By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
After an incredible run to gold and silver in London in 2012, Nick Thoman came home riding a wave of energy. But just as quickly, he found his battery needed recharging, and took not one but a couple of multi-month long breaks. However, when he refocused, it was like a laser, and his three-title performance at AT&T Winter Nationals, blowing out a 44.56 backstroke leg on the 400 medley relay, and a day later he broke two American records in the same race. He talks about his circuitous journey back to the top in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Why take the break after London?
Nick: You know, it was just a much needed mental and physical letdown that I had to think about and work through mentally as much as physically.
2. Did you see it coming?
Nick: I had basically been training hard my entire life. I had never taken any time off. I came back in October and wasn’t feeling it, took some time off, came back, and took a few more weeks.
3. The performance at AT&T Winter Nationals speaks for itself, right, as far as how the break helped you?
Nick: Absolutely. Looking back, I would do it the exact same way. I think I took just the right amount of time. It made me hungry again. I was hungry before the Olympics to get there – to make the team – and then it was like, “What now?”
4. Was the amount of time a set period you took off?
Nick: I think it was just luck (laughs) that it turned out to be the right amount of time. I just thought I needed a break. I thought it would only be a couple of months, but then it turned into more than that. Thank God my coach is very supportive in whatever decision I made. I always thought I would get back in the water.
5. Speaking of that coach, how glad are you to have David Marsh in your corner?
Nick: In college he was always kind of the boogeyman at Auburn with all the national championships. Just to be a part of it and see it, you understand, appreciate and respect how much goes into it, and the level of attention to detail. So it’s not really magic – but in some ways, it really is.
6. You were on the road a bit during your break, what did you do?
Nick: Basically, whatever I wanted in terms of traveling. I went out to Mardi Gras with my best friend who was a former roommate of mine who now has a house down there. I visited my family, and worked with David Arluck on some clinics.
7. What specifically did the break help you with?
Nick: It helped me to come back with a better mindset. I realized this is not something I will be able to do forever, so I am going to do it as well as I can the next few years and see where it takes me.
8. To come back and not just compete well, but throw down records – how does that work?
Nick: Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to do as well as I did. I actually sprained my ankle twice during the fall doing swimming things – running starts, and then doing crossovers at a meet in Italy I busted it up a little bit. So going into Nationals I didn’t have a real thought process to know what to expect.
9. So you get to Nationals, and you literally hit the water ready to go your fastest?
Nick: I threw out that first big swim that night, and I was able to get my head around where I was.
10. I had to look at the clock twice, did that time catch you off guard?
Nick: I did the same thing. I didn’t know I was that close (to the record) until somebody told me. The American record wasn’t my thought. I thought, “Let’s do this relay and set team (SwimMAC) up well for the meet.” When someone did tell me I was just a hundredth off (the record), I thought, “I’ve got some work to do tomorrow.”
11. So you literally just kept pushing?
Nick: That’s kind of how it happened, I was just going for it one (race) at a time. Again, after that first 100, I knew something was going to happen the next night; I knew someone would break it, me or Matt Grevers, because he was swimming great, too.
12. So you knew on the 50 back you did it and the record for the 100?
Nick: Friday night doing back on the relay – doing a 50 – yes, when I broke it, I had to be told (laughs) that I broke it, which shows you of course how knowledgeable I am about swimming! You know me, I just race. I had two hours between races, so I changed out of my suit into dry clothes after I had fully warmed down. I had coffee and a little sandwich and just relaxed, and then I went to warm-up for the 100 backstroke. To come back and have a record like that was really just an exciting experience, and to have the coaching and teammates I have, shows that having great people around you makes you better. I am very flattered to have it called my record, but there are a lot of people who share that.
13. You were also cruising in the free during that meet, and your fly has been, at times, at a very high level, will you focus exclusively on the back or add events?
Nick: I am absolutely open to it. The way I have always viewed swimming is whatever calls me at the moment is what I will do. I have been a butterflier, distance freestyle swimmer, and a backstroker, so my path has been a very meandering one here and again, yet it is that path that got me up that mountain. So if the fly or free came around, I would definitely see if those are options.
