B.J. (Bedford) Miller experienced the lows and highs, in order. After missing the team in 1996, she came back in a golden way in 2000. The backstroker upped her game with red, white and blue hair for her Today show interview after relay gold. Her work career has been equally spectacular. She’s also an incredibly passionate, compassionate, genuine fan of swimming, and swimmers, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
You do your best to make it not
different. At least when I swam, it was just about making sure I ate better, trained better, and honed the skills to be perfect that much more. I think my attention to detail was high anyway, but during an Olympic year, it was higher. You just edge it up a notch when it gets to be real come January.
3. What do you think of Michael Phelps being back and in such a great state of mind?
B.J.: Michael belongs in swimming. It’s his thing. And if you can still win, you can still contribute, the call of the water is a difficult siren to resist. I think it’s great. He brings fans to the sport, he brings excitement and makes people want to cheer. He’s got a great story, and really, he’s grown up, come of age and flourished in swimming. We get to see Michael at all stages, and I hope this one continues to impress us! We need him to be great!
4. Having ridden that rail how much did you celebrate him figuring things out?
B.J.: Life is a long game. If you’re lucky enough to have second chances, make good on them. Swimming is a family. Maybe the rest of the world is a harsh judge, but the people who watched you since you were little will perhaps be a little more forgiving. I know when I fell down, I depended on coaches, friends and family to be there to help me back up. The lessons you learn here will continue to serve you as you go.
5. I had someone ask me about Missy in Austin and how she's doing -- I was puzzled, she looks great, it's January for Pete's sake -- how do you swimmers handle that on the inside where someone questions things?
B.J.: What a great question. At the end of the day, you don’t swim for the people who ask. Although they may care. You swim for you. You swim for love of the water rushing by your face, for the screams of the fans when you’re close to a record or a best time. I swam for the hug my mom gave me after I persevered and maybe finally won. The best defense is to lose yourself in the process. To swim, to focus, to learn, to grow every day. To know in your heart that all you have is left in the pool and that will have to be enough. You swim because you love to swim. If you swim for anyone or anything else – you’ll never be enough.
6. You always identified with Ryan Lochte, does that guy ever cease to amaze us and what makes him so unique?
B.J.: Aw, Ryan! I love that guy. I love him because he’s all heart. And maybe that’s why I identified with him. He’ll swim whatever you put him in, he’ll go wherever you need him. He’s silly, he’s fast, he’s pure, unfiltered Ryan. It’s just him. I think at the heart of it, authenticity, in whatever form it takes, is mesmerizing. Ryan is pure. He is fast. He is love of the water, love of racing, love of the pool, and doesn’t try to be anything else. He’s a kind, sweet guy, and I really hope for nothing but great things for him. Why does he never cease to amaze? Because someone so purely loving what he does is an anomaly. It’s hard to think about being able to do that thing you love more than anything every day and doing it so well and understand it. You just gotta watch. That’s Ryan. Love that guy.
7. A lot of non-swimmers ask me why we marvel at the 400 IM and him still doing it, how do you, an actual swimmer contrasted with me!, answer it?
B.J.: Oh, the 400 IM is (laughs) awful, it’s universally understood. But here’s the thing, and I alluded to it in my previous answer. Ryan does whatever you need him to do. If the 400 IM is what it’s going to take for the U.S. to get a medal or to win or to get to the next level, Ryan will do that. He is your utility player. He’ll fill the gaps to make the team better. And he does it unselfishly and unthinkingly. He just does it because it’s the right thing to do and his coach said go. A bit of advice for all you swimmers out there – here’s the trick. And it’s a hard one to play. If you’re able to do everything (and there are some of you out there -- don’t do (laughs) the 400 IM. Because it is so hard, if you can do it, and do it well, you’ll get (laughs) roped into it forever! I should have thought of that with the 200 back, but I messed up (laughs) and had to swim it a bunch.
8. Matt Grevers got married, settled down, and has quietly and nobly put together, now at 30, a career for the ages -- how has he impressed you?
B.J.: I think what’s most impressive about Matt -- other than his height -- is that he has been so fast for so long and maintained relevance in a very competitive landscape. He’s managed to show up, be great and keep it going. And Annie’s writing (former National Teamer Annie Grevers is editor at Swimming World Magazine) is pretty fantastic too! I love the passion for not just swimming fast, but the passion for the sport that comes through in her work as well.
9. I saw Katie Hoff retired and I went to the Wikipedia page with her medal count -- gold and gold and silver as far as the eye can see, how can anyone in the world claim that, along with 3 Olympic medals, as anything less than a huge success?
B.J.: Katie has always been a class act. She is understated; she is a kind, focused talent. Whatever she wanted to achieve was going to be golden. I did a clinic with her once, and I’m a loudmouth. I yell at clinics, and as a contrast, Katie was quieter -- to be fair, most people are quieter than I am.
I noticed that a couple of the kids were not paying attention to her. Seriously. This is Katie Hoff. I was so mad at this one boy, goofing off in the middle of the lane that I just stepped up and kind of got on him. I asked him how many world records he held. Sheepishly, the boy answered that he had none. Shocker. At that point, I let him know he might want to listen because this woman who was spending her time here at the pool might just know a few things that he did not. I don’t know if Katie even remembers that but I was so mad. So yeah. Successful? I’d say so. Katie has been a shining star for our U.S. team for a long time. I’m proud that I got to be on deck with her that day.
10. How great is it that she went to the University of Miami, graduated, and ended up in a happy marriage with a wonderful guy?
B.J.: Swimming, although it’s a platform for many of us to take on the rest of our lives, is not all that we do. Indeed, the best thing I ever did ever was to have my two babies. Something that seems so mundane, so human, is so incredibly meaningful in my life. The two best days of my life were the days when my two children were born. And those days are had by humans everywhere. Katie is stepping into the next phase of her life where she can choose different things and live a life not about a clock or a black line. It’s a free, beautiful life and I know she will find her joy and happiness in it, just like she did in swimming.
11. What do you see in the backstroke, your stroke, for the women -- I was asked at a recent meet about six different women and I was like, "Yeah, any could medal" but of course only two can make the team per event, how do you view the field?
B.J.: So, I’m not going to say any names here. It’s an Olympic year and I refuse to jinx anyone. I remember sitting behind someone who had a heat sheet at Trials in ’96 and heard them talk about me and my heart leapt into my throat… ‘96 didn’t end well for me! OK, so I’m not doing that.
We will have two awesome women in the backstrokes who will carry the hopes of their country into the race and they will swim their hearts out. There are probably six who would be amazing. I will be watching and cheering and knowing they will be amazing when they get to Rio!
12. Katie Ledecky. Had the chance to talk to her every two months or so. Could not be more impressed. What's your take on who she is, what she's doing, and how she's going about it?
B.J.: Katie Ledecky is a legend! She’s swimming into the record books at every dinky little meet she attends -- and the big ones, too, of course. She is a class act, a hard worker and she is getting people excited about distance in a way that no one has lit up the hearts of America since Janet. She is an absolute thrill to watch and I cannot wait to watch her race in Rio.
13. I spend a weekend or two a month at UT Austin writing, what are the most salient memories in your mind now decades later?
B.J.: I love that pool. Still, so many years removed, and I can close my eyes and just love the way the water feels in Austin. There is something special about the Texas Swim Center. Ultimately, for me it always begins and ends with the people who were on my team. I would never have been as successful without them pushing me, holding me accountable and counting on me. Leigh Ann Fetter, Katy Arris, Dorsey Tierney, Andrea Fisher – a few of the bigger names who helped me swim fast, but there were so many other people who made a huge difference. And Mark Schubert who brought us all together.
14. I also saw Natalie Coughlin this weekend, and I can't think of her without thinking of you and her comments about your mentorship of her -- who was she "then" and what do you think of her career and what she's become?
B.J.: Natalie Coughlin is a very, very special swimmer, person, woman, wife and friend. I can’t say enough about her presence, about her measured, thoughtful approach to swimming and her career. She was a very fast young girl, fighting through injuries and a system she didn’t fit in, and she grew into a rock star and then leader. The thing I saw really clearly is she led by example and without drama. She did her job as a swimmer, and she played whatever part was most needed – with grace and with a smile. I love Nat – will always love her. Nothing but mad respect for her and who she is.
15. Everyone except Missy and Katie who we've talked about to this point is 30 years old or older. We've had people swim late, but three of the top men at this time, and Natalie's incredible career over time, how unique is this?
