By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
He’s nominated for a Golden Goggle award, but more than that, Davis Tarwater’s story goes back to his first near miss at the 2004 Olympic Trials, which he followed up in 2008 with a heart-breaking near-miss with a lot of people cheering for him. He had another near miss at 2012 Trials – but ended up golden and in London as his story gave fans an ending they can scream and cheer for – just one of the many things he touches on in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Where’s the gold medal?
Davis: (Laughs). My gold medal is just at my house right now. I do keep it in a safe. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing it with the city of Knoxville and other parts of the country. I hope that it has wear from people being able to see it, touch it and experience it.
2. What do you make of it?
Davis: I have a bit of a mixed relationship with it, to tell you the truth. It’s nickname is “the precious” – from Lord of the Rings because I think the medal itself has its own sets of values, and meaning. Athletes can derive a sense of value and meaning and purpose from the medal itself; but the medal doesn’t validate or invalidate anything I’ve ever done, and it adds nothing to the character that I had prior to winning it. What it does represent is an unbelievable personal journey. I think it can be easy to fall into the trap of having the medal define you. As I said before this Olympic Trials, and I’ll say it after, what happened in 2012 would not define me as a person nor would it define the journey that my career took.
3. Your comment on Facebook after 2012 Trials – before you made it in the 200 – about how you were thankful to everyone who had cheered for you was touching. What kind of thinking went into that reflective post?
Davis: One of the most difficult parts of the journey back to Olympic Trials to me was understanding fully what the pain was going to be like – that I had to go all in one more time. I had to lay my heart on the line, and I had to be willing to feel that pain again. I did that. When I walked out of the building after the 100 fly and it (not making the team) was a reality, I remember just saying, “Thank you God for the opportunity to chase this dream.” I sent a text to my Dad that said, “Let’s go celebrate new beginnings.” I left disappointed, but I was content with who I was, and I felt that I laid it all on the line. I rarely do social media, but it seemed like the best way to thank all the people that supported me throughout my career and had helped me for years, to shoulder the burden of disappointment.
4. People point to the disappointment of 2008 – missing the team after being only behind Phelps in the fly – but I remember you barely missed in 2004, right?
Davis: I remember that and I was devastated in 2004. I think that 2004 was a case where people had the perception that because I was off the radar a little bit at that time, it should not hurt as bad as it did. It did hurt. I took 2004 very hard. I think that instead of internalizing that correctly, in 2004 the lesson I learned was that I needed to be even more focused on the goal. I have to be even more singularly focused on the Olympics. And I think that kind of drove me a little bit crazy. It just didn’t make the journey very pleasant, very fun, or the process very thrilling.
5. And then in 2008 to come so close again?
Davis: In 2008, when I missed it again, it was truly devastating, and it sort of led me out of the sport.
6. But then in 2009 you win at Worlds, isn’t that a great comeback?
Davis: There was a great redemption in that. That was basically Matt Kredich at the University of Tennessee digging me out of the Knoxville community and basically believing in me. He taught me that I had value that wasn’t particularly ascribed to swimming; that if I did things differently, I could rejuvenate my career. Had he not believed in me and given me a chance to swim – with an all-women’s swim team – I would not have had the motivation to come back from Oxford (in 2010) and swim again.
7. One year changed it all?
Davis: That really did. The knowledge I got from that year with Matt, even though I walked away and thought I would not come back, carried me back into the sport eventually.
8. And yet a lot went into going to one of the best schools in the world in Oxford after 2009 Worlds, didn’t it?
Davis: For sure. There were two things going on. One is that I reoriented my life based on my faith. Secondly I went to Oxford and a whole new part of my personhood was opened up by people who showed me you could develop social capital and act upon it. I knew that swimming was still my platform, that I still had that ability to influence through the sport, and that I also had the ability to come back and do it the right way.
9. So swimming was gone but still part of you?
Davis: In a way, yes. However, the fact that I didn’t need swimming anymore opened up this fearlessness, this drive, this sense that I was just on fire. I didn’t have to have the results anymore. That liberation made this journey so much more enjoyable and exciting.
10. Did it dawn on you while in Oxford that returning to London to close this chapter of your life would be quite amazing?
Davis: A little bit, but not really. I definitely considered how great it would be to return to London as an Olympian. The reason for coming back had more to do with the fact that I still had a passion. I felt like I needed to do it the right way this time; I needed to do it in a way that I felt good about.
11. And you did – the circle was complete, or was it like a story with the perfect metaphorical and literal ending?
Davis: There were definite elements that seemed providential. I think they said it best in the Matrix when Morpheus says, “there’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” He encourages Neo to walk the path. There was a lot of uncertainly and my journey was very circuitous. But I had a great deal of faith in the fact that I just had to put one foot in front of the other. That’s something I had never experienced in my life or swimming career. I just walked the path. It’s amazing that’s where the path led.
