LOS ANGELES — Rebecca Soni's most vivid memory of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha wasn't winning the 200 breaststroke or making the American team for Beijing.
It was working out in the practice pool inside the Qwest Center when a storm packing 115-mph winds ripped off part of the roof. She and other swimmers were herded to shelter while civil defense sirens wailed.
“That was a Midwest experience,'' Soni said with a laugh.
Since that day in Omaha, it's Soni who has taken her sport by storm. Arguably no swimmer — not even Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte — has been as dominant in a single stroke over the past four years as Soni has in her signature breaststroke.
Since winning a surprising gold medal in the 200 in Beijing and an even more improbable silver in the 100, she has gone on to sweep both distances at most major U.S. and international competitions since.
Going into the London Games, she'll be an overwhelming favorite to repeat as Olympic champion in the 200 and a favorite in the 100. She will likely also be part of a loaded U.S. medley relay team that will be favored for gold.
“Her performances since Beijing have been remarkable and consistent,'' said U.S. women's Olympic coach Teri McKeever. “She just quietly gets the job done, and personally doesn't get all the credit that she deserves.''
With their frog-like kicks and the way they bob through the water, breaststrokers always stand apart from other swimmers. Coaches say Soni's stroke stands out above them all, so smooth and efficient she has hardly slowed down at all in the two years since those controversial high-tech body suits were banned.
Soni, who will be 25 years old when she comes to Omaha for the 2012 Olympic Trials, said she has no explanation for her proficiency, saying the breaststroke was always just the most comfortable stroke for her. She also likes the fact that it's the stroke when you really get to hear the roar of the crowd — something she noticed last time when swimming before packed houses in Omaha.
“You can hear the crowd, hear the announcer and hear your coach,'' Soni said after a recent workout at the USC Pool, where the former Trojan athlete continues to train. “I definitely felt that at Trials.''
Omaha marked the start of a big breakout for Soni, a New Jersey native who is the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. In the 2008 Trials, she qualified for Beijing with her 200 win, going out and celebrating the accomplishment with her whole family in Omaha that night.
In the 100, she finished only fourth, two spots off an Olympic bid. But when USC teammate Jessica Hardy tested positive for a banned stimulant after the Trials and withdrew from the Games, Soni ended up representing the United States at that distance, too.
In Beijing, she set a world record in upsetting the favored Leisel Jones of Australia in the 200. And despite her fourth-place finish in Omaha, she also grabbed the silver in the 100 just behind Jones.
Since then, it's been the Joneses who have had to try to keep up with Soni. In the world championships last summer, she won both the 100 and 200 handily and swam the breast on the gold medal-winning U.S. medley relay team.
Her current status will make this Olympic year both relaxing and stressful at the same time, Soni said. Having been there before, she knows that she can handle the pressure.
“(But) I don't like being the one with the target on my back,'' she said. “It is fun, but I've got to tune it out and not let it get to me.''
Her biggest challenger in the 100 in both Omaha and London will likely be her training partner, Hardy, who has come back strong from her suspension and posted the second-fastest time in the world in 2011.
Soni said she admires how hard Hardy has worked and looks forward to standing beside her on the blocks in Omaha.
“There's two spots on the Olympic team and two of us,'' she said. “I'm excited to be with her. That would be great.''
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