2017 USO Spring Tour

I was so fortunate to join this year’s spring USO Tour led by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva. Myself, along with UFC fighter Dominick Cruz, mentalist Jim Karol, celebrity chef Robert Irvine, country music singer Craig Morgan, and many others who worked tirelessly to make the Tour flawless had the trip of a lifetime. We spent over 60 hours in the air and traveled 25,900 miles to 7 different countries – all in 9 days.  We met as a group in Washington DC and continued to Hawaii, Guam, Diego Garcia, Thailand, Qatar, the USS H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Italy. We performed 7 shows and were able to meet countless service men and women who are bravely defending our country and our way of life every day.

I am so grateful to the USO for allowing me the opportunity to visit, meet, and thank the men and women of our military in person.  Because of this opportunity, I was able to share how our Olympic Team used the military as our greatest source of inspiration during the Games; how we carried their spirit in our hearts and in our minds as we competed and represented the United States through our sport; and how we are so grateful to them for their sacrifices. Without those sacrifices, we would not be able to do what we love every day.

We traveled in an Air Force C-17 our entire trip.  As you can see from the photos below, it doesn’t look like a normal plane on the inside and it certainly doesn’t feel like one either. Because we were averaging about 7 hours of flight time each day, the plane became our little home and reminded me more of a party bus driving around town than a plane flying around the world. Though we had comfortable seats to sit in, I didn’t spend much time sitting in mine. Instead, I spent the majority of time socializing, playing games, being mesmerized by magic tricks, and eating delicious meals. Our pilots were excellent, friendly, and allowed us to sit up in the flight deck for takeoffs and landings.  I am thankful to the entire crew for keeping us safe on our around-the-world trip! It was quite an amazing experience and made all those hours in the air fly by… pun intended 😉

 

Our first few days of the trip took us to the islands of Hawaii, Guam, and Diego Garcia. We met great people, enjoyed beautiful beaches and snorkeling, and got some sun! Diego Garcia, a British Indian Ocean Territory, is a small island located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is only inhabited by military personnel and civilian employees – between 3,000 to 5,000 people. It’s beautiful beaches and exquisite natural beauty make it one of the world’s best-kept secrets, one I am delighted I got to experience!

A definite highlight of the trip was visiting the USS H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. We traveled to the ship in a plane called a COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery). Used primarily for cargo, our COD had 28 seats installed; all facing backwards to help alleviate the impact of the arrested landing on the carrier.  The plane was small, had no windows, and we were all decked out in our safety gear including helmets, goggles, and life jackets. Needless to say, it makes coach on a commercial jet feel like business class! We obviously couldn’t see the plane approaching the ship, so landing abruptly and decelerating from 135 mph to 0 in 2 seconds and 300 feet was quite the shock! Once on board the ship, we ate lunch with service members and received a tour of the carrier.  Watching fighter jets launch off and land on a ship up close and personal was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The energy that shoots through your body as those jets get catapulted off the ship makes for the adrenaline rush of a lifetime! After our show on the aircraft carrier, it was our turn to get catapulted off the ship. We taxied to the catapult and got a brief 5 second warning before, BAM! In 3 seconds and 300 feet we accelerated from 0 mph to 150 and then safely flew away. My entire body literally floated into the air and it was more thrilling a ride than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on. Naturally, I immediately wanted to do it again.

Our next leg of the trip took us to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was both emotional and impactful.  Meeting men and women who live and work in an active war zone and experiencing a small snippet of their lives first-hand had a profound effect on me.  It reminded me how grateful I am to every one of them and how fortunate we are that they put themselves in harm’s way for us.  The words thank you just do not seem to justify the amount of gratitude I feel. After our show, we spent time at the dining facility where we got to share a meal with the soldiers. Getting to know a handful of them individually was one of the best parts of the trip. Everyone was unique, exceptional, kind, and so proud to fight for our country. I was humbled by every person I had the chance to meet.

After our final stop in Naples, Italy, where we had some delicious food, we boarded our C-17 for our last flight.  The 10-hour trip back to D.C. seemed to go by all too quickly. Although thrilled to get home and get rest, I was sad the trip was over! It went by quickly and despite only having met these incredible people 10 days prior, I had made great friendships with each one of them. Saying goodbye was certainly sad!

I decided to go on the USO Tour to thank the men and women of our military serving overseas. I didn’t expect to get so much more out of the trip than I was able to give! I was impressed by their skills and abilities but more importantly I was extremely humbled by their bravery. Each service member I met taught me incredible perspective. They sacrifice so much every day so that our home and our way of life is protected. I am so proud to share their stories with anyone willing to listen, as we should all be aware what our men and women of the military are doing every day. Our faces of freedom are incredible and I am perpetually grateful!

