By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Breeja Larson had quite a career at Texas A&M, and after the 2012 Olympics and her final year as an Aggie swimmer last month at NCAAs, where she claimed another title, she’s looking forward to the future. She talks about the incredible teammates she has, and explains just why College Station is such a special place, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So after a great college career, is it exciting to continue swimming?
Breeja: Yes, and I am really excited. NCAAs has been the experience of a lifetime. But since the Olympics, and meeting so many professional swimmers, I am really excited for the next step. This is an important time in a swimming career, and I know a lot of people can get burned out about now, but at this point I am feeling pretty fresh and I’m looking for something more.
2. Rebecca Soni retires, didn’t she have a pretty significant impact on you?
Breeja: Honestly, I was so proud to be her teammate. One of the things I really appreciate about Rebecca is that she has always been very humble. I was afraid after I beat her at Trials she would kind of have animosity, but it was not that way at all – she was so nice and encouraging. All the swimmers were like that, people like Jessica Hardy – they were all so supportive.
3. That’s an interesting dynamic about swimming isn’t it?
Breeja: It’s so nice to be in a sport where you have that support. As a swimmer, you are in your own lane, so really you won’t technically be affected by what the person next to you is doing, but to keep a healthy environment, you want to have that support with your teammates, even if they are your best competition. You still do what you do and they do what they do, but to have people like that around you makes it a big pleasure.
4. So how do you rate London two years past it at this point?
Breeja: I was a little bit bummed about my individual race with the early start. But you know, I think that team was just so refreshing and lively. I heard from a lot of veterans that this was their favorite Olympics and there were so many positive voices. When you have leaders like Natalie Coughlin and have the best young Olympians who are having fun with what they are doing, it means a lot more. You still go hard, but it’s a lot of fun.
5. Being on the world stage, what was that like?
Breeja: It was incredible. I was kind of ignorant to the sport of swimming in that I always thought America was the best because we mostly hear about amazing swims done here. But swimming is so big now worldwide, and seeing so many fast swimmers in London made me really appreciate how fast the rest of the world is.
6. That was quite a bit of talent wasn’t it?
Breeja: It was really humbling to be star struck by someone and then shake their hand and realize they are flesh and bone. They are just extraordinarily talented people who work hard for such impressive accomplishments. I look at someone like Elizabeth Beisel who made the 2008 team and is just this incredibly talented woman who grew up just like me and went through elementary school, middle school and high school before going to college – yet through such hard work, look at the levels she’s been able to reach. That team made a big impression on me, and I feel honored to really know those people now.
7. What was it like having Cammile Adams, another Aggie, with you on the team?
Breeja: You know, it was really nice. She had been on National Teams previously so I focused on her at first to learn protocol, and to get the feel of what it was like at big competitions. She was good at shrugging off the distractions and treating things like a regular meet. I am really proud that together we made an impact on the Aggie swim community, and on the club team and with the recruits. We helped A&M get some recognition for swimming, and that’s something the program earned. Our coach, Steve Bultman, is one of the most underrated coaches there is. He doesn’t ask for any attention and it seems like his accomplishments get pushed to the wayside, so that attention for the program has been nice.
8. How often do people not realize the “j” is silent and mispronounce your name?
Breeja: A lot (laughs). What’s funny is all of my Hispanic friends get it right. We have a lot of family history on the Swedish side and it’s really interesting to see how far back we go. My great, great grandfather is from Sweden and we have a lot of heritage with the Pilgrams who came through the Plains for the Mormon Church. We also have some Dutch history.
9. How did you get started swimming back in your hometown of Mesa, Arizona?
Breeja: I always just did summer recreation swimming until my senior year (of high school). But you know, growing up with summer rec teams was so much fun. I know it was a very risky thing to do that with competitive swimming, waiting that long, but swimming was fun the way I was doing it, and it’s supposed to be fun. When it came time to choose one sport, I had a coach, Brad Hering, who really helped me set high goals and I had to work hard to achieve them. That made me realize you can do something if you won’t stop until you get it. Mea Aquatics gave me the courage to keep going strong. I always thought it was important to have extremely high goals that everyone shakes their head at. I didn’t get angry but I wanted to prove people wrong who thought I couldn’t do it.
10. What did you learn technique wise in the breaststroke at a young age that helped you?
Breeja: I think the biggest thing that Brad Hering did was to not touch my technique at all. I didn’t have or develop any bad habits, so he trained me and it got my cardiovascular strong and the way the program was run kept my spirits up. Then at A&M, Steve got to do his own molding of me.
11. Your Olympic gold medal - what is it like to have one?
Breeja: It really is incredible. It took me a long time to adjust to the idea of even having one. I feel like whenever I would bring it (the Olympic gold) to visit a club team or retirement home or a hospital visit, I’d think, “Look at this cool trinket I have.” And then the person would see it and say, “An Olympic gold medal, oh my gosh!” The first few times that wave just hit me, and I was so proud to be able to share it – that’s my favorite thing about having a gold medal; even though knowing I reached such a high goal is overwhelming and incredible, the happiness it brings people, especially in a one-on-one interaction with them, means the most.
12. What a great area for a swimmer to grow up in – did you meet Amanda Beard, a great breaststroker of all-time, out there?
