Every Olympic year is emotional. The visions, the goals and the sacrifices day in and day out together accumulate to one moment in time. A pivotal and life changing moment that is the absolute epitome of athlete excellence, the Olympic Games. The Rio Olympics were filled with stories of athletic triumphs, drug scandals and security mishaps yet behind the scenes were the deeper personal journeys of athletes in the midst of the pressure filled competition.
Three time Olympian and the 2016 swim team captain, Elizabeth Beisel, went into Rio with high expectations for herself. Four years before, at the 2012 London Games, she walked away with two individual medals, a silver in the 400m individual medley and a bronze in the 200m backstroke. Beisel has been competing on the international stage for nearly a decade and has collected an impressive collection of nine international medals from the Olympics, World Championships, and the Pan Pacific Championships. At the 2008 Olympic Games, she was the youngest on the team at 15 years old. Fast forward to this past summer and Beisel helped lead the team to become the most successful Olympic swim team in history. However, with health scares and a fractured finger leading into the competition, Beisel failed to medal in the 400m individual medley placing in sixth in the final heat. Reminiscing on her impressive three Olympic experiences and her expectations heading into the 2016 Games, Beisel shares her Rio reflections with Excelle Sports.
Vandenberg: How was Rio for you? Are you happy with you performances?
Beisel: Rio was incredible. The city itself is so beautiful, it has the mountains, the beach, a skyline, and the jungle. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park at times, which is basically everything you could ask for in a city. I tell everyone to visit if they ever have the chance. Performance wise, Rio was not so incredible. I think my summer went the complete opposite way of what I had planned it to look like.
The week before trials, I was hospitalized for five days with a stomach virus. Obviously not great, but somehow I made it on the team. Two days after I made the team, I collided with someone and fractured my pinky in the warm up pool and spent my day in the ER getting x-rays.
I honestly felt like the universe was testing me at the worst possible time. Not exactly ideal, but I told myself to move on and use Rio as a chance to finally perform to my abilities. That didn’t even come close to happening, which, looking back, is still a hard pill to swallow. That’s the beauty of sport though, some days you have it and some days you don’t, but no matter what happened in Rio, I wouldn’t change a thing to the way I prepared for it.
Vandenberg: How did Rio compare to the Beijing and the London Olympics?
Beisel: Rio was so different compared to Beijing and London. In Beijing, I was a wide-eyed 15 year old who was just happy to be there with nothing to lose. I had no idea what to expect going in, and I was all over the place. I would miss meetings, get lost as well as lose my passport with Schmitty (Allison Schmitt), miss my bus to the pool, wear the wrong uniform, just typical stuff that any teenager would mess up. I just happened to be messing up at the Olympics.
In London, I got my act together and went in with a much different mindset. I wanted to medal but more importantly I wanted to win. I got a silver and a bronze, which is more than I could have asked for, but of course I wanted to win. I don’t replay many races in my head, but the 400 individual medley in London is something I constantly revisit and wonder if I had swam it differently then maybe I would be able to call myself an Olympic Champion.
I told myself that Rio would be my last legitimate shot to win gold. In Rio, instead of being the youngest member of the team who was running around collecting autographs, I was one of the oldest members and team captain, it’s crazy what 8 years can do. I went into the meet with the mindset that I had something to lose, which I had never done before. Having a lot of
expectation and pressure put on myself obviously didn’t work, and I have no one to blame but myself. Luckily, I was done after the very first day and was able to spend the rest of the 8 day meet walking people to the ready room, leading cheers, and singing the national anthem proudly every time someone won a gold. Leading the team was honestly the most fun I have ever had at a swim meet, and I am so fortunate to have had the chance to be on the most successful U.S. Olympic swim team in history, even if I didn’t contribute any medals.
Vandenberg: Was it difficult to swim so late at night in Rio?
Beisel: Swimming late at night was not difficult at all. We slowly adjusted our biological clocks during camps so that we were used to swimming fast at night. At the Olympics, when you are given a scenario that is less than ideal with finals starting at 10 p.m., you deal with it and you don’t think too much about it. Otherwise you get too caught up in the public opinion that it is too late to race your best, and once you believe it, you put yourself at a disadvantage. Our team did an incredible job staying positive and not complaining about the late nights. I think that’s one of the reasons we were able to perform so well.
Vandenberg: Did you get a chance to watch other events and meet the other athletes?
Beisel: I got a chance to watch track and beach volleyball, both of which were incredible. One of the nights at the pool the basketball team came and watched finals. They sat with us in our athlete section and were leading cheers with us and getting all of us pumped up. It was so much fun because in any other setting they would be getting bombarded due to their fame from the NBA, but on that night they were just a part of the Team USA swim team, enjoying the Olympic experience.
Vandenberg: What was your favorite moment of the Games?
Beisel: My favorite moment of the games is so hard to pick. I was in the stands for every medal that was won and I got to see so many different emotions during the national anthems. One of my favorites was when Caeleb (Dressel) won gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay. I had seen the hard work and dedication he put into his swimming this past year, and as soon as I saw him crying on the podium I absolutely lost it.
One thing that I got to experience by sitting in the stands every session was seeing the coaches reactions to their swimmers performances. One of my favorites was watching Greg Meehan react to all of his girls performances. Whether it was Simone, Lia, or Maya, the amount of pure joy he experienced when they touched the wall was amazing to watch. He would burst into tears and could barely talk, and you just knew how proud he was of them. Being able to see moments like that really makes you appreciate your coach and everything they have done for you.
Vandenberg: Did you get a chance to travel after, where did you go?
Beisel: After Rio, I was able to travel for three weeks with my roommate Allison Schmitt. We visited Thailand and Australia, and it was honestly the most fun three weeks of my life. We made friends with everyone we met and said yes to everything. We would wake up at 8 a.m. and not return until 10 p.m. making sure that every single day was packed with activities. Thailand was a dream, I have never been to a more beautiful place with more beautiful people. We saw elephants, planted rice, went ATVing in the jungle, ate fried bugs, rode a water buffalo, the whole nine yards. Australia was much more relaxing.
We stayed with our friend Grant Hackett (he was a decent swimmer back in the day) and woke up every morning and surfed. One night I was surfing at sunset and saw a school of dolphins about 50 meters away, and then about 30 minutes later I saw a humpback whale breach which was incredible. I couldn’t believe that this stuff was actually happening right before my eyes. It was a much needed trip and we had the best time ever.
Vandenberg: What are your post Rio plans looking like? Are you officially retired from swimming?
Beisel: My plans right now are to say yes to everything. I am helping coach at a small university in Rhode Island a couple times a week, whenever I am in town, I work at my local NBC station as a reporter, whenever I am in town as well.
I am doing a ton of clinics across the country, and visiting as many friends as possible. I am constantly on the go, but that’s how I like it. I love being busy and surrounding myself with people. Swimming has brought me so many opportunities and friendships, and for that I am forever grateful. I am not yet retired. I love the sport and the people, and I’m not ready to give that up yet. Despite my career not being over, I am definitely enjoying a long break right now and doing things that I would never get to do while in hard training.
Excelle Sports lifestyle editor Kim Vandenberg is an Olympic bronze medalist, Pan American gold medalist, World Championship silver medalist and three-time U.S. national champion and French national champion in swimming. She’s also a member of Excelle’s Athletes Council.
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