“Be Real With Myself”: Katie McLaughlin’s Career That Didn’t Go As Planned

Katie McLaughlin describes herself as a planner. She said that she’s detail-oriented, and, if given a plan, she hesitates to veer from it.

On paper, McLaughlin, 24, seems to have stuck to the plan many elite athletes work toward: At the 2020 Olympics, this Team Speedo athlete helped Team USA to a silver in the 800 free relay. Before that, she broke the American record in the 800 free relay at the 2019 World Championships, joined the International Swimming League as a member of the LA Current, and represented the United States internationally ever since she swam at Olympic Trials in 2016. 

But life hasn’t made swimming easy for McLaughlin. In 2016, she broke her neck during her freshman year at Cal, abruptly halting the career of one of the top swimmers in the nation. After recovering from that injury, just a couple of years later she suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, all in the midst of a global pandemic.

Bouncing back hasn’t been easy for McLaughlin, but she said she’s learned over time to work at her own pace and continue to develop her career, even if it hasn’t been on the timeline she originally envisioned.

“I need to do that again”

McLaughlin came from a sporty background–her mother swam at USC, and her dad played football at Indiana–but she didn’t start swimming until she was 9, and played other sports simultaneously until high school. As a result, she said she never felt pressure to perform well in the sport early on.

“My parents were super, super encouraging and wanted me to just have fun and be an all-around good athlete, instead of pigeon-holing me super, super young,” McLaughlin said.

Despite her relatively late start to the elite swimming life, she managed to make her first major meet in 2013, at the FINA World Junior Championships. There, she won four medals: gold in the 200 fly and 800 free relay, and bronze in the 400 free relay and 400 mixed medley relay.

McLaughlin’s success continued, and she generated buzz throughout the swimming community as someone to watch. At the 2014 Phillips 66 Nationals, she finished second to Camille Adams in the 200 fly. That event earned her a spot on the National Team, where she got to compete at the Pan Pacific Championships that same year. In 2015, McLaughlin competed at the World Championships, helping Team USA to gold in the 800 free relay.

“That meet was really cool, and after that relay especially I was just so excited,” McLaughlin said. “I was like, ‘Okay, we’re coming up on the Olympic year, that was super awesome, I need to do that again,’ kind of just wanting more. I felt really excited for the next year and really confident for 2016.”

But at the end of her first semester at Cal, her swimming career took an unexpected turn. During her team’s training trip to Hawaii, McLaughlin dove into the water and injured her neck. Though she was able to breathe, talk, and walk, she said when she tried to swim again, her body wouldn’t let her.

After a trip to the doctor, McLaughlin learned that she broke her C6 vertebrae, and that with a neck injury that serious, she would barely be allowed to move; doctors told her she would have to keep her neck brace on for six weeks.

“When I was in the ER… that was when I was starting to do the math,” McLaughlin said. “My first thought was NCAAs and Pac-12s, will I be good for that?”

Though she thought she would be able to stay in shape by kicking, McLaughlin said she soon learned one wrong move could mean a serious spinal injury.

“I had painted a picture in my mind that I could just kick with a snorkel with my hands by my side,” McLaughlin said. “But even things like that, wearing a snorkel or breathing too hard, for whatever reason hurt my neck. I couldn’t even do that.”

The Long Road Back

McLaughlin’s process extended beyond the six weeks, though she did make it back in time to compete at the Pac-12 Championships, finishing 14th in the 200 free. She said she went to physical therapy four times a week to help get her range of motion back, and though the bone had healed, her nervous system remained damaged, resulting in increased sensitivity that limited her mobility.

At Olympic trials, McLaughlin made the final in the 200 free and 200 fly, but didn’t make the team.

“There wasn’t really much else I could’ve done, but obviously I’m disappointed with how it went,” McLaughlin said. “Trials is pretty tough, because I had had the success of the years leading up, and that was kind of the trajectory of my career–to go to Rio.”

McLaughlin said that initially, she didn’t do a good job of being proud of what she had accomplished, instead feeling embarrassed. She said she was lucky she had the college season to look forward to after trials. She trained strokes that were fun to her, like butterfly and IM, and she said that helped her re-orient herself and get back into the swing of things.

However, she said she struggled the most in the lead-up to World Trials, and that she felt the most pressure to make the team because she wasn’t injured anymore.

“I wasn’t having much fun, and I didn’t make the team,” she said.

Instead, she competed at the World University Games, where she swam a 2:13.85 in the 200 fly, a time she was not proud of. She said that period, though, helped her realize she had changed as a swimmer, and her top race in 2013 wasn’t her top race in 2017. She said she didn’t need the one event to prove that she was a good swimmer.

Her junior year at Cal, McLaughlin said she began to enjoy swimming again. And when she placed 2nd at Nationals in the 100 fly, she said she felt like she had broken through her setbacks, and the race now makes up one of her two Make Waves moments.

