By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
When Stephanie Peacock graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2014, she faced the question many top-level college athletes ask themselves.
What do I do now?
After some soul-searching, Peacock decided if she wanted to give professional swimming a real go, she needed to mix things up a bit – including uprooting her life and moving cross country to train with a new coach and team.
More than six months into this experiment, Peacock said she wishes she’d done it sooner.
“When I was at UNC, my days and time were very structured between swimming, classes and studying; after I graduated, there was no one there telling me what to do or where to be,” she said.
“If I was going to give making the Olympic team one more shot, I had to find my own motivation, and that came with a new environment altogether.”
That new environment is Mission Viejo, Calif., where Peacock moved to train with the Nadadores and one of the top groups of post-graduate swimmer programs around.
She left her family home near Fort Myers, Fla., in September where she was training with Swim Florida and made the 2,600-mile trek. It took her five days, but she said she knew it was the right decision right away.
“I knew I needed a change under someone new because I was just going through the motions back home,” Peacock said. “I had taken a few trips out here and stayed with a host family, and I knew it was the right place for me to give me the best chance of doing something at Trials this summer.
“Working with someone like Coach (Bill) Rose has renewed my love for swimming. I think this is the most I’ve ever enjoyed swimming, and I hope that shows in my swimming and my results this year.”
Regardless of what happens in Omaha this June and July, Peacock has decided it will be her final meet – her final races. She plans to hang up her goggles and focus on the next phase of her life, which includes returning to graduate school and preparing to be an elementary school teacher.
“When I was at UNC, I studied nursing thinking that was the path I wanted to take after swimming, but I quickly realized it wasn’t what I really wanted,” she said. “I’m now taking a different route because I’ve always wanted to work with kids. I’ve started looking at schools and plan to take the necessary steps once Trials are over.”
While she’s enjoying swimming now as never before, Peacock said her decision to make 2016 her final competitive season stems more from being eager to start the next phase of her life than being tired of the sport that’s been a huge part of her life since she was a youngster.
Still, she said she knows when the time comes to stop swimming, it won’t be an easy transition.
After all, she’s enjoyed a very successful career that’s includes winning the bronze last summer in the 10K open water competition at World University Games as well as gold (1500 freestyle) and silver (800 free) medals at 2013 WUGs and bronze (400 free) at 2011 WUGs.
“After 2014, I actually thought about retiring and two more years (to Olympic Trials) felt like a long ways away,” said Peacock, the 2012 NCAA Champion in the 1650 freestyle. “But something in me felt like I needed to keep going. I guess I wasn’t ready to leave yet.”
Peacock said one thing that has kept swimming fresh for her even before her recent move was getting more interested and involved with open water swimming.
Last spring, she competed in the U.S. Open Water National Championships in her hometown of Fort Myers, finishing 8th in the 10K and 9th in the 5K. She said she plans to compete again this April as a precursor to Olympic Trials.
Another reason for her optimism is attributed to working with Coach Rose, who is known in the swimming world for his work with mid- and long-distance swimming.
And while she said it’s taken her a little while to get used to his coaching, Peacock admitted that she knows his methods are bringing out the best in her.
“We do about 70 percent distance and 30 mid-distance training each week, so it helps me keep my strength and stamina in longer events and speed in the shorter events,” she said. “We’ve really worked well together. He’s a great communicator, and we work together to establish goals for myself.
“I trusted him right away because I know he has my best interests in mind. I like having input in what I’m doing so I understand better where it’s taking me.”
Where she’s hoping it takes her is Rio de Janeiro this summer to compete in the Olympics. But she also knows there is some great depth in her distance events – starting at the top with Katie Ledecky.
“I hate to think that we’re all just racing for second place because Katie is such a great swimmer, but in the case of Olympic Trials (top 2 in each individual event usually make the team), getting second behind her wouldn’t be bad at all,” Peacock said. “I’m excited to see how I swim because of all the changes I’ve made over the past several months and because I’m feeling so great about where I am with my swimming.
“But because it’s going to be my last, I also want to go and just enjoy the experience. I know it will be very different from my first in 2008 when it was the biggest meet I’d been to. And it will be different from four years ago when I made the final of the 800 free and was much more experienced. I just want to make a couple of finals, see how I can do and leave knowing I gave it all I had.”