Cassidy Bayer keeps the gold medal signed by her hero, Dana Vollmer, on a bookshelf next to her bed. The treasured hardware comes from the 2013 U.S. National Championships and World Trials, where Bayer — then 13 and the second-youngest swimmer at the competition — finished with impressive top-15 times in three events and afterward approached the veteran Olympian for an autograph.
Instead, Vollmer gave her the medal she had just won to qualify for the FINA World Aquatics Championships in the 100-meter butterfly. On the ribbon, she wrote the Alexandria native a message: “Keep swimming!”
Just three years later, Bayer would nearly become an Olympian herself at 16, missing the cut for Rio de Janeiro with a tantalizingly close third-place finish in the 200-meter fly.
“It was hard to cope with the fact that I almost made my dream,” Bayer said. “But it’s also cool that I have so many years ahead of me.”
A few months after the Olympic trials, though, Bayer endured a setback: a knee injury suffered in a powder puff football game required surgery to repair a torn meniscus, forcing her to miss months of training with Nation’s Capital Swim Club and her entire junior season at West Potomac High.
For a teenager whose life was centered on swimming, having to stay out of the pool wasn’t easy. Add to that a grueling recovery, plus the stress of the college recruiting process, and it created the most challenging two-year span of Bayer’s young athletic career.
But Bayer, who has been a member of USA Swimming’s senior national team since age 15, has remained positive and focused. Now, she feels back to her best and is looking forward to closing out her high school career on a high note before she goes to swim at the University of California-Berkeley next year.
“Once you come back from a year like I’ve had, you’re more determined,” said Bayer, who is ranked the No. 5 overall recruit for the Class of 2018 by SwimSwam. “And so I’m not stopping at just the pool.”
Bayer said that she is now paying more attention to her nutrition, sleep and dry land training — and that she has also had people by her side to help during tough times.
Jeff King, her coach at Nation’s Capital, was instrumental in getting Bayer back to her best, she said. But for his part, King believes Bayer’s innate drive was part of what helped her bounce back so quickly. In his 40-plus years of coaching elite swimmers, including Olympians, he has rarely seen a work ethic like hers.
“I have to come to practice, and I have to be ready,” he said of coaching Bayer, who wakes up at 3:45 a.m. most days to train with Nation’s Capital before school. “She makes me a better coach.”
King added that Bayer received great support from a large network of coaches and fellow swimmers. It includes her family — Bayer’s parents were both collegiate swimmers, and her younger brother, Clark, is a freshman on the West Potomac team — plus members of her longtime summer league team, the Mount Vernon Park Gators.
It also consists of friends she’s made from the national team and beyond, including superstar mentors such as Vollmer, Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps.
Having experienced such an inclusive culture at the highest level, Bayer is committed to setting the same kind of example for her teammates back home.
“That’s just something that’s grown into her,” King said. “She’s such a passionate teammate, leader, all the rest of that stuff.”
Though club competition is often seen as a priority over high school for top young swimmers, many still choose to do both — especially in highly competitive regions like the D.C. area.
“For Cassidy, high school swimming is a chance to be part of a team,” said Laurel Greszler, the head coach at West Potomac. “It’s a great chance for an athlete who has led an extraordinary life during high school to stay connected with her high school and her friends.”
At Saturday’s Virginia 6A state championships, Bayer will probably swim the 100-yard fly and 200-yard freestyle, Greszler said. (Bayer currently holds the state record in the 200 IM, but has been told to lay off breaststroke because of her knee.)
Next year, at Cal, there will be challenges: new coaches and teammates, a different schedule and tougher competition, all far away from home. But Bayer is convinced she’s headed to the best place to help her reach her goals and prepare for Olympic trials in 2020.
“Obviously, it would be great to make it. But the competition is getting really fast, and I am aware of that,” Bayer said. “I’m excited to see how I perform at Cal and what I can do at Cal and see if that helps me in anyway. And I really think it will.”
Her current coaches have little doubt that she has what it takes to make it.
“I truly don’t know of many 18-year-old girls that are going to go in and be as prepared,” King said. “She’s just got to trust in herself that whatever comes her way, she can deal with it.”