Tuesday, 17 July 2012 00:00
Gainesville is known across the country for its top football program, academics and parties. But this college town's athletes are about to star on the international stage—and it's not the first time.
Many past, present and future Olympians live, train and work in our midst. With the Games almost here (or in London) we met up with some of the athletes to see just what it's like to live like an Olypian.
By Rachel Rakoczy; Photos: Elizabeth Beisel photo by Jim Burgess, Renate duPlessis photo by James Reyes and Gregg Troy photo by Jim Burgess
It's no surprise to hear that Peter Vanderkaay, 28, started swimming as a toddler. Or that he was competing by age 7. It is surprising to hear he wasn't very good.
"I think it's safe to say most people used to beat me," Peter says.
Now Peter is a three-time Olympic medalist (two gold in the 200-meter freestyle relay and one bronze in the 200-m freestyle) and is headed to his third Olympics. "If you would've told me that 15 years ago, I would've called you crazy," he says.
Peter trained in Michigan for the last two Olympics and plans to return after the trials. Although he contemplated retirement after Beijing, Peter decided to train for the London Olympics. "There was just so much emotion surrounding '08, I didn't think I had it in me to go another four years," he says.
To maintain focus, Peter wanted a change of scenery. That's when he moved down to Gainesville. "The program is fantastic; the coaches are world-class," he says. "Gainesville is a really unique, cool place."
His favorite restaurants are The Top and Civilization—"You can drive by it and not even know it's a restaurant, but it's really good"—and, when not traveling for swimming, he likes to catch Gator football games. This season, he was able to make it to the Vanderbilt game. On his days off, he likes to be outdoors, preferably by the water. "I love the water, so I'll always be near it," he says.
The life of a professional swimmer is different from that of other athletes. Two-a-days in the pool, weightlifting, boxing or running stadiums are typical, as is the occasional photo-shoot (though it's not his favorite). But unlike other sports, swimming gets only two weeks of the world's attention every four years. "It's tough for the sport," he says. "It's hard to go up against the NFL and everything else that's more mainstream."
Despite that, Peter says there isn't really an off-season. "Last time I took a month off and I felt so gross and out of shape, I said I'm never doing that again."
Peter went to both Athens and Beijing, but he remembers the Athens games better: "It was my first games and it's just a little more vivid, even though it was a longer time ago."
Peter doesn't know if he will continue to swim competitively after London, but has goals for the time until he decides.
"I'd like to go best times and win medals, but my goal is also just to enjoy these Games. Sometimes you get caught up trying to win, and you really miss out on the experience."
In 1992, the Olympics were held in Barcelona. It was the first time South Africa participated since 1960, due to apartheid. Renate duPlessis was 10.
"I remember my parents watching and explaining to me what the rings and what the Olympics were," she says. Just four years later, Renate missed the Olympic swim team by .09 of a second. When she was 18, Renate left her family in South Africa and came to the United States to swim for the University of Hawaii.
"I had been traveling for swimming since I was 13, so at first it just felt like a really long road trip or camp," she says. That year, Renate made the South African Olympic team at the last meet on the last race to qualify to swim the 100-meter butterfly. "It was not the perfect race, but it was really great when I touched the wall and saw I qualified—it was one of the happiest moments of my life."
Renate describes the Sydney Olympics "like Disneyland for an athlete." In Australia, swimming is one of the top spectator sports. When she went to her event, she was star-struck. "I looked up and I couldn't even see the top of the stands," she says. "I went white as a sheet."
Though Renate didn't medal in Sydney (she said it was the most stressful race of her life), she was proud of getting there. Shortly after, she transferred to UF and began training for the next Olympics, but South Africa decided not to send any women swimmers to the 2004 Games.
Today, Renate is a massage therapist and owns her own business. One of her favorite clients is Gemma Spofforth, a British swimmer who goes to grad school and trains at UF. "It'll be exciting to watch all the local swimmers this summer," she says.
Still, Renate couldn't leave the world of competition behind her. She competed in the World Indoor Rowing Sprints in Boston and rows outdoors as part of the Gainesville Area Rowing team. "It gives me something to train for," she says. "There's just something about racing someone in another lane you miss."
To coach at Florida means to coach some of the country's elite. Coaching at the Olympics means coaching the world's elite.
UF swim coach Gregg Troy is Team USA's men's swim coach for this year's Olympics. After five Olympics, Coach Troy knows how to prepare. The key, he says, is to "try not to do anything dramatically different." Athletes have to practice switching from the collegiate short course (25 yards) to the 50-meter Olympic pool—a fitness difference he says is like going from lifting weights to running track.
Coach Troy has trained many Olympians in his 15 years at Florida. His current swimmers could represent up to 15 different countries at this Olympics.
"It takes the practice intensity up a little," he says. "More competition is always good."
With this in mind, he looks forward to the tight races to come. "Lots of events are up for grabs," he says. He predicts the men's 200-meter freestyle will be "one of the most tremendous ever. I can think of 10 athletes capable of winning."
Though he says it's an honor to be head coach, the 5am to 6:30pm days and little-to-no offseason (two weeks is the longest vacation a swimmer dares) has made the year fly by. His goal for London is to "carry on the U.S. tradition of being the best swimming nation and hopefully put our athletes in the best situation to win medals."
