Karen Beaubrun, right, helped coach and inspire her daughter Danielle to reach the 2012 London Games. / Courtesy photo
FGCU’s Danielle Beaubrun is a smarter, faster, more-experienced swimmer than she was for her first Olympics four years ago, so she’ll be competing in London next weekend knowing what to expect.
She’ll also be swimming with a heavy heart.
Beaubrun will represent the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia at the 30th Olympic Games in the 100-meter breaststroke.
She qualified during October’s Pan American Games only after a long conversation with her mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer.
“She really talked me through the swim,” said Beaubrun, 22, of her mother, Karen, who died just days after Beaubrun returned home for Christmas break last year.
“She was like, ‘Really the best thing is just to do your best. You know you can do it.’ When I did it, my dad was like, ‘That was really the best medicine you can give to her.’
“I think if it wasn’t for her I would not have qualified.”
Karen Beaubrun had always been vital in her daughter’s swimming life. When St. Lucia was without a national coach from about age 12 to 15 for Danielle, Karen took on the official coaching duties herself.
“That’s the age when you want to stop swimming, and she made sure I kept on going,” Danielle said. “She had no idea what she was doing, but she took the initiative.”
In the Pan Am Games in Mexico, Beaubrun swam a slow, 1:13.29 in her morning heat race, to the dismay of St. Lucia officials. The swim was slower than her 2008 Olympic time of 1:12.85, which put her 42nd.
After talking with her mom for several hours and working on her technique with FGCU coach Neal Studd, Beaubrun dominated the B final that night in a time of 1:10.63, securing her Olympic berth.
Beauburn was more than a second and a half faster than the B final runner-up and would have been sixth in the A-final with her time.
“She took too many strokes,” Studd said of Beaubrun’s morning swim. “She didn’t stick to the game plan. She basically swam a pretty inefficient race. She was hiding from me in the warm-down pool. She was upset. I was upset. We spent a lot of time that evening just working on tempo, being more efficient.”
Beaubrun swam the first 50 meters of the final more than a second faster than her heat race while taking about six fewer strokes, Studd said. It was the kind of performance Studd knew Beaubrun had in her.
“She blew that race away,” said Studd, who’d faced raised eyebrows from downcast St. Lucia officials after the heat race when they asked when Beaubrun would next try for an Olympic qualifying time. “I said, ‘We’re going to try for it tonight. Here.’”
Qualifying for the Olympics early removed that pressure for Beaubrun in the fall and spring, but it didn’t ease the emotional toll of her mother’s illness and subsequent passing.
“I’m not sure that Dani realized all the way how bad it was,” Studd said of Karen Beaubrun’s illness. “It was tough. There was times I wasn’t sure she was going to come back from St. Lucia.”
At one point, Beaubrun, a senior engineering student with plans on designing prosthetics, perhaps for Paralympians, wanted to leave school and focus only on swimming, Studd said.
Other times, she wanted to abandon swimming and focus only on school, said her coach, who’d been urged by Karen Beaubrun during her chemotherapy to keep pushing Danielle in swimming.
“Sometimes I was bad cop,” Studd said. “At times I was hoping I wasn’t pushing her away. But I had to try to get her back in the pool. Mom was a real motivational character.”
Occasionally losing entire days of training to the grieving process, Beaubrun nevertheless has continued to improve in recent months, although Studd acknowledged her preparation hasn’t been ideal.
“She’s just such a talented athlete that four good months should be enough to see her through,” said Studd, who is in London with Beaubrun as the St. Lucia coach. “She’s done a lot of good work the last four years. It’s not like it disappears out of your system. I think she’s ready to swim fast.”
Beaubrun’s father, Christopher, and one of her two sisters will travel to London to watch her swim. She knows her mother will be there with her, too.