Swimming video and Q&A with Olympian Alex Meyer is courtesy of VASA, a SwimSwam partner.
1. What’s it like to go from being a college athlete to being a full-time athlete?
At first, it didn’t feel much different. Many of my friends were still on the Varsity team at Harvard, I lived close to the pool, and pretty much just substituted naps in place of class time. But over the last few years, I’ve taken on more of a coaching and mentoring role with the team, stepped up my dryland training, and have devoted more time to keeping up swimming-related business.
2. Practically speaking, how do you make it as a pro? What sacrifices do you have to make?
Most of my income comes from the Athlete Partnership Agreement, for which I am grateful. Additionally, I receive some sponsorship and prize money, and even teach a few private lessons here and there for some extra cash. Living in the Boston area is expensive, so there isn’t a lot of discretionary spending in my budget!
3. Was there anything about life as a professional athlete that surprised you?
I guess I thought it was just going to be eat-sleep-swim, so I was surprised by how many little things I need to constantly keep up with on the business end. I think I became more aware of these once I realized how much I had neglected them in the first year or two after graduation. As in swimming, I’m constantly learning from my mistakes!
4. How has training for World Cup racing and the Olympics changed your life?
Well, if I have to shorten that answer to a few sentences, it would go something like this: Swimming has enriched my life tremendously in many ways, and given great meaning and purpose to it. I’ve learned universal and translatable life skills through the process of pursuing my goals in swimming. And most importantly, I’ve met many amazing lifelong friends through this sport.
5. Sometimes people with regular jobs wake up and just don’t want to work. What’s that like with such a physically demanding job?
Yeah, this happens almost every morning at approximately 5:30am. I try to wake up with enough time to ease into my day with a cup of coffee, a light read, and maybe a quick hot tub soak if I get to the pool early enough. I am already not a morning person, and I don’t like to feel rushed in the morning, so ironically I get up a little earlier than I need to. I try to remember that these moments in the morning are, for me, the epitome of “the grind” – something swimmers and athletes take great pride in. The grind is essentially the road to a goal. It’s work, very rewarding work.
6. Tell me about how you’ve improved over time and how that could help young swimmers aspiring to great things?
I think one of the keys to my success over time has been coming to understand my training and my body more. I used to just mindlessly look at a workout, say “ok, coach”, and do it. Now, I more thoroughly understand the structure of a workout and a season plan and even play more of a role in designing them.
7. What did you learn from your experiences in the 2012 Olympics and how do those lessons influence you now?
Clear your mind: Swim for yourself and be in the moment. Pressure to perform is never something that is put on you, it is something that you yourself create in your mind. So, stop it – let the world outside the race cease to exist, and swim passionately and intelligently. Pressure can absolutely motivate people, including myself, but I put a lot of pressure on myself in a negative, scary way in London, and I let it affect my swim.
Be prepared: Preparation really involves not just the body, but also mind and spirit. I think in part my training was not where I wanted it to be because of my injury earlier that year, but I also couldn’t eat that morning because I was so nervous, and I didn’t decide what suit I was going to wear until 10 minutes before the start of the race, which cause incredible stress. Injury aside, I could have avoided these things. Mind, body, and spirit must all be healthy and prepared.
Love is the most important thing: My mentor, coach, and friend Paul Asmuth mentioned this to me right before the race in London and I will never forget it. It’s important to remember – and may help with clearing your mind and being prepared – that at the end of the day, or a career, medals and accolades come to mean less and less over time, and that the most enduring rewards from swimming are the relationships we forge that last a lifetime. It helped me to see the bigger picture – the fact that many family members and friends were on the other side of the Serpentine to support me. That meant so much more to me than an Olympic gold medal ever could.
8. Building confidence for open water and triathlon swimming is hugely important and can translate into a more positive experience in the water. What swim-specific fitness and technique exercises would you advise time-crunched athletes do out of the water that will lead to more confident, stronger swimming in the pool or open water?
There’s no substitute for swimming and racing experience, but if you can’t get to water, I highly recommend using the Vasa swim Ergometer and keeping it on a low resistance (1 or 2) so you can spend a good 30-45 minutes on it before you’re totally wiped out. Practice everything that you would in a pool – good straight body-line (don’t let your legs sway from one side to the other), high elbow catch and hold it through the pull. Vary the tempo and intensity, mix in some sprints with active or passive rest between.
9. What other secret sprint swimming tips can you give up?
As for the Vasa erg, make sure when sprinting that you keep your good form, otherwise it’s not very relevant to swimming. I know that if I let my legs swing side to side and if I pull with my elbow on freestyle, or if I lift my chest off the bench before I pull two-arm (butterfly), I can get much higher wattages, but it’s not helping my swimming as much as if I use good form. As for in the open water, I’ll keep most of them to myself, but part of the race is about who makes the smartest decisions and is best at spending energy wisely. You want to make sure that if it’s going to come down to a sprint, you have something left in the tank.
10. What are a few of your Big Audacious Goals you have set for yourself in swimming?
Well, a gold medal in Rio would be nice.
11. How do you create a plan and set milestones along the way?
This is something I usually do with my coaches. We take the next big goal, usually the biggest competition of that year, and work backwards to the present from there. My training is planned out for that major race of the year, and I pick which races I go to based on the travel distance, prize money available, and proximity in time to more important races. This year, my next big race is US Open Water Nationals, and then hopefully Pan Pacific Championships at the end of August.
12. What do you use for motivation that is bigger than yourself? What helps you be tough when it gets really hard in a race or training session?
I do a good amount of swimming alone, especially this time of year when the Harvard guys are tapering for Ivies and NCAAs, so there’s often a lot going on in my head. I visualize a lot – race scenarios, winning, family and friends cheering me on, memories of Fran, lots of things. I’m also still motivated by the fact that I love swimming and racing and want to be the best.
13. Relationships are powerful. Tell us about the people in your life who influence and motivate you to do this sport. Why are those relationships as rewarding and important as racing itself?
Yes, relationships are importing and infinitely rewarding and as I’ve said, they are the greatest gift swimming has given me.
14. What do you do to remind yourself to cherish the moment?
I don’t really have to remind myself – it’s pretty apparent to me how special and rare this opportunity is. I’ll be sitting on a beach in Australia or Spain or Mexico and be thinking “this is my office, this is work”, and that’s pretty cool. I’m living my dream. But that makes it sound too easy, so I’ll say I work the dream, which has become the motto for the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation.