By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
A lot of coverage of NCAA sports revolves around “sanctions,” academic standing, and other terms – ones that rarely apply to swimmers, and in the case of Georgia Olympian Shannon Vreeland, the apropos terms are honors student, honor society member, and student government representative. The Overland Park, Kansas native brought home Olympic gold, and now with a cast of Olympian teammates including Allison Schmitt, she’s got her sights set on doing her best at NCAAs – while studying during the trip of course – as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So you come back from London, go right to school, and back on Jack Bauerle’s Georgia team – tired much?
Shannon: Not really. It’s been a crazy year, I know, but I am feeling really good. I am getting ready for NCAAs. That was my focus in general, early on this season, and it’s not like it is wearing me out or anything.
2. How much did it help having Allison Schmitt as a teammate coming back from the Olympics and jumping right back in – her having had that experience already, I mean?
Shannon: It really is valuable. Even all throughout Olympic Trials and everything, having her there has been such a key. You know how she is, always wanting to help out and be supportive. She has been there before, so she understands it. I had not even been to Olympic Trials before last year! So at Trials, she knew how to calm me down. I had never been on a National Team before outside of going to World University Games. But having her at the Olympics was also a huge benefit for me – and everyone else on the team, because she’s such a great person, and great leader. She really helped me in London by keeping me from freaking out too much or getting too caught up in the meet itself.
3. Did you miss her the year off from school she took to train at NBAC last year?
Shannon: Absolutely, but it was a great decision that could not have worked out better and we are so proud of her. But yes, having her back on the team this year was great. We were training partners my freshman year, and she really gets after it.
4. That WUGs team in China – how did you make it?
Shannon: Yes, that was just (after) my freshman year at Georgia, and I got it by taking something like (laughs) 15th in the 100 free at Nationals, so I made it on a relay. I had been on junior teams, but this was my first trip. So it’s funny that I’d make the Olympic team in the 800 free relay without the kind of National Team and international experience you’d expect from most Olympians.
5. What was that WUGs team like?
Shannon: It was great, and there were a lot of Georgia people on the team, like Chelsea Nauta and Megan Romano, and a bunch of others, including several on the men’s team – that just made it more fun for me. That was a really good relay experience, too, and I had finally dropped tons of time. You have to (laughs) understand, my coaches used to joke – I think – that they hoped I’d just make NCAAs, but getting in the pool and training with those girls every day gave me something extra and pushed me to get faster.
6. You were pretty close at Olympic Trials in Omaha to your Kansas City Blazers Club team, relatively speaking, right?
Shannon: Yes, and that really means a lot to me. It was fun because Bobby Bollier was from our club team as well. Kansas newspapers made a big deal out of us being there. And I loved representing Kansas and the Kansas City Blazers in London. I love Kansas and I love being there. Kansas has a great sports history, but it’s not as common for swimmers from home to make the Olympic team, and everyone’s reaction to it just made me so proud to represent them all.
7. Besides Schmitty being there, how come you didn’t get overwhelmed in London?
Shannon: I don’t know. Just the whole summer leading up to it made me less nervous. I hadn’t dropped (time) in the 200 free in the last few years, which was frustrating since I had done that in short course. Then, at the Charlotte UltraSwim, our first (long course) meet of the season, we were in heavy training, and out of the blue I broke two minutes. The rest of the summer, I was consistently under two minutes. So I was excited to see where it would go, but I still really had no real expectations at Trials. Even Jack (Bauerle) and I talked about it, that maybe this would be a test run and I could make a serious attempt in 2016. In fact, we talked about maybe making WUGs again. He told me to do my best, because you never know what might happen – someone might scratch an event or an alternate space might come up. Then, when I was eighth after semifinals, he said, “Anything is possible, just get your hand on the wall first.” So it wasn’t like I was a person who went in there as a favorite and made the team. I just went in there and kind of worked my way up. But my coaches’ stories about how people who were 17th and 18th could still make it really stuck with me; I knew my best would be good enough no matter what and I would be happy. It just worked out. You always do your best, because anything can happen.
8. You started out fast at that meet didn’t you?
Shannon: I pretty much did. In the 400 free, I have never had good races – which is weird because (in college) I do well in the 500 – but I dropped four seconds at Trials. I got ninth for that, just missing (the final) by a few one-hundredths. But again, my coaches were great and treated it as a blessing. “This is good, you don’t have to spend energy on that final – you’re fast, and you’ll be ready for the 200.” That was a great moment, because I had been a little disappointed in being ninth. But I was excited for the 200 because we had a lot of Georgia girls in that.
9. And you kept getting faster, right?
Shannon: Coming back in the semifinals, I dropped a full second and a half from my best time – plus I had dropped half a second in prelims. After semifinals, I thought, “This could really happen.”
10. Is it fair to say that having the right mindset for Trials helped you a lot?
Shannon: Yes, and actually, I feel like a lot of that has to do with Georgia. I was always super serious before meets growing up, and would just look like I was ready to throw up before races, even intrasquad meets. But then I came to Georgia, and so many of my teammates had constantly positive attitudes. You are, to a point, a product of your friends and surroundings, and the better the people you choose to be with, the better you will be. At Georgia, if you see Megan or Allison behind the blocks, they are always smiling. Being with teammates like that is just outstanding. I remember my freshman year, there were so many of us (Georgia) swimmers in the (finals of the) 500 free, one of the girls said, “It doesn’t matter which one of us gets to the wall first, but it has to be a Georgia girl!” That was awesome. We were competing against each other to the outside eye, but really, we were competing for each other and our school, even in the same race.