Photos by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann

 

Swimming World Cups

For those of you who follow along on Instagram, you know that I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the past 2 months. In the first two cluster of FINA World Cup Series, I visited 6 different countries, raced over 60 times, and flew a complete 360 degrees around the globe.

Our first stop was Chartres, France – a small town outside of Paris. The pool in Chartres has a view of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, a beautiful Gothic cathedral that dates back to the 1100s. It makes this art-history fan happy and is one of my favorite pools for that reason! We then moved to Berlin, Germany. Never having been to Germany, I was excited to have a day to explore (and when I say explore, let’s be honest, I really mean shop). We did see the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, it’s not like my entire day was spent at the mall… 😉 Our last stop in the first cluster was Moscow, Russia. Tim and I then returned to Paris for a short, but much needed vacation.

I was pleasantly surprised by my performances in the first cluster. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel or how well I was going to race coming off the Olympics, so I was thrilled to walk away with some medals and two new American Records in the 100m Breaststroke and 100m IM. My two favorite events of all time! Another highlight were the mixed relays! I got to be on relays with my boyfriend… how cool is that?

The second cluster resumed about 2 weeks later in Beijing, China. I Ioved racing in the Water Cube (home of the 2008 Olympics). The pool is stunning! From Beijing we had a bit of a hike over to Dubai, UAE. Dubai is like a giant playground. Most of the time I walked around feeling like I was on a movie set. My favorite experience was getting to see The Burj Khalifa – the World’s tallest building – in person. We moved to Doha, Qatar for our last stop of the tour. We spent some time at the Souq Waqif – the Old Market – and got a taste of Qatari culture. Hanging out with camels was definitely the highlight.  Although I swam better at the first cluster, I still had some great races and took home a few medals!

The tour is not easy – it’s a lot of travel, lot of jet lag, and a lot of racing, but it is so fun. Since there are not many people that attend all of the meets; you form a close bond with the people who do. You travel together, stay in the same hotels, eat every meal together, and, of course, race together.

The World Cup experience is invaluable for two main reasons. First, racing many times in quick succession is a great way to identify details that need developing and then fix them. It allows for rapid and rewarding improvement. Second, and more importantly, a comradery and friendship forms between people from all over the World. We all come from such different backgrounds and compete for different countries, but we all have one thing in common – our love of swimming. The positive energy and happiness is powerful and quite beautiful. Swimming is a gift that keeps on giving!

 

 

 

2016 Olympic Games – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Hello readers! After a whirlwind couple of months, I have finally found some time to sit down and share some thoughts with you! Here is a look at the Olympic Games through my eyes…

I have always had a dream of going to the Olympics, winning a medal, and standing on the podium, watching our flag rise over my head. But it was one of those dreams that you never expect to become a reality. It’s similar to dreaming about winning the lottery or becoming a Hollywood star… very cool but it would never actually happen.

Well, with some hard work and a lot of support, it did happen, and I could not be more grateful or excited that it did. There were a few moments in Rio when I found myself overwhelmed with emotion—putting on my opening ceremonies outfit; swimming my first lap in the competition pool and seeing the Olympic rings everywhere; walking out for finals and seeing my family in the stands. These powerful moments reminded me that I was actually living this dream!

Our training camps set us up so well. Our time in San Antonio and Atlanta was spent bonding as a group and sharing many laughs. When we weren’t in preparation mode, we played a lot of Pokémon Go, completed our rookie skits (and laughed so hard), and filmed carpool karaoke—some of the most fun car jamming sessions I’ve ever had. Thanks to Mark Cuban, we flew to Rio in style on a private plane, and even got to cross paths with Air Force One and President Obama on the runway. We could not have had a better sendoff from the USA!

We were a bit apprehensive about our arrival in Rio. Like many of you, we were aware of the negative news about the city, the village, and the venues. However, when we arrived we quickly realized that our worries and hesitations were far from warranted. Everything was wonderful. The city and its views were beautiful, the village was perfectly functional, the venues were great, and the people and volunteers were accommodating and helpful! Also, in the 14 days I was in Rio, I saw one mosquito and had zero mosquito bites… Zika definitely did not rain on our parade!

The first time I saw the competition pool with my own eyes, I felt like I was in a dream. Walking onto the deck as a group, you could sense the power of our team. It was at that moment that I, and every other person in the building, knew Team USA was going to do something special that week.

I woke up calm and determined on the morning of my 100 breaststroke final. During my warm up that evening, I was nervous, but nervous-excited (unlike trials, where I was nervous-scared—or just plain scared), and I felt strong and powerful in the water. There was a lot going on in the ready room before our race, but I found a quiet place to sit and think.

