By Jim Rusnak//Director of Media Properties
Last weekend, the nation’s fastest swimmers between the ages of 14 and 18 reported to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for the 2013 National Junior Team Camp. The purpose of the camp was to bring the team together for a little training and bonding before they head off to represent the U.S. at the 2013 World Junior Championships, Aug. 26-31 in Dubai.
Over the course of the weekend, Olympic veterans Brendan Hansen, Katie Hoff and Aaron Peirsol served as mentors to these rising stars, sharing the wisdom that comes with years of competitive experience at the international level and a combined 16 Olympic medals.
While Aaron was busy demonstrating backstroke flip turns to the team, Brendan and Katie took time out to answer some questions about their roles this past weekend as role models.
Why was it important to you to help out at this camp?
Katie: Growing up, I had some support, but I didn’t feel like I had a ton of mentors that I could turn to and have them say, “It’s OK,” sometimes. I really felt like I wanted to use my experiences to help these kids, and being around their enthusiasm and passion has been so uplifting for me.
Brendan: I think our sport has grown over the last four Olympics, and the kids are looking at us as Olympians. They see us on TV, and they build this huge platform for us. One of the biggest things for us this weekend is really to get the point across that we’re just regular people. We’re exactly like you. Once they realize that there’s not much difference between an Olympian and a National Junior Teamer, I think we’re going to see a lot more of these faces at the Olympics. They walk out of here saying, I got to hang out with Katie, Aaron and Brendan, and it was awesome. They were just like me. That common ground goes a long way in our sport.
What’s been the most rewarding thing about helping out at this camp and watching the Junior Teamers in action?
Katie: I think for me just interacting with them and talking with them – not even talking about swimming sometimes, just talking about their lives. I think that’s so important – just to have balance in your swimming career. That’s something that even I still need to work on. Really stressing that point has been my main goal going into this.
Brendan: I think just seeing the raw talent. We have so much emphasis on our National Team, and on the guys that are leaving and the guys that are staying, and the girls that are leaving and the girls that are staying, and you question whether we have that depth behind us. You hang out with this group, and you see how raw they are, and how green they are, and you think, “Wow, you just don’t know how good you are yet.” It really makes me feel good about the future of USA Swimming.
What challenges does working a camp like this provide for you?
Brendan: I think the biggest challenge is that the kids are immediately kind of star struck. It’s kind of just building those relationships in such a short period of time, and getting them to loosen up and getting them to open up. There’s not one meeting we’ve had that hasn’t ended in, “Make sure you ask questions and make sure you talk to the coaches. If you have something you want to find out, this is the time to do it.” Some of these kids have the personalities to do that, and some of these kids are still putting up walls. So that’s been the biggest challenge for me – getting through to the kids. I want them to go home with enough to help them advance their careers and getting where they want to go with it.
Katie: For me, I’m not as experienced as (Brendan) with getting kids to come out of their shells. I’ll say something, and they won’t really say anything back. That’s not because they’re not wanting to hear what I have to say, it’s because they’re just nervous and shy. Over the last couple days, each day has gotten better and better. I almost wish we had a couple more days, because I kind of feel like we’re making ground and breaking down the barriers.
If you could impart just one thing on this group, what would it be?
Brendan: I think the biggest thing we try to get across is that you fell in love with swimming at a young age, and as you go through your career and you get more serious and time-oriented and goal-oriented, don’t ever lose the real reason why you started swimming in the first place. It’s very easy to get skewed on that and feel like you need to do something and have to do something. I think it’s just always going back to that mentality of, “Why did you fall in love with swimming in the first place?” Never lose that thought. That’s that balance that Katie was talking about that maybe I lost going into the 2008 Olympics, and maybe now I can hopefully get that across to these kids. Make sure you have that balance where you can be your best and at the same time have fun with it and enjoy it again.
Katie: I think just not letting the expectations that will grow and grow and grow the better you get ruin it for you. I think the big thing is just having them learn from my experiences, my mistakes and say, “OK, this is how you deal with the expectations.” That’s stuff no one ever told me. I never felt prepared. It’s easier said than done, but just knowing little tools and ways in your head to keep it fun and not just just be like, “This is what the media’s saying, or this is what my friends and family want.” I think that’s really important.