By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Things didn’t quite go as Gil Stovall planned or hoped at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
The morning of his semifinal swim in the 200 butterfly – where he was a medal contender after his strong showing at the Olympic Trials and in the Olympic prelims – he came down with a stomach virus. Subsequently, he had a bad swim and ultimately missed his shot at Olympic glory by placing ninth and out of the evening’s finals.
“It was heartbreaking because I had high hopes of medaling,” said Stovall, who steadily rose through the U.S. and international ranks his junior and sophomore seasons at the University of Georgia to become an Olympian.
“I just sat there and watched the times come in, trying not to throw up on the pool deck. When I saw the ‘8’ next to 1:55.35, I knew I was done and my Olympic dream was over.”
That time propelled Pawel Korzeniowski of Poland into the Olympic finals and left Stovall, who finished just behind him at 1:55.36, watching from the stands.
As someone who never swam for the accolades or had aspirations of making an Olympic team – until he made one – the real disappointment was that, in his mind and heart, he knew he was basically done with competitive swimming.
“Once I did the math in my head and realized I missed the finals, deep down I knew I didn’t have the desire to pursue the Olympics again in four years,” Stovall said. “If I had made the finals – regardless of the outcome – it would have been good enough for me. I just wanted to swim the fastest that I could, and I didn’t even come close to that at the Olympics.”
Stovall put on a happy face the rest of his time in Beijing, watching the Games and cheering on his teammates and enjoying the city and culture with his family and friends as much as he could. But the idea that this was most likely his last big swim meet gnawed at his soul.
“I had made a joke with my coach, Jack Bauerle, at the warm down pool after the disappointment in Beijing that it looks like he was stuck with me for another four years to prepare for 2012,” Stovall said. “But that proved to be a hasty statement because I knew I didn’t want to swim another four years. I wasn’t sure I wanted to swim at all again.”
After Beijing, Stovall returned to his hometown, Memphis, Tenn., and despite only having another year of school left (his swimming eligibility was used up), he took the fall semester off to do some traveling and attend some family functions and events.
In retrospect, he said that was probably the worst thing he could have done. Being separated from his Georgia teammates – his support system for years – and rationalizing that he was “nobody special, just your average Joe” despite having swum at the Olympics, sent him into a post-Olympic depression.
He didn’t swim for the next four to five months, and his depression compounded with some personal issues quickly made him question his future in and out of the water.
“Swimming and focusing on preparing for the Olympics was a very nice distraction for me from some things going on in my life that I either didn’t want to or wasn’t ready to address,” Stovall said. “With nothing else to focus on, I went down a fairly slippery slope in my personal life, made some bad decisions, and the next thing I knew, I was in a bad place mentally.”
Stovall credits Bauerle and Georgia Senior Associate Head Coach Harvey Humphries with helping restore his confidence and bring him out of his slump. He re-enrolled at Georgia in the spring of 2009 but it became evident pretty early that he still wasn’t right emotionally and mentally.
He returned home to Memphis to be with his family, and with their help, started to address some of the personal issues plaguing him. He accepted an assistant coaching position with the University of Memphis swim team, which proved to be a great experience for him to be back in a team environment and put a few things in perspective.
“My mom is a teacher, so I guess it’s in my genes to want to give back and help others and share my knowledge,” Stovall said. “I always knew I wanted to coach, so this was a great introduction. It reminded me about all the things I enjoyed about swimming and made me realize that I really do love the sport.”
Stovall followed that short stint by working a few odd jobs in warehouses and lifeguarding before David Arluck asked him to help out with Fitter Faster doing swim clinics throughout the country.
“The really brought a lot of joy into my life after such a tough time in my life; it really came at the perfect time,” Stovall said. “I also helped David market swim clinics, and although I wasn’t great at sales, the experience absolutely helped me realize my true passion for coaching. It’s definitely where my heart is.”
Despite an effort to get back into competitive shape in late 2009 and early 2010, the drive that once fueled his passion was no longer there. Stovall officially retired in the summer of 2010 around his birthday in June.
“Once I finished at the Olympics, I didn’t have any more goals in my swim career,” Stovall said. “I was ready to be done but it took a while for me to realize that. When you’ve put so much of yourself and your time into something, it’s difficult to break away, and I tried to several times, but something kept bringing me back. Now, through coaching, I’m able to still be involved and help create the next group of Olympians.”
These days, he is coaching the Union Swim Club in Jackson, Tenn., and has made peace with a lot of the demons that haunted him that first year or so after the Olympics.
He’s parlaying that happiness and positive outlook into his work with the kids at Jackson Aquatic Club, and the athletes help him rediscover his joy for the sport and life every day.
“It was tough at the time, but everything I went through made me who I am today,” Stovall said. “God has shown me that he has a plan for me, and I have a great girlfriend and I’m closer to my sister and family than I’ve ever been. I’m grateful every day for my life today, and having the opportunity to make an impact on even just one of the kids every day is really special to me. It’s really what it’s all about.”