By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
He wore the flag as a National team member, and before Jason Lezak brought home gold with Michael Phelps in 2008, Army Sgt. Ben Michaelson did the same on a Phelps’ relay. Now deployed to Afghanistan after deployment to Iraq, the former Division II swimmer and Club Wolverine member talks about what he’s looking forward to at this week’s Olympic Trials – and what it means to him to represent his country – in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. You must feel something special this time of year -- what is that feeling swimmers get around Olympic Trials?
Sgt. Ben Michaelson: Olympic Trials is the most important national level meet of the quadrennium. Everything that swimmers have worked so hard for, sacrificed for, and dreamed about when it seemed so far off is just around the corner now. Its a feeling of excited anticipation, getting ready to show the whole swimming nation just how much training and preparation you have put into this one swim. Its knowing that you are about to see the results of the thousands of hours of chasing the black line.
2. How well did taper work/not work for you, and looking back, how would you do things differently if you could?
Ben: I think that taper is overrated. Some coaches and swimmers get all caught up in overthinking and "timing" the taper perfectly, as if there is this one magical day where you can swim the fastest and all the others mean you "missed your taper". Fast swimming comes from hard work. That means training hard in the pool, pushing yourself in the weight room, running, stretching, eating, drinking water, and sleeping. If you are strong and fit, you will perform well. The idea of "missing your taper" gives swimmers and coaches an excuse for a poorly planned training calendar or a sub-par effort in training. If you've done the work, I think that all you need is a little time for your muscles to recover, then put on a new swimsuit, shave your legs, get your head on straight, and go race. If I could do anything differently, I would have bought into this idea earlier in my career.
3. What is the mindset like in prelims at Trials, and how does that change going into Trials?
Ben: Your mindset in prelims depends on how you stack up against the field. At my first Olympic Trials in 2000, I had barely qualified for the meet, and I knew that it would take the swim of my life and then some just to make it to the semifinals. I knew I had to lay it on the line, but at the same time there wasn't much pressure. I did a best time, won my heat, placed 20th, then went out and got ice cream with my parents. In 2004, I was seeded 3rd in the 100 fly and had swum in the A final at Nationals 7 times in a row in that event. When I was in that position, I was able to swim a little more relaxed in prelims and save my best races for the semifinals and finals. Going into finals, Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps had both gone 51 low, and I kind of knew that it would take a world record to make the team. I also knew that based on my prelim and semifinal swims, that a sub-51 performance wasn't in the cards for me. So again, I just laid it on the line, swam the best race I could, placed 3rd, then went out and got ice cream with my parents.
4. Wasn't that long ago you were on a Phelps relay -- what's that memory like now?
Ben: In the summer of 2005, I was swimming for Club Wolverine and I was on the 4x100 free relay at Nationals with PVK, Michael, and Davis Tarwater. In the final, we were going head to head with the Arizona team that had Roland Schoeman on it. I was the anchor, and I had about a second lead when I took off. My most enduring memory is the last 25 meters, as I was getting run down like a wounded animal, thinking "Don't be the guy that loses a relay with Michael Phelps on it!" I ended up holding on for the win, which is my one and only US National title. That was a fun race. My dad flew out at the last minute to watch, which meant a lot to me. We might have gone out for ice cream after.
5. How has what Michael has done over three games impressed you -- specifically yourself as a former swimmer and knowing what he did and all that went into it?
Ben: What Michael has done over the course of his career has impressed me in the same way it has impressed anyone. The dude has won 14 gold medals. I only swam one event at the international level, and I never beat him in a meet. He has guys like me trying to beat him in every event. It takes incredible talent and a tremendous dedication to training to be as dominant as he has been in so many events for so long. The man basically put me into retirement.
6. Those Club Wolverine guys -- what was that like, now looking back, as far as being such a unique time in your life?
Ben: Swimming at Club Wolverine for the last year of my career was a really neat experience. It was totally different from college for me, because I wasn't recruited by any Division I schools and swam for a smaller Division II program. That was the first time in my career that I was surrounded by world-class athletes day in and day out. It was also the first time that I had lived far away from home. I had a great time that year, training with the best swimmers and coaches, travelling all over the country swimming in the best meets, generally having the time of my life.
