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Matt And Annie: Swimming's Love Story

2/14/2012

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Last year at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, I pulled 2008 Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers aside for a quickGrevers Chandler (medium) interview. I wanted to ask him a very important question. I wanted the inside scoop, the insider information. Being Matt’s personal friend since we were teammates at Northwestern, I felt entitled to this type of information.

“So,” I said, acting very serious. “When are you going to pop the question?”

A colossal smile erupted onto Matt’s face -- a Cheshire grin, ear to ear. He laughed, glanced around the deck to his girlfriend of three years, teammate Annie Chandler, to make sure she wasn’t eavesdropping.

“We’ll see,” he said with that Grevers Grin. “I love her. She’s the only person for me. We’ll just see when it happens. But it will happen, sooner or later…”

Last Saturday night, “sooner” happened. It happened unexpectedly, amazingly, shockingly, and beautifully. It happened in front of the swimming community, and it was forever immortalized into competitive swimming lore. Saturday at the Missouri Grand Prix, Matt Grevers lingered on the first-place podium seconds after his brother, Andy (assistant coach at Missouri, who helped arrange the surprise proposal), deftly redirected Annie Chandler back toward the awards podium to “pose for pictures” with boyfriend Matt. He had just won the 100m backstroke. In a strange twist of events, Annie was asked to hand out the medals.

“I thought it was a little weird that [Matt’s mother] was filming,” Annie told me on the phone on Tuesday afternoon. “I thought, ‘Oh maybe she’s accidentally filming?’ I was obviously very uncomfortable standing up there.’”

When Annie turned to get off the podium – since, after all, she had not swum that race and had no business being on the podium, posing with her boyfriend in front of hundreds of spectators and media – Matt grabbed her hand. She turned. He removed a black box from the pocket of his warm-up pants. And, like a swimming stroke practiced and rehearsed for hours, days, weeks, and possibly years, Matt got down on one knee.

With one move, Matt sent Annie’s jaw halfway to Beijing.

“Everything fell into place perfectly,” Annie says.

Three days later, the couple was still basking in the afterglow of the surprise proposal, and barely surviving a media firestorm that has since surrounded the swimming “power couple.” (The video on YouTube has nearly one million views.) But they sounded happy, relaxed, content, and most of all -- just hours before Valentine’s Day -- they sounded deeply in love.

“I definitely surprised her,” Matt said, as if to reinsure us that we couldn’t already guess that from the video. And, I’m sure as he said this, over the phone with Annie lingering nearby, Matt was grinning that well-deserved Cheshire grin of his.

******

By now you’ve seen the proposal video. NBC Nightly News picked it up. ESPN, too. Sports Illustrated. Huffington Post. Yahoo News. Good Morning America. Even Jezebel wrote a blurb about the event, saying perhaps the best summarization of the heart-warming proposal: “Could anyone say no to a question asked by someone in possession of such formidable lats?”

But there were reservations about such a public proposal, reservations considered months before Matt asked the question. When Matt first conjured the proposal idea (with help from friends Colin and Sean Kiely, over video games) he was a bit reserved about a public proposal.

“At first I dismissed the idea. I wanted it to be a little more private than that,” Grevers said. “But I mulled it over for a while, and it sounded better and better. I talked to [my brother] Andy, and he thought we could pull it off.”

Andy has long been Matt’s biggest fan and most ardent supporter. Once again, he had his little brother’s back,Grevers Chandler (medium) helping him pull off one of the most romantic, surprising and heart-warming proposals ever (and perhaps the only one ever done on top a swimming awards podium). Andy talked to the meet event coordinator, who had no problem with the proposal. Matt’s parents came down for the meet. The ring was transferred into his warm-up pants. Everything was in place. You can see in the video Matt’s heart racing seconds before asking the question. Deep breaths, as he knew what he was about to do. He knew there was one piece of the puzzle left.

“Everything fell into place,” Matt says, virtually mimicking what Annie said. “It was like fate.”

Matt Grevers and Annie Chandler have long been swimming’s royal couple. They are the Prince William and Princess Kate of the swimming community. Swim fans love them. Kids love them. Teammates love them. It’s because they make it so easy to be so well-liked. They are down-to-Earth, genuine, approachable and grounded professional swimmers. Which is why it is so special, so joyous, that they chose to share their moment with the rest of us – the swimming community -- on the pool deck, where they first met, where it all began.

It was a gift they shared, from them to us.

So many times in our sport, people complain that we don’t see “real” personalities shine through. They cite static post-race interviews. Long, dull sessions. The inability to see these athlete’s faces when they compete, because their reactions and gestures are often covered by water, hidden and blinded from the rest of us to see. We don’t see Michael Phelps’ facial expressions charging to the wall. We don’t see Natalie Coughlin’s fire-filled eyes when she reaches under the flags.

But Saturday night, we saw Annie Chandler’s jaw drop.

We saw Matt Grevers’ grin. His huge, happy arm-pump.

We saw a real moment between two adults who, for the betterment of all of us, shared their love with their swimming community, with their people, with their world.

Later that night, after the pool deck buzz died down, Matt finally stole a private moment with his bride-to-be. I asked Matt what Annie’s private reaction was to the proposal. After all, we all saw her drop-to-the-floor, totally-surprised reaction. But I was more interested in her private reaction. After the cheers and whistles stopped (if they ever did.)

“She said, ‘Good job, Matty.’”

******

I’ve known Matt since 2003. I’ve seen him as a rambunctious freshmen. I watched him grow into a somewhat less-rambunctious sophomore, only to shock the world by upsetting Ryan Lochte at the 2005 NCAA Championships. I watched him grow more, into a post-graduate swimmer who surprised everyone at the 2008 Olympic Trials and qualified for the Olympics. Now, Matt is a grown man, mature and thoughtful, and shocked the world once again. But it’s a world measured by the reaction of one person, the most important person in his life – his Annie.

“When Matt turned me back and got down on his knee, I was just flabbergasted,” Annie says.

With the wedding planning on hold until after the 2012 Olympic Trials, they will return to Arizona today and resume training. They will continue to prepare for the Trials. And they will embrace their new viral stardom (though they said they didn’t want this to get out of hand). But ever since Matt asked Annie’s father for permission to marry her (a conversation that took place near Duel in the Pool), Matt has been not only planning his training, but also planning the perfect way to finalize his fairytale.

“At that moment I looked around when I realized what he was doing, and I was like, ‘Is this really happening?” Annie said. “‘Can we do this in front of this many people?’”

Close to one million (905,646 as of this writing) YouTube views later, yes, Annie, you can. It was a proposal to be remembered. So many hundreds of thousands have become inspired by this modern-day love story, have basked in the moment, this real moment – not a conjured one by Hollywood, not one in a cheesy romance novel – but a genuine moment between two people on a pool deck, in an environment where they have grown, matured, and succeeded.

As a writer covering the sport the past four years, I’ve seen Matt qualify for the Olympics. But it wasn’t his race I remember. I remember the backstage bear hug from his brother, his family erupting in tears. In 2010, after four years of disappointing individual races, I watched Annie finally put together a perfect race and win an NCAA title. But it wasn’t her race I remember. I remember her smile when she jumped out of the pool, into screaming throngs of joyful Arizona teammates, jumping up and down, hugging.

Long after the records are broken and times bettered, long after the last event has swum, I don’t remember the races. No one really does. We won’t remember the heats, titles, or championships. We only remember the people we met. The people we trained with. The friendships we made. The people we loved. That’s swimming. That’s why our world is so unique.

“That’s the neatest thing about all this,” Annie said. “It made a lot of people as joyful as we were.”

You want my take?

Good job, Matty.