12. You have this great grounding – did that help?
Davis: I think so. But the hard times and disappointment in the sport were difficult. You put your heart into something and you’re not afraid to say “I’m all in, and it’s going to hurt or it’s going to be great” – there’s disappointment when that does not work out. But that’s just one element to it. The other element is that I realized that being in professional sports gave me the ability to dream and to chase a spot on the Olympic team, and that is an absolute privilege to be able to pursue that. It’s something so few people have an opportunity to try to do. So even in coming up short, I still had a chance to stand up and make my dream come true. I stopped taking that chance for granted. I think when you reorient your perception in a way that is based on hope, humility and thankfulness rather than one based on pressure, stress and external expectations, regardless of the outcome, the process is going to be much more meaningful.
13. It’s about the friendships, isn’t it?
Davis: Yes, I mean, that means a lot to me. When I look back on the sport and think if I had to trade the medal or the relationships, it would be an easy call to trade my medal, because the relationships mean so much. This sport, when I think about what it has meant to me, has been about the people who have been in my life. It’s about Gardner Howland, Jon Urbanchek, Bob Bowman, Matt Kredich and David Marsh. It’s about Peter Vanderkaay, Chris Dejong and Klete Keller. It’s about my Mom and Dad who let me fail time after time and were there at the bottom of the pit every time – it’s about anyone who has ever stood by me. Honestly, anything that I have ever done is a testament to the people who have influenced me and shaped my life. I’m just so thankful.
14. But that medal means a lot – brings a lot of attention, doesn’t it?
Davis: It does, and it’s something that I’m a little uncomfortable with. The greatest joy is showing it to people in this community where I am now, which is Knoxville. I am so thankful that I can say I am an Olympic gold medalist, but I’m still a little bit uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t carry it around with me (laughs) all the time, but when I do it’s to show it to people so they can enjoy it, and maybe find it inspiring.
15. That decision to come back after Oxford and swim – what was that about?
Davis: That was more about continuing to walk the path. I was truly blessed in 2009 with Matt Kredich, and I continue to be blessed with his perspective because he ultimately helped me make the decision to go swim with David Marsh at SwimMAC due to the fact that we felt it would be best for me to be around other pros my own age and, well, gender (the UT programs are now combined under Matt).
16. You really enjoyed Coach Marsh, didn’t you?
Davis: Swimming for David Marsh and Peter Verhoff at MAC was just an absolute privilege and an absolute joy. One, because of David’s creativity and his mind; his intuition was critically important to me making changes to my training and stroke technique to swim fast. He also opened me up to the fact that it was okay to be unabashed about just winning, to be a competitor and to want to win races. I have always been a competitor, but there was a new sort of dimension he was able to open up in me. The impact he had on my life was unbelievable. I’ll forever stand by his coaching and I give the SwimMac program the highest possible recommendation.
17. Plus, you checked off another box on exploring another region of the country, didn’t you?
Davis: Yes, and it was great. There is a culture of success built in to the fabric of the Charlotte community; they want success for the community and they want to help people. That was like no place I have ever been – there was no sense of insularity there, from the people who donated massage, chiropractic and medical services to us, to parents who housed athletes on Team Elite. Just everywhere, Charlotte was an unbelievable place.
18. Seeing Michael Phelps finish his journey, after being teammates at Club Wolverine, and now as part of the gold he won in London, how do you explain what he has done in this sport?
Davis: I can’t come up with words to describe the enormity of his accomplishments. Contrary to some of my interviews (laughs), I really don’t particularly have a lot of serious moments! And I don’t think that Michael and I have ever had a serious moment of any sort – it’s all been levity and joking. But there was one moment (in London) where I was able to tell him that I was grateful to be any part – albeit a very small one – of what I consider to be the greatest achievement in the history of sports. He said, “Thanks” and then we promptly went back to (laughs) making fun of each other.
19. What about your friend and Michigan Man himself, Peter Vanderkaay, and being part of PVK’s amazing London medal and experience in his incredible career?
Davis: Peter is probably one of the very closest people to me in the entire world. To be able to see him win a medal at the Olympics was unbelievable. To be able to walk through this journey with Peter for a decade has been my great privilege. Getting to know not just Peter, but his family – his three brothers – has been great. Peter has carried the banner of one of the great swimming traditions in the history of this country. And he carried it with class and such dignity. As the consummate professional, he was just so tough. The Michigan legacy is something I understand; his representation of it, and his value as a human being, has been a wonderful thing for me to be able to share with him.
20. You don’t like being on a pedestal or talking about yourself in this way, but please let me ask about your legacy – you have given so much of yourself to this sport, and so many have cheered you on and pulled for you – what do you think your legacy will be?
Davis: I guess I have never given that much thought. I hope my peers remember someone who was, you know, able to keep things light and cared about the team concept. I really valued my place as an Olympic team member and tried to make the team better. Similarly, I hope my Michigan teammates remember a Michigan Man, someone who cared about his teammates, and someone who fought hard for the Maize and Blue. I guess for a legacy, I hope that people will remember someone who had to constantly relearn, reset and reorient the process, and had the faith to follow his dream. I don’t pretend to think my legacy in the sport of swimming will be as much as some…but if there is a kid who has to fight – who times are tough for – and is handed disappointment after disappointment – I hope he can look at me, and see someone who kept coming back. And I hope he will continue to fight.