By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Now that the Olympic Trials are over, we’ll reconnect with the athletes we featured on our “Trials and Tribulations” series. This week we touch base with Jeff Commings, who at age 38 was one of the oldest Olympic Trials athletes competing. You can read his last installment with the series here. And if you have any swim stories, send them along to Trials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org.
How did your Trials 100m breaststroke swim go?
I didn’t have the perfect race. I don’t think there’s such a thing as the perfect race. Every swimmer knows they could have done better, even if they set a world record. I just wanted to race the guys in my heat, and not make a fool of myself. I swam faster than my seed time – which not many did. I tied for 2nd in the heat, which made me really happy. I had fun. I have to tell you, it was the most relaxed I’ve ever, ever seen at a big meet. I didn’t have any butterflies in my stomach. I wasn’t hyperventilated. I was the most calm I’d ever been. When I stood on the blocks, I thought, “This is a strange feeling.” Then I went out there and swam. I may have gone out a little too fast. I had been training to take the race out in under 30 seconds, and I went out in 29.6. The only thing I didn’t do that I hoped to do was go under 1:04. I went 1:04.16.
How were you feeling in warm ups and practices before the race?
My arms felt like rubber. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of control. I don’t know if I was too relaxed, or fearing I was over-tapered. In the end, I was a little too relaxed. I was able to get my energy level back up after warm-up. The thing that helped me was I walked up to the pool deck and soaked up the environment a little bit. I heard cheering, looked around, and prepared myself. It got me excited, but not nervous. It was a great feeling to walk out there and know that I was ready.
What were your thoughts before, during, and after the race?
Immediately before the race, I was sitting in the ready room, and the swimmer to my left was 18 years old. In my mind I said, “I want to beat the 18 year old.” (Laughs.) Among the goals I had for myself, if I could beat the 18 year old, I would feel good. I swam the race on autopilot. I’ve swam the 100 breast hundreds of times in my life. I was able to do the race as I knew how to do it. It wasn’t a perfect race, but for being 38 years old, I couldn’t split the race like I was 19. My thoughts were, “Just race.” Whether I’m not feeling great, or feeling the best I’ve felt, it’s all about racing and having fun. When I turned around and saw my time, and my place, it was a sigh of relief. I had accomplished what I had set out to do a year before, and all the hard work I had done the past year had come to fruition.
Have you had time to reflect?
Yeah. I haven’t touched water since Masters Nationals last weekend. I had time to reflect on everything I did this past year. Not just training, but mentally, the preparation I had made to go to the Trials and not freak out like I did the first time. And to be able to enjoy the experience. That was a big key for me. I’d really thought about that, “This is the kind of swimmer I wish I was 20 years ago.” I wish in some small way I had this kind of perspective on my swimming back in college.
So the one thing you wanted to accomplish was really to jump the mental hurdles?
Right. That was the whole goal in this, to be able to go to the Trials and get out of the pool with a smile on my face no matter what happened. I was able to do that. I achieved the goals I wanted to – that was one reason I got out with a smile on my face. I was able to mentally be able to control myself.
What were some of the things that surprised you at Trials – a sight, sound, or thing you did unexpectedly?
I think the surprise for me was just the noise of the arena right before the race. My last two Trials were in Indianapolis, and yeah it’s loud there, but it’s LOUD in Omaha. A lot louder than I expected. I had to take a couple seconds when I was taking off my clothes to get ready to swim, to say, “This has nothing to do with you. Yes, some are cheering for you, but look down the lane, and this is where you need to put your focus.” Walking out, hearing that for an early prelim heat of the 100 breaststroke, the crowd was really getting into it.
Looking back at this journey -- anything you would change?
Not a thing. Everything went to plan. Everything went the way I hoped it would. I didn’t have expectations. I wish I had broken 1:04 but I’m not going to look back and say, “What did I do wrong?” That’s not what I want to do. I walked away from a very intense experience with a big smile on my face, accomplished what I did, and I know it made my coach very happy. I was his first Trials qualifier. My coach, Mark Rankin, was very happy with how I swam.
I saw you about 3 hours after your race, and you were back to working for Swimming World and interviewing athletes. That was amazing. What was that like, going from the competition to interviewing your competitors?
I knew that I was going to have to do that. That was a condition I was going to swim, that I’d be right back to work. I think it helped me in a way. I was riding the high from my swim, and I translated that to a high being a member of the media talking to people. In a way, it was good. It carried me over the rest of the week. I had a couple hours after the swim to meet with family and friends and decompress a little bit. I was riding a high after prelims. I was real excited to do that because it helped me in my job.
What is next for you? 2016?
Well, Gus, the only thing that is next is getting back in shape. I swam at Masters Nationals and I had one of the best meets of my life. I’m trying to figure that out. If I have a meet coming up, I’ll say, “Do I want to swim in that, or not?” I don’t have anything planned in the next 12 months. That’s good for me. I’ve been having this bull’s-eye of one meet for the past year. While it was fun and exciting, it can be stressful, too. Especially when you’re in the late 30s and you have other responsibilities. I’m taking swimming as it goes. I’m not quitting the sport. Masters Swimming will be my home. It’s just a matter of what meet is next. Whatever it is, I know I’m going to take my experience from Trials and apply it there.
How were the Masters Nationals?
My 100 breast was 2 tenths slower than Trials. I went out the same split, one stroke difference. To go the same time was awesome. Then after that, I had a lot of fun. I didn’t have the “pressure” of the 100 breast hanging over me. I swam 100 free for the first time in 6 years and went under 55 seconds. I broke 29 seconds in the 50 breast. I broke 1 minute in the 100 back. I was part of a mixed medley relay that broke a world record. It was one of the most exciting things in my life. We smashed it by 3 seconds. We had been working toward that for the past 5 months.
At Trials, didn’t you win the media swim challenge? [For readers that don’t know, near the end of the meet, the media has a chance to swim in the Trials pool and “predict” their time. The closest person to their time prediction won an Omega watch.]
Yes, yes. I am so happy I won that. I think I was more happy I won that than anything I did at Trials. In 2008 I got 2nd in the standings. I said if I came back in 2012, I wanted to win. It’s a great watch. It’s the same watch Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps got. To know that, it’s a nice thing for me. But just to be able to have won that after not winning in 2008 was a little bit of redemption.
I predicted I would go a 29.46. I went 29.60. I was happy I got that close. No one else got closer. 2nd place was 4 tenths off his time. People were laughing and joking that because I had been swimming so long, I could instantly say what I could do. That’s not really true. When I was thinking of times, that time came into my head. It was luck…with a little bit of skill.