A Swimmer's Recipe For Olympic Gold: Add More Fun

Apr 30, 2012
Originally published on April 30, 2012 8:36 pm

Four years ago, swimmer Rebecca Soni won a gold medal in the 200 breaststroke at the Beijing Summer Olympics. She hopes to add to her medal collection at this summer's London Games, where she'll be competing in three events.

Now 25, Soni looks graceful when she stands at the edge of the pool. And when she jumps in, it seems to take her just a few strokes to get to the other side of a 25-meter pool.

Soni lives and trains in California, but she recently came to New York for a promotional event. Even here, she trains at least once a day. At the moment, she's concentrating on problem areas.

"I'm definitely working on the starts and turns," she says, "The kind of in-between parts of the swim — that's always been a weakness of mine."

Normally, Soni is in the pool for two to four hours a day. But her workouts now include many other activities, as well: weight training, yoga, Pilates and spinning.

Soni has some of the fastest world times in the 200 and 100 breaststroke. In Beijing, she won two silvers as well as the gold.

At one point, Soni was training too intensely, says her coach, Dave Salo, who is also the head swimming and diving coach at USC. He had her cut back, and her times improved.

"She is one of those types of athletes that grows up thinking that you've got to go 10 workouts a week," Salo says. "She needed to learn that she could be in control of that environment; she needed to learn that she could go one workout a day. ... So I think she has learned a lot, and grown up a lot."

At one point after Beijing, Soni was so burned out she was going to retire. She says the repetitive, everyday nature of the intense training got to her. It was hard to realize when she was in a funk, she says. She found herself just going through the motions.

Salo helped her learn not to have to be perfect every day, Soni says, and also to "remember why it's fun — and race your friends, and have a good time."

That means that once in a while, she'll declare a "fun day," and pull out the inner tubes to play around with.

"Whatever you need to do. You just need to approach it in a different way," she says.

From her relaxed and playful mood in the pool in New York, it seems that Soni's new attitude is working.

She previously had a problem with a rapid heartbeat; that was solved through surgery. These days, she eats two breakfasts each day: cereal and fruit before training; eggs and toast afterward. And she often mixes different cereals together.

"I think that's a habit from when I was little," she says. "It makes things fun in the morning."

Soni's breaststroke style is considered unusual. It's very abbreviated, her coach says, with a very short kick. She skims the water and doesn't go down that deep — so there isn't as much drag.

And she moves at a very fast tempo. Salo says you could never teach a swimmer that stroke — but it works for her. He calls her a lioness: strong, and protective.

"If she needs to go fight, or she needs to go hunt down something, she is at 100 percent. And I think that's kind of who she is," Salo says. "She's really 100 percent at what she does."

As the Olympic trials and London Games draw near, Soni is beginning to increase her hours of training again. She's hoping to win another gold in the 200 breaststroke, as well as medals in the 100 breaststroke and the 400 medley relay.

But Salo says the main thing he wants for Soni is for her to enjoy the experience.

"She's already the Olympic gold medalist and the world record holder," he says. "She could do this for a very long time if she continues to enjoy it. "

And clearly, Soni still does.

"Overall," she says, "there's nothing like the feeling of having a great race."

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Now the latest in our series of profiles of athletes training for this summer's Olympics in London. Today, a young swimmer. She won gold four years ago in Beijing in the 200-meter breaststroke. This year, she's going for gold in three events. NPR's Margot Adler has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Rebecca Soni looks graceful when she stands at the edge of the pool, even when she jumps in. I notice how few strokes it takes her to get to the other side of the 25-meter pool. Soni lives and trains in California, but she's in New York for a promotional event. Even here, she trains at least once a day. At the moment, she's concentrating on problem areas.

REBECCA SONI: I'm definitely working on the starts and turns, so the kind of in-between parts of the swim that's always been a weakness of mine, so I've been focusing a little bit more on that.

ADLER: Normally, she's in the pool two to four hours a day, but her workouts now include many other activities.

SONI: I do a lot more out of the pool now than I did before, which includes, in the weight room, yoga, Pilates and spinning. That's all after swimming.

ADLER: Soni has some of the fastest world times in the 200- and 100-meter breaststroke. She won two silver medals as well as a gold in Beijing. At one point, her coach, Dave Salo, the head swimming and diving coach at USC, said she was training too intensely. He had her cut back, and her times improved.

DAVE SALO: She's one of those types of athletes that grows up thinking that you've got to go 10 workouts a week. She needed to learn that she could be in control of that environment. She needed to learn that she could go one workout a day, and that she could try some different types of dry land activities. So I think she's learned a lot and grown up a lot.

ADLER: Soni is 25. At one point, she was so burned out she was going to retire. The repetitive, everyday nature of the training at her level of intensity got to her. It was hard to realize when she was in a funk, she says. She found herself just going through the motions. She says Salo helped her learn not to have to be perfect every day and also to...

SONI: Remember why it's fun and race your friends and have a good time. And if you really need to say let's have a fun day and pull out the inner tubes, whatever you need to do, you just need to approach it a different way.

ADLER: And seeing her relaxed and playful in the pool shows that this new attitude is working. Soni previously had a problem with a rapid heartbeat; that was solved through surgery. And another little fact: She has two breakfasts a day; cereal and fruit before training, eggs and toast after. Somewhere I read that you mixed different types of cereals together sometimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SONI: I think that's a habit from when I was little, and that always stuck around. It makes things fun in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLER: Soni's breaststroke is considered unusual, very abbreviated, says Salo, with a very short kick. She skims the water, doesn't go down that deep, so there isn't as much drag. It's a very fast tempo. He says you could never teach a swimmer that stroke, but it works. Salo calls her a lioness: strong and protective.

SALO: If she needs to go fight, or she needs to go hunt down something, she's at 100 percent, and I think that's kind of who she is. She's really 100 percent at what she does.

ADLER: Soni is beginning to increase her hours of training again as the Olympic trials and the summer Olympics in London draw near. So as she trains, hoping to win another gold in the 200-meter breaststroke, as well as medals in the 100-meter breaststroke and the 400-meter relay medley, Salo says the main thing is...

SALO: I want her to enjoy this. She's already the Olympic gold medalist and the world record holder. And she could do this for a very long time if she continues to enjoy it.

ADLER: And clearly, Soni still does.

SONI: Overall, there's nothing like the feeling of having a great race.

ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.