By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Maya DiRado doesn’t think of her performances at last summer’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships as a breakthrough.
To her, they were simply the culmination of a process encouraged and supported by her parents and coaches throughout her swimming career since she started as a 6-year-old in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“I look at it as more that many, many years of hard work and effort finally paid off,” said DiRado, a senior at Stanford who will finish her swimming eligibility this spring. “The pieces finally came together for me at the right time, but I had worked hard to make it happen. I felt something good was going to happen.”
Heading into Nationals (where the U.S. World Championship Team was decided), the signs were there for DiRado to have a fast meet.
The previous summer at the 2012 Olympic Trials, she made the finals in both the 200 and 400 individual medley races (finishing fourth in both), and at NCAAs in 2013, she was runner-up in the 400 IM and third in the 200 IM as well as fifth in the 200 backstroke.
DiRado attributed her improvement – she went on to finish fourth in the 400 IM at Worlds and also won a gold medal as a member of the winning 800 freestyle relay team – to a change in training and one particular stroke that she felt held her back a good portion of her career.
“I was finally swimming with more control of all four strokes because I’d worked my breaststroke leg into a strength rather than a liability,” said DiRado, a management science and engineering major at Stanford who will graduate this December.
“Developing the stroke into a competitive part of my race not only made me stronger overall, but it also gave me confidence to know I wouldn’t have as much to make up in the final freestyle leg. It has made a tremendous difference.”
After having missed out on making the 2012 Olympic Team, DiRado made the most of her World Championships experience.
While she was part of the 2011 U.S. World University Games team (where she won gold in the 400 IM), DiRado said being a member of the World team was far above anything she imagined.
“It was a blast; I had such a great time with such a great, successful team,” she said. “It wasn’t the Olympics, but it was pretty close, and it was a meet format that I was used to and am comfortable with.
“I had made a huge time drop to make the World Team, so I wasn’t sure I had anything left to improve upon. But I dropped more time in the final and left confident and inspired.”
Just 20, DiRado has many years ahead of her for more swim meets, including the 2016 Olympics, when she’ll just be 23.
Not bad for a young woman whose early time in the pool involved lifts and eggbeaters instead of flips and turns as she got her start as a synchronized swimmer. But she switched to swimming when she realized she couldn’t hold her breath for long periods of time – something required in synchronized swimming.
With her collegiate career coming to a close this year, DiRado said she’s committed to swimming through 2014 and will re-evaluate where she is and what she wants moving forward.
“It’s always been about the process for me and not the medals or placements or times; those are products of swimming for me and not for anyone or anything else,” DiRado said. “I’ve always been a goal-setter in and out of the pool, and I’ve always maintained the same reason why I started swimming in the first place – because I enjoyed it, my friends were doing it and I loved it.
“If those reasons continue beyond the next year, I will probably keep swimming with my ambition to make my first Olympic Team. I recently took a personality test and realized I’m an achiever rather than a competitor, so I’ve always been focused on making myself better. It’s really more about how I’m getting wherever there is because I can’t control what anyone else thinks or does.”