7. Who are some teammates that stick in your mind, and why?
Ben: I still stay in touch with a few of the guys. I was able to see PVK (Peter Vanderkaay) and Davis (Tarwater) in Atlanta in December at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool, since I live in Georgia now. People that are a part of your life, even if it’s only for a short time, all stand out in their own way. They all impress something on you and shape who you are.
8. How intense were those workouts, and what did your body feel like afterward?
Ben: In practice, it was like every repeat of every set was the Olympic final. On the days when we did a mid-distance freestyle set, I couldn’t even hang in the A group. Michael, PVK, Davis, Klete (Keller), and Chris Thompson would get into some serious battles on sets of 200s or 400s. It was an absolute spectacle. One of the hardest sets we did was 20 x 100 on 2:00, alternating fast butterfly and easy freestyle. Michael, Davis, and myself would line up 3 across and go at it. I think at the time we were ranked No. 1, No. 6, and No. 10 in the world in the 100 fly. I would describe the way my body felt after those training sessions as somewhere between "rubber" and "concrete." Falling asleep was not an issue.
9. I have been following the Olympic buildup and reading online stories, and Bob Bowman is often compared to a drill sergeant -- is that accurate to some degree at least anecdotally?
Ben: I don't know if I'd call Bob a drill sergeant, but what drill sergeants and swim coaches do is similar. They exist to provide purpose, direction, and motivation to their Soldiers or athletes. They set and enforce standards, demand discipline, and teach from experience. Ultimately, their purpose is to see that their subordinates succeed in whatever they are training for, whether its combat or a swimming race. Bob, however, never came to my apartment at 4 in the morning to make sure my bed was made real neat and that my flip flops and Speedos were arranged in the closet according to regulation. That being said, if Bob Bowman had a better haircut, a big brown hat, and cursed more, he might be able to pass as a drill sergeant.
10 You are deployed now -- without being too specific, is it Afghanistan or Iraq, and how long are there? Are you on a different mission this time?
Ben: I am currently deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and I am currently in southern Afghanistan, near Kandahar. I have been here for several months, and I expect to come home sometime around the end of the year. This deployment is different in some ways from my previous deployment to Iraq, but my previous experience prepared me for the job that we are doing now. In Iraq, I spent a considerable amount of time outside the wire on patrols. Now, my job is to manage the day to day operations at the Battalion Aid Station, so I spend most of my time on the base.
11. You recently married an amazing woman -- now that you are married, how differently does that affect your deployment?
Ben: I'm lucky to be married to my best friend Shannon. We met on the pool deck years ago when she was working in the marketing department of a swimwear company, who was my sponsor at the time. She always took great care of me when I was an athlete, making sure that I had all of the swimsuits and goggles I could ever want. I used to hit on her at meets, but it took me about 8 years to wear her down and get her to marry me! I guess persistence pays off. We were married just before my unit deployed, and we didn't get to go on a proper honeymoon. It has been a challenge to be away from my wife, and I know it’s not easy on her either. We miss each other, but she is the one that I can always depend on for strength when it gets hard over here. As a leader of Soldiers, I have to be on my game all the time and be an example of strength. The only way that I can be that for my Soldiers is because of my wife Shannon. She means everything to me, she is the source of my strength and my motivation to get through the hard times over here. Every day I think about coming home to her and finally going on our honeymoon.
12. So is the Army going to be a career - if not, what will you do, and if so, what do you plan to do in the military as you continue to advance -- will you move away eventually from being a medic or move up into supervisory roles as you have recently?
Ben: This deployment is my last rodeo in the Army. Paid vacations to Iraq and Afghanistan have been plenty of fun, but I'm ready to move on so that I can spend time with my wife and hopefully make some little swimmers. I'll be getting out next summer, and my exit strategy is to work for the company that manages the Army's electronic medical record system. Being a Soldier has been a tremendous honor, and I look forward to continuing to serve the Army in a different capacity.
13. How much did being a swimmer help prep you for these long deployments as far as mentally being prepared for a long journey and grind?