Breeja: One of my favorite moments was my senior year, right before Nationals. Amanda Beard came down to Mesa to swim our state meet, and I beat her in prelims by a tenth of second. I thought I was hot stuff, but turned out I was fast and shaved, and she wasn’t (laughs) even tapering. But it still felt pretty cool!
13. She’s quite an achiever, isn’t she?
Breeja: Amanda had some big moments in her swim career. I only swam prelims at my first Nationals but I got to swim right next to her. I was having a bit of a breakdown, and she almost literally shook some sense into me, telling me, “I’ve seen you race, you’ve done this thousands of time before.” I was like, “No, I’ve swum this eight times!” (Laughs). But she brought me back mentally.
14. What is it like to be part of, and continue, this era of amazing breaststrokers for the U.S., and follow along the path Rebecca Soni paved more recently for the event and sport?
Breeja: It has been great. Rebecca has been great giving me words of wisdom and encouragement. It is so awesome to even consider myself part of this group. One of my top memories from the Olympics was even being part of this group that had so many great veterans on the team, people like Natalie, Michael, Ryan Lochte. And to have Rebecca and (Eric) Shanteau, Brendan Hansen – the incredible breaststrokers who were still there leading the way. Also, having young people like Katie (Ledecky) and Missy on that team was just incredible. People always ask me if Missy is actually as nice in person as she seems in the media. And I tell them Missy is actually NICER in person, and it’s hard to believe she can be nicer than she appears in the media! But she truly is nicer, sweeter and even more selfless than they can imagine. She is a joy to be around from her positive energy. I stayed with her and her family in a rented home after the Olympics, and she had an 8- to 12-hour media day, came home exhausted, and the first thing she says to me is, “How are you doing?” I was like, “No, how are YOU doing? Don’t worry about me, I didn’t do a thing all day!” Getting to know Katie has been so interesting. She was really young during the Olympics and kind of stuck to herself as she found her way, but it was so awesome to see that fire in her, and how much she enjoys the race. And how (laughs) disgustingly talented she is! Just seeing how much she loves to compete, and the fire in her eyes, is so inspiring.
15. You mentioned the miscue on the start – that happens to everyone of course in a career – but how did you put that out of your mind at the time?
Breeja: It shook me up a little. I felt like I could have won a medal – and let me say the people who finished ahead of me won it fair and square – but it did disrupt my chances a little bit. But I think I learned from it. And I can use it to inspire others now because when I see it happen I can (laughs) say, “Yeah, but at least it didn’t happen to you at the Olympics!”
16. The Aggie Ring Day, I saw that on your bio as something that means so much to you – what’s that like?
Breeja: Actually, I am getting mine today! It’s incredible. Every year you see people come in, and then they finally get it; when you finally reach those credit hours and get the Aggie Ring it’s with you forever, wherever you go – airports, gas stations, anywhere you go in the world. You are part of this huge network, this family, everywhere you go. Half of my wardrobe (laughs) is A&M swimming and diving gear, and no matter where I have been – Spain, Scotland, London – people will show me their ring and say, “Gig ‘em!” I have had it walking with people onto planes. It’s incredible.
17. What makes College Station so special to you?
Breeja: One of the things that always really stuck out to me is how nice the people are here. We have something like 45,000 people here, but there is no graffiti, no writing on the bathroom walls; people respect this university and community, and each other. You don’t see litter and stuff like that. It’s a clean, healthy environment. This university was here so long and will be here forever. That safety net of always being an Aggie – it’s like you know you will always be taken care of.
18. What’s your major and how do you use it or plan to use it?
Breeja: Psychology – you know honestly, it was a really good major to prepare me for life. The class I have called the Psychology of Adjustment right now shows you the basic stuff on how to change behaviors. If you want to change relationships or behaviors, it shows you how to do that. You want to get better grades? You study more, and cut down on TV. It helps you be aware of changes you need to make to change your life. I remember reading the Personality of Psychology textbook, and I would see something and think “That’s me!” or “That’s why this person acts this way,” just things like that, that helped things make sense to me and understand the world better. I am going into a sports management degree after I graduate here and I am really excited about that because of the way the program is set up, I can still do the World Cup and Arena Grand Prix tours and finish my masters in 2016.
19. You have a reputation for always being so pleasant – certainly, you were raised that way and make smart choices on the company you keep, the school you choose, etc. – but how much of that is a conscious choice?
Breeja: I think how you treat people is really important, and you can never overlook the importance of first impressions. Wherever you go, you are representing the group you belong to – it’s really just an extended family. I am from Arizona, my school and Mesa Aquatics, and I am a Texas A&M Aggie, and a U.S. National Team swimmer, so I am representing the United States, College Station, and my hometown and family. Even when I meet someone who comes off rude, you have to remember that’s not who you are, so you still try and respond in a positive way. That’s one of the biggest things I learned even more of in college, the importance of treating people with respect no matter what.
20. What has this past year or two taught you about yourself?
Breeja: I have learned a lot …part of it is taking on challenges that going into it seem really difficult. For example, at the end of this year I will have completed 37 hours (combined in fall and spring) to graduate on time. That is one of my top five accomplishments. I also learned the importance of lifelong friendships, realizing that you do make some friends who come and go, but when you meet someone who you respect and are compatible with, you find a way to hold onto them and keep them in your life forever.