By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Jimmy Feigen is here, there and everywhere lately. His new video for the freestyle from the “Swim Like a Champion” collection has drawn a lot of press, but he’s also giving clinics nonstop from coast to coast. On top of that, he is continuing to show why the sprints in the U.S., in what should be a time of transition, are in good hands. Yet his first trip into the water was nearly his last, as he explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What was your first experience with swimming?
Jimmy: I got into swimming – this is kind of a strange story. I was born in Hawaii, and we moved to Harlingen, Texas, when I was a year old. We had a pool in the backyard.
2. So is that where you started swimming?
Jimmy: Kind of. Well, we were out at the pool, and my parents were keeping an eye on my sister. I was 2 or 3 years old – probably on the young side of that, because I could barely walk – and I just got up and dove in, just threw myself into the pool.
3. My gosh, your poor parents, what did they do?
Jimmy: My Dad, I remember this vividly, was wearing a nice suit, and he jumped in. I was just blowing bubbles at the bottom of the pool, having a great time.
4. Your father obviously got to you before you drowned?
Jimmy: He did. He had, like I said, this really nice suit on, and he just jumped in – I remember him when we got out, he still had his beeper on and he took his soaking wet keys out of his pocket.
5. How about your mother, was she all right?
Jimmy: She was understandably terrified. It wasn’t like they had left me out there alone, I was just sitting there playing and decided I wanted to be in the water like my sisters. My Mom decided at that point that she should put me in swimming lessons.
6. So with the pool, was this a family activity, are your parents swimmers too?
Jimmy: My Mom can’t really swim very well and my Dad is okay at it. My Mom said she almost feinted that day when my Dad saved me. It was a pretty traumatic thing for them.
7. At that point, when you started swimming, did you take to it right away?
Jimmy: I took swimming lessons until I was 6 years old, and then I started swimming.
8. A good outlet for your energy?
Jimmy: Yes, and I was (laughs) pretty rambunctious, always in some form of trouble! But just by nature of having a pool in the backyard, my parents knew I had to learn how to swim.
9. And here you are, on the cover of magazines and on TV, and your job post UT Austin is “Professional swimmer” – all that from blowing bubbles in the pool and giving your parents a collective heart attack?
Jimmy: It gave me not only the important life skill of being able to survive in the water, but it gave me a college education and a profession.
10. Swimming means that much to you?
Jimmy: It really does, and it has shaped me in ways I am only now barely coming to understand. When I say “swimming got me into college,” it’s really so much more than that. It gave me better character, a better sense of responsibility, and a whole wide array of fantastic strengths to build my character. I am so happy my parents made that decision. In addition to saving my life – let’s face it, I was headed back in the water again, lessons or not – it changed my life when they put me in swimming lessons. I am really happy they did that.
11. I heard a story that you weren’t sure you wanted to do the competitive swimming thing initially?
Jimmy: Well, initially I was fine with it. But I really liked playing soccer, though my parents had me keep swimming as well. I mean, as a 10-year-old swimmer, I was just getting destroyed by everyone else. I had been pretty good when I was 8 or 9 years old, but from 11 to 14, I was bottom of the barrel, and not succeeding in swimming at all. Having succeeded once and not getting any better, I thought that my best times were behind me. I wanted to quit so badly, but my Mom would not let me. I thank her every day for not letting me quit.
12. Talking about a sport along with swimming that is good for high-energy kids – soccer – do you still like it?
Jimmy: I loved soccer. I still love playing it to this day. I was on a team, the Texas Raptors. We were pretty good. We weren’t D1, but we were D2 at the cut-off point, and made it to state three of the four years I was with them. I still remember my last game: I scored a goal, but we didn’t make it to state that year. I thought, “I won’t be walking onto a soccer field after this.” We had high school coming up, and I had chosen to focus on swimming heading into my freshman year of high school. So it was time to set some priorities, and I am glad I chose what I did, though soccer was good for me and I missed it.
13. Being taller than everyone, was that a benefit at that point for soccer and swimming?
Jimmy: I don’t really know that I was taller than most people. I mean, I was 5-foot-6 at that point entering high school, so I was taller than my average classmates in San Antonio at that time, but not so tall that I stood out in a crowd or anything.