The STUDENT HOPEFUL
Alex Martin, 24, sometimes wondered why he took on so many extra challenges—like finishing up his degree in advertising and being creative director for Gator Grind, a blog for Gator athletes—while swimming at UF. But now, Alex is proud of the work he put in and what his future holds—including a trip to the Olympic trials.
"I've never been this excited," he says. At the trials, he competed in the 400-meter individual medley, 200-freestyle and 200-individual medley (IM). "There's nothing like that kind of confidence you have when you know you've done everything you can do to prepare."
Being at Florida means training with past Olympians. Alex says that raised his level of competition. "It's my goal to meet what they can do and try to sometimes do it better," he says. The other swimmers, as well as the high expectations of the coaching staff, make training a "constant challenge and constant opportunity to be better."
Still, Alex plans on a future outside the pool. He hopes to find a job in the music industry. He has a home studio, and used to play guitar at open mic nights. "Music has been my outlet," he says. "It's something I'll never lose."
His swimming routine even affected his choice to move in early August to Los Angeles, rather than New York. "When my day was over, I would start working on finding a job," he says. "5pm here was only afternoon for California."
This summer will be his last competing at this level for swimming, but he does plan an open-water swim under the Golden Gate Bridge. "It's great exercise," he says. "I don't think it's going to be part of my daily routine, but I know there's nothing better."
For years, Marty Liquori, 62, was at the center of Olympic track. First as a competitor—he was the world record holder in the 1500-meter going into the 1972 Olympics and then as a broadcaster for NBC Sports. This time he will be a spectator.
The reality of live commentating at the Games is different from what people imagine. "I'm at the stadium, and it's usually 100 degrees," he says. "I've been there for four hours before the events start, and I'll end up watching on a 15-inch screen."
Compare that to air conditioning, a comfortable couch and HDTV with a pause button—and the capability to switch between different events—and "it's a pretty nice way to go."
Marty is still passionate about running, and when the weather's nice he laces up his running shoes. (He was headed out for a run after we finished talking.) He has stayed up-to-date with the track stars and stats of today. Though he says there are not a lot of Americans with the potential to medal in his events (the 1500 and 5000 meters), he sees the possibility for U.S. gold in sprints and maybe even one of the local triple jumpers Christian Taylor, Will Claye or even Omar Craddock (at press time).
Marty has been in their shoes, so he knows what Olympic hopefuls are doing now.
"They are literally watching every step they make," he says. They pay attention to what they're eating, get plenty of sleep and try to avoid injury. "You kind of have permission for a year or two to be a hypochondriac and focus on yourself." Marty will watch the Olympics from home. And the rest of the time? You can often find him playing jazz in local restaurants.
The WILD CARD
It was the prelims at 2012 Nationals, and he had two fouls going into his last jump.
"Everyone was shaking in their boots," says Omar Craddock, a 21-year-old journalism major. "If I didn't make it, the team wouldn't make those 10 points and it would be hard to get the title."
On his final attempt, Omar made it to the finals and ended up winning the triple jump, making him the national indoor and outdoor triple jump champion and fourth best triple-jumper in the country. It also helped bring UF the outdoor national title. Omar beat Christian Taylor and Will Claye, two teammates who had previously held the national triple jump title. He was preparing to compete with them at Olympic trials when we spoke.
"I'm excited," he says. "Nerves are for people who are scared. Maybe I'll get some nerves when I'm there, but I'm just very excited."
Since eighth grade, Omar knew he wanted to go to the Olympics. Now his dream could become reality. "It's everyone's dream to do something big, whether it's to go to the NFL, be a singer or whatever," he says. "I never wanted to doubt myself, but now that it's about to happen—I never thought it'd happen."
"I'm looking forward to seeing my name as 1, 2 or 3, having a medal in my hand and getting recognized that I'm going to London."
TEAM USA PLAYERS
(as of press time)
Two-time Olympian and six-time medalist Ryan Lochte, 27, is a bit of a joker (he wore a grill for the gold medal ceremony at the world championships last year). [So far,] Ryan beat rival Michael Phelps in the 400-meter IM at trials, and this "duel in the pool" will compete in multiple events in London.
Conor Dwyer, 23, came to Gainesville from the University of Iowa in 2010 and was elected NCAA Swimmer of the Year, won the NCAA championships in the 200- and 500-yard free, and qualified for the U.S. Team. This year, Conor qualified for the 400-meter free, second to friend Peter Vanderkaay (as of press time).
In 2008, Elizabeth Beisel, 19, was the youngest member of the US Swim Team and just missed the medal stand in the 400-meter IM and 200-meter back. At the recent trials, Elizabeth won the 400 IM with the fastest time in the world this year: 4 min., 31.74 seconds. She is also scheduled to compete in the 200-free and 200 IM.
In 2011, Tony McQuay, 22, won the title of the NCAA indoor champion in the 400-meter sprint, as well as the 2012 indoor and outdoor title. This year, he finished in second place at trials, qualifying him to run in the 400 meters and the 4x400 relay in London.
After winning three national championships on the Florida track and field team (2009 and 2010 NCAA Indoor Triple Jump and 2010 NCAA Outdoor Triple Jump), Christian Taylor, 22, decided to go pro. He signed with Li-Ning, a Chinese athletic company, and will be competing with former teammate Will Claye.
Sounds fresh from the pages of the magazine