“It took that one race to give me confidence again, and for it not to be in the 200 fly, but in something else,” McLaughlin said. “It gave me validation. Maybe my swimming wasn’t on a timeline I wanted–it didn’t show up in 2016 or 2017 as much as I wanted it to–but it doesn’t mean all the work I put in the past couple years wasn’t just for nothing.”

Another Injury, And Another Comeback

McLaughlin swam her first pro meet at the 2019 World Championships, and she said that with her graduation festivities and the warmer weather, she was really enjoying life in general. But in December, she was injured again, this time in her shoulder. She pulled out of some ISL meets, and was limited in how much she could train, to the point where she couldn’t streamline very well.

She said she ignored her injury, but she wasn’t swimming well at her meets. She said she felt she didn’t have time, however, to properly deal with her injury.

And then the pandemic came. McLaughlin said that while the pandemic was horrible, it forced her to take care of herself and get surgery to fix her shoulder.

“I could actually slow down and take care of my health,” McLaughlin said. “That’s something that’s important in general to remember, your health, and not just physical.”

In 2021, McLaughlin made the Olympic team, and ultimately finished second as part of the 800 free relay.

Now, she said she’s less concerned with setting out a timeline for herself to keep being a swimmer, but to swim while she enjoys it.

“Not having a plan makes me have to be real with myself with where I’m at,” McLaughlin said.

Her other Make Waves moment has helped her appreciate the sport more, she said. McLaughlin coaches North Bay Aquatics, and she said that being part of that team helps her feel like she’s contributing to something bigger.

“Getting to coach high school kids, I feel like I’m making an impact,” McLaughlin said. “They make an impact on me, and that’s something that makes me want to keep swimming.”

This feature is presented by Speedo, a SwimSwam partner.

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OC Swim Mom
3 months ago

Katie has worked hard throughout her injuries and deserves every success! She is inspiring to all!

Njones
3 months ago

Despite the horrible injury, and full props to her for how she came back, she reminds me a bit of Sanchez from Canada. Exceptionally high end performing career that just may not have had more than a couple individual berths to Champs meets, partly due to logjam of talents in those events. But very consistently fast, super clutch and critical to each country’s relay successes at multiple Olympic and champs meets…

Bear alum
3 months ago

Always cheering for you, Katie! Keep up the great work and stay healthy kiddo!

Ferb
3 months ago

Is this basically a Speedo-sponsored text synopsis of her SwimSwam podcast (which I watched all the way through, BTW)? If so, I’m all for it. There are a lot of times I just can’t take the time to watch the whole interview, but I’d love to see this kind of synopsis of the important points.

Meow
Reply to  Ferb
3 months ago

Same!

Gold Medal Mel
Reply to  Ferb
3 months ago

Noted. We will consider your point. And, yes, Speedo presents this series, however, we always maintain editorial control.

Ferb
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel
3 months ago

I have no problem with the sponsorship. If Speedo wants to pay you guys to condense and transcribe the podcast interviews, it only makes me think more highly of Speedo. A lot of great content on SwimSwam is sponsored.

Gold Medal Mel
Reply to  Ferb
3 months ago

Agreed. I’m sure there’s a app for this.

Chad
3 months ago

I’ve met a surprising amount of people who’ve had serious neck injuries from diving into shallow water that they thought was deep enough. Water depth is definitely something everyone should double check before diving.

Mark Rauterkus
Reply to  Chad
3 months ago

Is that an assumption as to the injury’s cause? I don’t know. I’d love to see a bit more of that injury detail in the article, rather than just a comment. Perhaps there was a slip, fall, collision, beach bottom, cliff dive, …. I don’t know. ???

Article says: During her team’s training trip to Hawaii, McLaughlin dove into the water and injured her neck.

Wonderful article Thanks. Go North Bay Aquatics!

CanSwim13
Reply to  Mark Rauterkus
3 months ago

She went running into the ocean and dove head-first into the sand

Gold Medal Mel
Reply to  CanSwim13
3 months ago

That’s was she detailed in our podcast…

anonymous
Reply to  Chad
3 months ago

It should be taught that if you can’t see the bottom feet first only. If you are unfamiliar with the swimming hole feet first only.

OC Mom
Reply to  anonymous
3 months ago

Katie grew up just a few miles from So Cals most famous beaches. She was no stranger to the ocean. It was an “accident “ that derailed a young talented athletes bright swimming career and she fought hard to get back. She is to be congratulated for her incredible perseverance. I am sure growing up in the ocean served her well. Way to go, Katie!

Swim man
3 months ago

Absolute 🐐🐐🐐🐐

anonymous
3 months ago

She has been a fierce force on the American relays. Just super competitor and person.

Reply to  anonymous
3 months ago

(…would love to see her activate that 2-fly again…but she has so many options to develop, or she could just keep collecting medals on the 4×200.)

anonymous
Reply to  Gold Medal Mel Stewart
3 months ago

Training fly can be painful after a neck fracture even if it is healed.

Gold Medal Mel
Reply to  anonymous
3 months ago

She alluded to that….

Ledecky will go 3:55 in Paris
3 months ago

Very informative and well written.