I thought about what an incredible honor it was to represent the United States. I thought about how grateful I was for the men and women in our military who put their lives on the line daily so that we had the opportunity to go to represent the United States at the Olympics. I thought about all of the people who had helped me at some point in my journey. I wanted to list them by name so I could dedicate my swim to them, a small token of thanks for all of their help along the way.

When I walked out to the blocks I was overwhelmed with joy. I could not stop smiling! I looked up in the stands and took it all in. I saw my family cheering (my sister gave me a small nod), and I knew I was ready to go. I don’t really remember what happened in the minute and five seconds it took to get down the pool and back, but I do clearly remember turning around and seeing third place next to my name.

I was overjoyed. I earned a medal for the USA at the Olympics. My biggest dream come true. There aren’t words to do that feeling justice. To say it was a special moment is an understatement.

I didn’t sleep the night after my race. Instead, I celebrated by eating pizza at 4 a.m. in the dining hall at the village with Kathleen Baker (who had just won silver in the 100m Backstroke). After our late night/early morning snack, we headed to the Today Show. We saw family and enjoyed the success.

The next few days were filled with astounding performances by the USA. I was so proud to be a member of that team; every one of my teammates had inspiring swims. I used that inspiration for my swim on the prelims 4×100 medley relay. Along with Olivia Smoliga, Kelsi Worrell, and Abbey Weitzeil, we advanced our relay to the final, where Kathleen Baker, Lily King, Dana Vollmer, and Simone Manuel went on to win a gold medal. Swimming on a relay for the United States is a true honor, and I am so grateful I had that experience with those amazing women.

People often ask me if I feel like my life has changed since the Olympics. My answer is yes, but not because the Olympics itself is some sort of life altering force. The Olympics are the most remarkable and wonderful swim meet I’ve ever been to, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a swim meet.

It’s not the meet itself, but the journey leading up to it that is transformative. The life-altering forces were the people I met, the places I visited, the challenges I faced, and the things I learned about myself. Those are the things that I am most grateful for and will cherish forever. Those are the things that have changed my life for the better.

2016 US Olympic Trials – Omaha, Nebraska

As you might expect, the US Olympic Team Trials is a swim meet unlike any other in our sport. It’s an emotional rollercoaster and the hardest (but most important) part of the experience is managing those emotions. While I tried to play it cool, I admittedly had more thoughts of fear and anxiety than excitement and joy. I love swim meets… I love racing and competing; feeling anxious and apprehensive was new, strange, and quite unwelcome. I’m lucky I have great coaches, teammates, family, and friends who all helped keep me calm and sane throughout the process.

For those of you who don’t know, each event at the meet (excluding some of the longer races) is swum three times over two days. Every qualifier swims prelims; the top 16 continue to semi-finals; and the top 8 to the final. I made it through prelims and semi-finals on pure excitement and energy… swimming in front of 12,000 people is crazy! But, heading into the final, I felt vulnerable, knowing that I could potentially have the best swim of my life and still not make the team. Though I was so nervous and scared, I tired to appreciate every moment. When am I going to be in a situation like that again? Regardless of the outcome, what an incredible life experience!! Once again the sport of swimming has given me a gift I could never get elsewhere.

The second I hit the wall and saw 2nd place by my name I felt overwhelming joy combined with overwhelming relief. I did it. I was going to the Olympics. My lifelong dream was now a reality. How do I put that feeling into words? I cant. I can only express gratitude to all the people who played any role (small or large) in my journey. I would not be here if it were not for all of you!!

Although I made the team on the third day of the meet, I wasn’t able to step off that emotional roller coaster just yet. I have met some of my best friends through this sport; I’ve formed incredible relationships with even better people. You better believe that I swam each of their races with them. I experienced their joy when I watched them make the team, and I felt their heartbreak when I watched them just miss it. It was a lesson we have all heard many times made evident and very real… This sport is about so much more than the swimming and the times you go; it’s about the people you meet and lasting relationships you form along the way. That is what’s special, that is what’s important, and that is what’s real.

I am humbled and honored to get to represent the USA at the Olympics. To me, the Olympics is a festival of peace, an revered tradition where the world comes together to accomplish something as a whole while simultaneously celebrating differences. I cannot think of any other event that holds cultural significance in every country in the world. The blanket of the Olympics, like some sort of magic, transcends boundaries and differences, it rises above negativity and hatred, and it is truly beautiful. What an incredible thing to be a tiny piece of thread in that magical blanket.

Bermuda

Bermuda… you are quite the treasure! Thanks to our teammate Roy Burch, we were able to spend 10 days in the sunshine training at the Bermuda National Sports Center and getting to experience some of the really cool things this country has to offer. I’m calling it a “train-cation” – equal parts training and vacation!