Ben: Being a swimmer taught me about competing to be the best, goal setting, hard work, and how to get up real early in the morning. Lots of days training seemed like a grind. In the cold of winter, trudging through a foot of snow across campus to go swimming in a cold pool at 6:00 didn't seem like very much fun at the time. Looking back though, that's a lot more fun than trudging across a 110 degree desert in full battle gear to go walk through some dirty village full of people who might try to kill you. A few weeks of hard training is nowhere near the kind of grind that a combat deployment is. I think that being a Soldier has probably taught me more about swimming than the other way around. I took swimming pretty seriously, and there's nothing wrong with that. But at the end of the day, the worst swim practice you could ever imagine is pretty fun compared to this. Swimming is a great way to be fit, make friends, learn life lessons, and push yourself to do things that most people can't, but its not worth getting your head bent out of shape over.
14. Which races are you especially eager to watch at Trials?
Ben: I can't wait to see the results of the 50 free, 100 and 200 fly. I'm rooting so hard for the old timers, especially Nick Brunelli and Davis Tarwater in those events who have stuck with this sport for so long trying to make an Olympic team. I swam with and against both of them, and those guys deserve to become Olympians.
15. This is probably the last Olympics with "your group" of people that you trained with and competed with and against -- how special was this era of swimming for the U.S.?
Ben: Every year, there are fewer and fewer swimmers on the National Team that I know personally. The sport has changed in a lot of ways in the last decade, mostly for the better. I would like to think that the athletes have been a big part of that. I have no doubt that USA Swimming will continue to be the standard bearer in the international community for years to come.
16. Do the people you work with know about your training with and competing on relays with Phelps, and how do you react when people ask you about it?
Ben: I think all of the Soldiers in my platoon know that I was some kind of swimmer, but I don't make a big deal about it. If Soldiers ask, I answer their questions. The most common one is "Isn't there an All-Army swim team or something you can be on?" My response to that is if I wanted to be on a swim team anymore, it wouldn't be in the Army.
17. What's the diet like in the field these days for our favorite Army medic?
Ben: The base that I'm on has a pretty decent chow hall. In fact, some people claim that ours is the finest dining facility in all of southern Afghanistan. I think it was listed in the Zagat Guide to Combat Zone Dining 2012. It’s not like my wife's cooking, but we get steak on Fridays. Taco Tuesday is also a weekly highlight. Good chow is one of the 5 keys to maintaining unit morale, so the Army tries to take care of us in that regard.
18. I know there are a lot of patrols and so forth, but how do you maintain your fitness in the field, and what kind of toll do these deployments take on you physically and how do you deal with it – diet, exercise, sleep, etc.?
Ben: I'm lucky to have a job that keeps me in one place for the most part. Staying fit is all about keeping a schedule as much as possible. We have 2 gyms on our base. One is called Average Joe's and one is called Globo Gym. Average Joe's has treadmills and CrossFit type stuff, and Globo Gym has lots of heavy things. I like to get on the treadmill, put on some tunes and run. If I'm really feeling it, I'll do some air drumming. I'm trying to be really skinny and fit when I get home so that I can compete in triathlons next spring, and also to look good on the beach of course!
19. I didn't get to talk to you for Veteran's Day for the first time since you enlisted, so I want to thank you for your service -- so I want to ask you in this Olympic year, how much do you root for Team USA now that you represent us in a different kind of USA uniform, but with the same flag on your sleeve?
Ben: I have always been proud to wear an American uniform, whether is was as a member of the National Team or as a Soldier. I always root for Team USA because I'm proud to be an American, America is #1, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The only difference between the flag I wore on my cap as a swimmer and the flag that I wear on my sleeve as a Soldier is that the one I wear now is infared-reflective, which comes in handy during nighttime operations.
20. So Phelps gets eight golds last time, and he has the rivalry with Lochte, we had the great relays last time but the world seems to have caught up --- what do you expect from these Olympics in London, and will Phelps and/or Lochte come home with say a half-dozen golds each, or is that even feasible?
Ben: The only people that are qualified to answer that are the athletes. All I can do is root for them from over here. Our athletes have a history of stepping up and winning races when it counts, especially relays. I was on the 2003 Pan American Games team with Ryan Lochte, and he was my roommate at the 2004 Short Course Worlds. He is a tremendous athlete, and I wish him and Michael the best of luck. I'm sure that the results will be impressive.