11. How come you never hit the “Olympic wall” coming back so fast?
Shannon: I think a lot of it is that you come from a whole year of focusing on swimming, and then you hit that ultimate goal, and then it’s like, “Another year to focus on swimming?” – I think that can get to people. For me, what helped was I really branched out this year at Georgia, joined a lot of organizations and took part in a lot of events. I like to spend my time outside of swimming doing things with amazing people, too. I think that’s also been a key in helping my confidence with swimming.
12. So you got busier to get…over being so busy?
Shannon: Yes, but (laughs), that’s how I am – I am happiest when I am active with a lot of amazing people. I wasn’t really like that until this year, but being part of the academic community and the city has really helped me a lot. I feel like it’s helped my development, and also as a scholar.
13. What are you active in?
Shannon: There’s a couple of honor societies, and I am an exec for one of them – the people in that group are some of the best I have met at Georgia. I’m also in the Student Government’s Senate, and I have a seat, for athletics, on our student advisory committee, and just a bunch of other random things, like we got “painted up” for events – one was for a breast cancer event. We’ve also been active at football games and gymnastic meets, and that is a big part of being part of the community, supporting other people, and representing this school. That means a lot to me.
14. Can you believe now that you are an Olympian for life, and what’s it’s like to be the one the kids are looking up to now for motivation?
Shannon: Yes, and that is actually really cool. I have always loved swimming. I was that girl who cut pictures out of Splash magazine growing up to put on tins cans to make pencil holders in high school. I read Splash magazine religiously as a kid, and I still do. I always looked up to Olympians or people who went to Worlds or National team members, so it’s kind of neat that people might look to me for that kind of inspiration now.
15. I bet the Kansas City Blazers are pretty proud, right?
Shannon: Going back to my club team and talking to them was really cool. That was one of the first things I did. They had a fund raiser, I did a bunch of camps and was able to answer a bunch of questions. Like I said, I was the one in the crowd doing that growing up, and it was one of my favorite things to do – to go and hear the swimmers who came to speak to us, and just internalize and learn from everything they had to say. So to be able to do it now, well, it’s a favorite thing of mine, and I feel very fortunate.
16. Is it hard to get used to being on the other side?
Shannon: I don’t really know how to articulate it…it’s still really weird to me that people would want to talk to me because I am still very much that person in the crowd. (Georgia associate head coach) Harvey (Humphries) had us go talk to their kids’ teams, and I had a hard time understanding how the reward for their hard work was to talk to us – it’s such an honor to me. That was their big surprise, to talk to me? Wow. I was not expecting this to come out of it, at all, I’m so humbled by it, and it means a lot to me. But again, I look at Allison Schmitt, and see how humble she is – she just rolls with it and is such a normal person, and she’s so good in interviews and talking with swimmers and parents…she’s my role model on how to handle it. You always learn from people you are close to – that’s another reason why it’s important to have positive people in your life who value commitment and achievement, because you want to be better, too, being around that all the time.
17. Allison, normal? Well, I never! Seriously though, how fun is that woman?
Shannon: For sure, she is as fun as it gets. I feel like every time you are with her, you can’t help but have a good time. When we are in the pool, and maybe practice is kind of boring, like on a Friday afternoon, she makes it into a little game, where she’ll leave early and I’ll try to catch her, or vice versa. Just little things to not just get through it, but to make yourself better while enjoying it. Everything is what you make it, and yet here is this Olympian I train with and even on a Friday, she can make getting better fun. Pretty awesome.
18. What was London like outside the water?
Shannon: Well, London was great. Andrew Gemmell and I are really good friends. I am majoring in International Business and Economics, so we have a few classes together, too. It was just fun to hang out with him in London, and to be on the team – I actually cried when he made the Olympic team, that’s how proud I was of him, and happy for him and his family. We did a lot of stuff together. He went with me to some of my interviews, we went to watch some of the gymnastics together, and so on. I went and watched track with Allison, which was great. A bunch of us from Georgia stayed in the same apartment, and that was a good time. Georgia’s Kelsey Scott was there with Athletes in Action who took me on an unofficial walking tour of a bunch of places I wanted to see. So I got to hang out with her and a bunch of Georgia people, which just made the experience that much more meaningful.
19. What was camp in Vichy like?
Shannon: France was great. It was so pretty. The French countryside was gorgeous. We would go shopping, roaming and get food. There were fireworks at night, on the back porch, not everyone heard it, but it was on our side of the building, and it was just this great moment of, “Wow, we’re really here, and there are fireworks.” It was just so fitting for that moment in time. But to be with that group of people meant the most. We had young swimmers, and veterans, but the personalities all fit. I remember seeing Lia Neal and Jessica Hardy starting this amazing friendship and hanging out together, and going places, and I just thought that was so cool that here’s this high school teenager from New York, and this person in her 20s from California, and they have this great friendship coming from this. There were so many instances of that. That’s the kind of leadership we had, and that’s the kind of mature youths we had on the team. I mean, training with Katie Ledecky, who was what, 15?, inspired us all and everyone liked her. Of course, Missy (Franklin) is as likeable as it gets and got along with everyone. The point is, you would never have been able to guess who the youngsters were by who hung out with each other, because it became like a family, and we took a lot of pride and pleasure in caring for each other and spending time together. Getting to know those amazing people is something I will always treasure.
20. What has this last year taught you about yourself?
Shannon: I feel like it’s definitely been a really big confidence booster. Jack talks about that all time, but he’s definitely right. I keep coming back to doing your best, to keep going even when you think you might not win. Because the realities outside of you might be well within your reach, and by doing your best, you might get opportunities that you never thought were possible. But for doing that – for going all out and doing your best – you earn whatever you get, and it makes you better not just as a swimmer, but as a teammate, and as a person.