The best thing about Bermuda is its people! You are all incredibly nice and welcoming. Tim, Jimmy, Arianna, and I all stayed in a house courtesy of one of Bermuda’s swimming families, the Powell’s, who were away on vacation. Their neighbors (and relatives… also the Powell’s) were left to take care of us. Thank you Buggy, Tori, Skyler, Dylan, and Tucker! This fam welcomed us with open arms, showed us around the island, and took us out cliff jumping and sea turtle watching on their boat. You made us feel right at home!

The group of us in the house rented scooters to get around and appropriately named ourselves the scooter squad. I know… we are so cool. We loved exploring on the scooters and of course always knew exactly where we were going and never got lost. Just kidding, that is a total lie. We got lost all the time! But, getting lost and seeing the island was part of the fun! I swear Jimmy, Anna, and Tim were born to ride scooters and loved seeing how fast they could make those little things go. Me…not so much. I usually brought up the caboose and arrived everywhere we went at least 5 minutes after Jimmy. It’s ok though because I am still alive and I only crashed once!

Another adventure worth sharing was our SCUBA trip. I had never been SCUBA diving before and wasn’t sure what to expect. After a small panic attack (I definitely did not trust this apparatus that would allow me to breath underwater), I calmed down and fell in love! We dove 3 shipwrecks, each with some great history, but the BEST part was our experience with a sea turtle. This beautiful turtle let us swim within inches of him and then proceeded to swim towards Jimmy and sit in his lap. He was so calm and content and would have sat with Jimmy for hours. Our dive master told us he has never seen anything quite like it. It was very special! Thank you Blue Water Divers & Watersports – Bermuda.

A few other Bermuda highlights:

  • Finding private beaches and hidden lagoons only accessible by rock climbing.
  • Doing open water/beach training with Oracle Team USA and getting a special tour of their base. We can’t wait to watch and cheer for you in next year’s Americas Cup!
  • Cuddling with the Powell’s two cats, Stormy and Claire.
  • The peace and quiet.
  • The perfectly clear and electric blue waters.

We had a great training camp in Bermuda and loved getting to enjoy this beautiful island. We can’t wait to return in the near future!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year Swim Along Blog readers! Fun fact… New Years is my favorite holiday! I love feeling people’s excitement and joy for new beginnings and new goals, I love reflecting on the previous year with gratitude, and I love making resolutions for the year to come. I make New Years resolutions every year, although I prefer to call them “New Years Goals”. I usually write mine down and put them on my bathroom mirror, to remind myself everyday of the things I want to accomplish in the next 12 months. Some of them are small and easy, others are more difficult and a bit scary. But if I’ve learned anything these past couple of years, it’s to not be afraid of set big goals. With hard work, dedication, and grit, you will find that you can accomplish many things.

Here are a few of my 2016 New Years Goals:

Read a new book every month.
Make nutrition and healthy eating a top priority.
Make the 2016 US Olympic Team.
Spend less time on my phone.
Volunteer my time more often.
Find something to be grateful for everyday, write it down.
Do things the right way, even if it is the hard way.

And here are a few of my favorite moments from 2015:

Duel in the Pool – Indianapolis, Indiana

This meets jumps right to the top of the “most fun meets I’ve ever been to” list. I used to watch Duel in the Pool on TV when I was young. It was a dream come true to compete as a member of Team USA! The meet is structured in a duel format (hence the name) – USA vs Europe All-Stars. I was honored to get to represent the USA on the 4×100 medley relay along with Courtney Bartholomew, Kelsi Worrell, and Simone Manuel. It was an extremely close relay but we swam with a lot of fight and came out with the win…. AND with a new World Record!!! Though we were thrilled to have a WR, we were more excited with the win at the time; we just wanted to get our hand on the wall first and get points for the team. To be honest, I didn’t even realize it was a WR until a few moments after the race finished. It’s amazing to share a World Record with Courtney, Kelsi, and Simone… It’s a very weird and very exciting feeling. That relay was one I will never forget!

Team USA had the lead heading into day 2 of competition, but we knew we would have to work hard if we wanted to win the meet. The group definitely stepped up and got the job done. There were so many fast swims and close races on day 2. I was truly inspired by all the amazing swimming around me. The energy and momentum the team built was immeasurable.

Shortly before my 100 Breaststroke, Cammile Adams (roommate/teammate/fellow Boo lover) guided me out to the deck to “see something”. I was a bit reluctant because I was in the middle of my warm up, but she insisted. She pointed up in the stands and I immediately saw Tim Phillips (boyfriend/teammate/best friend) stand up. Shocked to see him in the stands I almost started crying… THEN Maureen (big sister) stood up! I actually started crying. Maureen has been unable to get to a swim meet since I was in high school! It was a special moment and a wonderful surprise… Something to make this special meet a little extra special.