14. So you come back from the break and even practice is more fun?
Nick: It really did get me a better outlook. I was talking with (SwimMAC assistant) coach Nate Boyle after a recent practice, and I knew it was obvious that I looked beaten down and tired, and he looks at me and says, “It looks like you got some things figured out.” That’s what came from this. You know, all I do is show up every morning and swim, and do what I can do. It’s one day at a time, and one stroke at a time. I honestly don’t have the best mindset at all times, but I just try to get through everything and that gets me closer to the big goal.
15. Man, who’d thought SwimMAC would/could be built into such a swimming power and North Carolina could tilt the swim map a bit and balance the country out like this?
Nick: It’s a great thing. When Coach Marsh had this idea of bringing together professional athletes about 6 years ago, no one could have known if it would work. I came in about 4½ years ago to SwimMAC, so it’s been really cool to see the team evolve and grow. Every year we seem better and better. Having Ryan Lochte here now – he was just awesome in some backstroke kick things we did today – has been a great addition for us and yet another opportunity to transition forward.
16. Not a bad training partner, to have someone like Lochte come in?
Nick: Exactly. It’s a really cool thing. He’s just such a nice guy, too. He always has a smile on his face. He’s just a little bit (laughs) goofy. When he came back from Colorado Saturday morning, I said, “I am so glad you are back Ryan. You keep it interesting here.” The quality of swimmers we have and the mindset we have is just great. We are all aiming at the big goal.
17. Scooters, break dancing, falling fans – man, “What would Ryan Lochte do” is really the wildcard in the deck, isn’t it?
Nick: You know, that’s just Ryan – it’s part of what makes him who he is, and that is an amazing person. Before he got his knee injury, we were having ridiculous kick sets head to head right next to each other. I do not know if I would have gone as fast without him there, and only he could tell you if he would have gone as hard and fast without me there. So I am trying to feed off his strength and power. His is one of the only people in the world who can push me underneath and above the water every race, every lap. It’s so cool to have him next to me every day – I can say, “Hey, I swim next to Ryan Lochte every day,” how cool is that?
18. When we were able to hang out with our dates at Golden Goggles, I was just so caught off-guard that you made so much time for us – and others – I mean, you literally didn’t move on to the next group until you had really made us all feel so great about swimming and everything – where does that humility and giving back come from?
Nick: First of all, thank you – that’s a really cool thing to hear. The thing about me is this: I never really expected all the success I have had. In my mind, I’ve always been the hardest worker, or at least I thought I tried the hardest. Actually, I thought my better chance to make the Olympic team was 2008, so I guess that’s another one of those parts of the story that meanders and brought me here. But I ended up training with David to make the goal 2012, and he knows how to train people to race. We don’t train to train, we train to race. That’s the coolest thing, I think.
19. That is pretty cool. How have you embraced Charlotte as a home after growing up in the Midwest?
Nick: I may have grown up in Cincinnati – and it will always mean so much to me – but Charlotte is my home now, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that. The people here are fantastic. The people are so nice you can’t even explain it to people who haven’t been here. They will flash a smile to anyone, and if you smile first they will smile back and ask how you are doing. You could be having the worst day in the world, and the guy who sits next to you will make you feel better by how polite and kind he is as a person. It’s just a great place to live. I was standing out on my balcony before the Panthers game last weekend – I live near the stadium, so I had my shirt off and was getting some sun, and everyone was waving and there was all this goodwill and sense of community. It was just a regular day – but it was so much more, if that makes sense.
20. The near miss in 2008, and then two medals in London, and then the records last year after the layoff – what have these last 20 months or so taught you about who you are?
Nick: I have always thought of myself as kind of an underdog; I am not the biggest, not the tallest, and not the strongest. All I have is the work ethic and technique to go off of. So I have made myself into what I am with that. I work hard on my strength – I can’t work (laughs) on my height now can I? That is what it is. So the take away for me is that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. You figure out what you love and want to be the best at, you find the coaching and resources that both share and add to that vision, and if you are willing to adapt and push yourself, you will get to a great place – and anyone can do it, I am proof of that.