B.J.: We’re in uncharted territory. And I love it. The sport has evolved to allow people to chase dreams further and further. My mom played field hockey in college – and there were no scholarships. So she played sports for the love of sports, but there was no chance to focus. Where the world has come is so amazing, and we owe it to the women who came before us – the Jill Sterkels, the Nancy Hogshead-Makars and Billie Jean Kings of the world. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I see further it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” We truly have had the opportunity to watch history unfold in the professionalizing of the sport, and I love it.
16. There's a focus on team chemistry from every single swimmer I talked to from 2012 until now -- not before. Not that it didn't exist before, but we have one happy group of swimmers on the team, what's the value in that and how is it generated?
B.J.: High tides rise all boats. This is not a zero-sum game. There are enough medals to go around, and we can all be part of a team that wins. It’s contagious. When there is a wave of awesome coming at you – you paddle out and surf that bad boy.
17. So we're in February of an Olympic year. What should the focus be and what are our National Team members and hopefuls going through?
B.J.: This is why I’m not a coach! Lose yourself in the process. Focus on the little things. Tolerate nothing but detailed perfection. Not always fast training, right, because that’s not always there in practice – but the things you can control – do those right. Perfectly. Because it’s not practicing to be perfect – you practice virtually perfectly so you can have a bad day and still be the best in the world. So you’re focusing on all the little things.
18. How does the training and work change in the final few months running up to Olympic Trials?
B.J.: Taper, baby! Oh, the taper leading into Trials. No better time. Games, fun … it’s all heightened. Almost frenetic. You lean on the coach, you are in lock-step there. You just trust in the system, because it’s too late not to (laughs) at that point.
19. You've been through both sides -- losing your hair, but not your head! Thank goodness for that great brain being saved!) and then making the team and winning gold -- and doing something wildly creative with your hair, I should add -- what was the difference in those two Trials, and how do they shape you, maybe individually, but also collectively?
B.J.: The difference was the people that surrounded me. The key to success is surrounding yourself with people who believe in your dreams more than you do. Not just that, but those people have to be willing to pull you out of whatever you’re in to get you to perform, to bring you back to yourself when you get lost -- because you will get lost. Find those people, cherish them, love them. They will be your lifeline.
Success…. Failure. The only difference is when you quit. They both shaped me – they were both a result of the same fears, the same desires. I was almost as afraid to succeed as I was to fail. But the failure was a lesson I took to heart, and made many changes after. I called and apologized to old coaches -- thank you, Jill Sterkel, friends, family – people I took for granted as I myopically pursued my dreams. The ones who stand by you when you fail.. Oh those are amazing people. Kristine Quance, Kristy Heydanek. So many. The point is you keep going. Because life doesn’t stop. And if you don’t stop, you find your victory, even if it doesn’t come with a medal. Sometimes, winning is getting up the next day and trying something new – sometimes it’s going back to the pool. You get to decide, and ultimately, you’re the only one who judges success or failure. Here’s the little secret: if YOU get to decide, you always win – or lose. But you choose. When you get that you have that power -- the power to choose happy or not -- why would you ever choose “Lose”?
20. Swimming has grown, diversity is off the charts high in terms of growth -- what did you think of NCAAs with those amazing three women taking the podium, and just in general about the sport's reach, since your own amazing and beautiful kids swim -- where is the sport headed, and is the future of swimming as bright as it looks?
B.J.: You know, I think with all USA Swimming -- and Matt Farrell -- has done to advance the sport in terms of pushing it more and more mainstream, and all that social media has done with Swim Swam -- and Mel Stewart! -- the future is bright and the stars are even brighter. We know these kids so well by the time they get to the games, they are like friends. My daughter swims at Vortex here in Fort Collins. She loves it. Her coaches are so, so good. They encourage her, they push her and they reach her in a way I am so happy to hand to them. Coach-swimmer relationship is very special, and I try not to step into that, although I sometimes get down on deck and help with little things. The fact that our swim system is so great that I can turn my 10-year-old over to one of two teams in my little town and have her learn so much, to the point that someday she may be able to walk into an NCAA program prepared from her childhood – that is amazing. And although I grew up in the sport similarly, I still am in awe at the machine that is this medal-producing juggernaut. I think the future of the sport is headed toward more kids growing up watching Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps. And I’m so glad it is.