14. So when was it then that you realized there was a future for you in swimming?
Jimmy: I don’t know, honestly. That’s such a hard question. My Mom always told me, “You should stay with this sport, I promise you will be good some day.” But it really wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I even thought I would be good enough to maybe have the opportunity to swim in college.
15. At that point you broke out of the plateau it seems like, correct?
Jimmy: Yes, I started to improve again. When I was a senior in high school I started thinking I might have the opportunity to go to the Olympics, win NCAAs, and compete with the best swimmers in the world. The ups and downs to that point were definitely a roller coaster ride, but I also definitely became a better person for going through that.
16. And then another plateau perhaps as you didn’t really emerge on the National Team scene until later in college?
Jimmy: Actually, it might just be that I had different goals in college. I wasn’t ready for the international scene when I was in college, and I didn’t train for that. I trained to be good for NCAAs; the least amount of swims I had was 12 my freshman year, and I think it was 14 swims my senior year. That’s what the team needed. As I grew out of that and NCAAs came to a close my senior year, I went down in yardage and raised my intensity.
17. What a great plan, in hindsight, that great base to launch your future post-college?
Jimmy: I owe that to (Texas head coach) Eddie Reese. Eddie always had a plan. In college, I had to be a good yards swimmer, and I had to be there for the relay. I loved my college years at Texas. I would never go back and do that any different. I am also sure that at that particular point in my life, I had somewhat of a focus issue – I was not able to focus like I am today. So it wasn’t just a training thing, but a maturity thing. I was going through a slow development and that made me appreciate everything a lot more.
18. NCAA title though, how cool is that?
Jimmy: The best part about that is it wasn’t about me, it was about the team, and that’s why it means so much. It was about doing what the team needed. I wanted to win NCAAs, and that’s what my only focus was – that’s what everyone on the team’s focus was. I am sure other people have similar stories or have accomplished greater feats, but for me, in terms of what I went through, living in San Antonio and then going to Austin to train five to six times a week with some of the best swimmers in the world, I really did start from the bottom when I moved here, and had to work my way up – I love that about my story.
19. Does the NCAA title mean that much to you, and how glad are you that you stuck it out even when things might have seemed tough?
Jimmy: In terms of winning an NCAA… we had come in second so many times, and we were so close to winning it those years. So to come through and win it as a team, individually and on a relay, it all really meant a lot to me – I think having that kind of NCAA is a rare experience. Or I should say it feels rare and I feel very blessed because I know I could not have done any of that without a tremendous group of teammates and coaches. I am so thankful for all of those people. You know, I still live in Austin, and I work out in the weight room sometimes at UT, and sometimes where I live. Anyway, I was (at the apartment building gym) the other day where I live, and I had my shirt off. On the back I have the 2010 Longhorn tattoo. Someone said, “Hey I graduated that year!” I said, “Yeah, I swam there.” And the guy said, “Oh, you’re Jimmy Feigen!” So it’s funny how things work out. I think making it to the Olympics was crazy, and getting second at Worlds was pretty crazy as well. But the struggle individually and as a team for the NCAA Championship, in some ways it is so much harder because so many things have to go perfectly right for you, and some things have to go wrong – if that makes sense – for some other teams. NCAAs is really a crap shoot, because some people show up, some don’t, and some come out of nowhere. You don’t understand what a lottery the NCAA Championship meet is until you compete in one.
20. You mention progress and then struggle, yet you come back from the Olympics and then jump right into Worlds, show amazing resilience, and claim that silver individually, which was quite an effort – do you see progress?
Jimmy: In the relay at Worlds, it was my time to step up, and I wasn’t ready for it. That experience serves me better in the future, because having that bad experiences helped me realize my position and place, my strengths and weaknesses, which catapulted me to a silver (in the 100 free) when maybe some people hadn’t thought I was capable of that. I understand and respect what I learned from that relay, and while it was a humbling experience, I had an obligation to make myself better coming out of that. You try to put your best foot forward every single day, every single time. When you stub your toe, you don’t stop trying; you just figure out what you did and put your best foot forward again. You get those good experiences and results, and it does stack up – and it builds your confidence, too, relatively quickly.