By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Photo courtesy: Tim Binning / The Swim Pictures
When Lauren Perdue had to shut down her 2012 run toward even more All-American honors because of back surgery, the U.S. Olympic Trials seemed to slip from future plans as well. However, Perdue was not ready to take herself out of the mix, and made the Olympic team. The gold medalist and one of the stars of USA Swimming’s Call me Maybe video talks about the power of moving forward even when it hurts too much sometimes to get out of bed in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Lauren Perdue, Olympian – what does that mean?
Lauren: You know, it has been a childhood dream of mine to compete in the Olympics for the United States. To have this dream come true is just an amazing experience. To win a gold medal on top of that is even better for me. It was a great experience. And the team atmosphere was really positive. Everyone on the team got really close, and supported each other the whole way.
2. So back surgery a year ago – how did that affect your Olympic dream?
Lauren: I had back surgery last March. At that point, my dream of making the Olympics in London was pretty crushed. I was really discouraged. But I realized that God had a plan for me. No matter what happened that summer at Olympic Trials, that was part of plan. It kind of helped me, because I went into Olympic Trials completely calm, and accepting the fact I had back surgery two months ago, so whatever happens, happens. But I think it helped that I was clam and had no expectations for myself. But then I had lifetime bests. In a way, for me at least, it was miraculous.
3. Your parents must have been so worried?
Lauren: It’s ironic, because my parents knew I was still in a lot of pain two weeks before, and leading right up to, Olympic Trials. I was still in rehab from the surgery, and even though I was swimming, I certainly wasn’t working anywhere as hard as I should have been in that point of the program leading up to Trials, because the surgery had set me back so much.
4. You were an eight-time all American at NCAAs for Virginia, and were swimmer of the year for the ACC in 2010 and 2011, and then what was it like to have to give up NCAAs in 2012 when it looked like it was even getting better?
Lauren: I didn’t even compete last year at NCAAs – I ended up getting the back surgery instead. I had struggled with the back pain, and I was very unsure of my future in swimming. I was trying not to be negative and discouraged, but in the back of your mind, back surgery is a big deal. I was wondering, “Is this my last year of swimming?” So all of these thoughts were running through my head leading up to Olympic Trials.
5. So at that point were people realizing even competing at Olympic Trials wasn’t realistic?
Lauren: My parents were kind of more realistic than I was at that point after back surgery. They didn’t want my hopes to be completely crushed if I went and didn’t do well. They were gently pushing me to not go to Olympic Trials, to take the summer off, rest and come back the next year. I thought, “I have made the cut; this will just be a fun run. I will support my teammates and see what happens.” Thank God I went. I still look back at that moment, and it gives me goose bumps because I think, “What if I decided not go?”
6. Yet at Trials you started out strong, and got better – how is that possible?
Lauren: Each race, I just got better and better. I gained more confidence with each swim. You know, right before the 200 free finals, I started thinking, “This could actually happen! I could actually make top six and make the Olympic team.” I did not have the strength, and I did not have the training base that I did have. To look up at the scoreboard and see that I came in fourth, not even sixth…the picture of me after I looked up there, seeing how my face was just completely astounded with what just happened, is a great indication of what I was feeling.
7. But isn’t it the underlying foundation of swimming, living right and staying fit that made it even possible at Trials?
Lauren: That’s right, that’s completely right. I have been swimming my entire life. All of the sacrifices throughout my entire life came back to me that day; not being able to do something because I had swim practice, going to swim meets, missing out on something – every swimmer knows exactly what I am talking about. Throughout my years, swimming has been a huge part of my life. I have developed a base, and that really, really helped when it comes down to it. When it really matters, you can rely on that amazing fitness level and strength you get from swimming.
8. Did you start thinking pretty quickly after making the team that the next thing might be an Olympic medal?
Lauren: At that point I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was in shock really at making the team. And then I started thinking about it, talking to my parents about it, and I looked up our standings in the relay. I saw how dominant we have been throughout the years (in the 4 x 200), so I was really excited for our chances. I did not get to compete in the relay final, but what really just matters most is that I was there for my team. The coaches put the best person on that final relay. I’m as proud as I can be to say I was part of winning that medal; it’s awesome.
9. So you are on this Olympic team with several people you looked up to, right?
Lauren: Yes, and that is so great. I have looked up to Natalie Coughlin for so long, and Dana Vollmer, and Michael Phelps – these huge stars in swimming. To be able to be teammates was a dream come true. Not even teammates as much as to get to know them as people. You talk to Brendan Hansen and the other veterans, and they will tell you this is the closest team they have ever been on. To be a part of that is amazing. The veterans were so humble and understanding; they let the rookies settle in and get comfortable.
10. Katie Ledecky, Natalie Coughlin, Tyler Clary, Brendan, Michael, Ryan Lochte, Dana, you, Chloe, Claire – how did such different personalities mesh?
