them, sounded like them.
"We were screaming so loud for you," one of them said. "I think I lost my voice."
"You sign [your name] different every time," another added.
"I know," Szekely replied. "I don't know how to do this."
Szekely entered the event seeded 43rd with a time of 2:32.55. Kohoyda had been seeded fifth coming in, but after recently recovering from a staph infection struggled with a time of 2:30.38 in the final heat. That set her up for the swim-off with the tiny girl six years younger than her.
After the race, as Szekely signed autographs on the pool deck above, the 20-year-old Kohoyda showered her competitor with praise and insisted she will be someone to watch heading toward 2016.
"She's a fighter," Kohoyda said. "I completely commend her for what she's done. She fought the whole way. I'm really glad that I got to compete against someone who is so strong. I wouldn't have picked anybody else. I hope that girl comes back in 2016 because I'll be here and I want to see her. I want to race her again. She's a name to remember. Write that down."
Szekely repeated the word "cool" to try to describe her emotions. It was "really cool" to have everyone cheer for her. It was "very cool" to have people ask for her signatures and stuff. And though she had never thought about swimming in the Olympics, she assumed the experience would be "very cool." Did she hope someone would scratch so she would have a place in Friday night's semifinal?
"That'd be cool," she said. "But if not I'm fine watching, too. That's OK."
Szekely said she's been swimming since she was seven and competitively since age 10. Her favorite swimmers are Ryan Lochte and Rebecca Soni, the American record-holder in her event. Yet it was another swimming celebrity who she shared a unique moment with after endlessly signing her name Friday morning. It was 45-year-old Dara Torres, who had just climbed out of the water after a quick swim.
"You're only 14, huh?" Torres asked.
"Yeah," Szekely said.
"Aww," the 45-year-old replied. "Good luck."
And then the two shared a hug. What a day it had been.