Lauren: That’s what made it happen, these amazing different personalities. That’s also a testament to the young talent in the United States. The swim programs all over are producing young stars.
11. You had a different experience at Trials in 2008, correct?
Lauren: Right. I swam at Trials four years ago, and had a pretty discouraging time, but I was young. I had (laughs) no hope of making the Olympics at that point. I wanted to test the waters. This time, having been around before, with no real expectations, was relaxing for me. I did think that this could be my last shot, especially with my back history, and what I went through the past year. Now that I have overcome that, it has given me more strength. I am aiming for 2016, working on the 200, but I also love the 100, and I’m working on the 50 as well.
12. Your choice to go to the University of Virginia – looking back, how smart was that?
Lauren: Coming to UVA was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only is it a phenomenal academic program, but the swim program is also on the rise. I wanted to go to a place where I could contribute my talents and help this team do the best we can nationally. That was really my goal, and I think I am excited for this year, and what this team will do at NCAAs.
13. You had a special teammate too, didn’t you, in one Claire Crippen?
Lauren: I was actually talking to one of my friends about her last night. She was so strong, especially in the light of everything she’s been through. I had the honor of swimming with her for two years. She was a leader, a born leader. I just remember looking up to her for her strength, her positivity all the time; she’s an amazing young woman.
14. Does UVA get overlooked a little bit?
Lauren: People I don’t think realize that UVA swimming really produces results. We work harder than a lot of programs in the country – I am biased when I say that – but we really work hard. We also work hard with our hearts; we love each other, and we work hard for each other. That program’s in the heart of each of us.
15. So go back to London for a second – were you nervous?
Lauren: I think at that point, everyone had kind of adjusted from our time together in Tennessee but then even more so in France. France was great – relaxing yet training hard, but that was when we really bonded. From that point on, for me, at least, I was really comfortable with the situation. Knowing I am about to fly to compete in the Olympic Games was a reality to me that I was ready for. That team atmosphere was great, and very positive. The nerves started to hit two days before I raced, and then (laughs) I was pretty much a nervous wreck.
16. Did you think about the women on that relay with you for that first swim?
Lauren: It was amazing. We were in the ready room before the 800 free relay, and it was all kind of surreal at that point. “I am standing here next to the fastest women in America, and I am part of this.” Knowing that they had my back the entire race, cheering, all in it together – it means so much to be part of that. And the atmosphere was great, just unbelievable. I’ve never seen so many people cheering at a swim meet before. Before I dove in to lead off the relay, it was such a great feeling. I was really fired up. But it was helpful to me to remember that even though it was the Olympics, and even though it is the biggest competition of my life, it is just another swim meet. It is just another pool, just another starting block, and I have dove off blocks just like this many, many times in my life. I just had to step back as a swimmer. That approach really helped.
17. The whole thing with Lebron James asking you to dinner, did that get out of proportion?
Lauren: Yes, I think so, but looking back at that, I was a little immature in my reaction to immediately tweet that and post the picture. I was excited. I had just met an amazing basketball player. I did not realize how much publicity it would get after that. I think that situation has really helped me growing up, and realizing that social media is not something to play with. Youngsters look up to me as a role model, and I have to be better than that – I have to really be careful what I say on social media.
18. Speaking of blowing up on media, how about your starring role in Call me Maybe?
Lauren: Yeah, that was so great, but we were all the stars, not me. I did not realize it would blow up the way it did. It was such an amazing experience to create this video. We did most of it in France. That was the time we really bonded. I thought doing this video was among the reasons we bonded so well. We created this together. Everyone was part of it.
19. Did you play other sports where you grew up?
Lauren: I did play other sports. Not very seriously, but I did play soccer, volleyball and softball. And I was an avid surfer when I was young – I still dabble in surfing. Soccer was probably my best sport, and I just loved playing with the boys – competing with the boys – when I was younger. Not many of the girls in my middle school wanted to play soccer with the boys, but I wanted to, and I just loved being outside. You have to consider that my hometown, Greenville, North Carolina, is just this wonderful place. It had a small town feel, and they always rooted for us in sports. In fact, I have always had the support of the community, my whole life through swimming, and had the support of my church. It’s a small southern town, with the southern hospitality. Everyone knows each other. It’s just great. I love going back home; everyone is so kind to me. It’s just a really humbling.
20. What has this past year taught you about yourself?
Lauren: It really is a great feeling to be where I am now. It has taught me that I can overcome almost anything. I went through the hardest thing in my life and was able to overcome that, and accomplish a dream of mine. It’s really taught me that through any situation, I just have to remain positive, lean on God and my teammates for strength, and just pray that whatever happens in my life that is discouraging, is part of the plan. I just have to have trust and have faith.