Photos Courtesy University of North Carolina Athletics
By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Stephanie Peacock was on track at the University of North Carolina for All-American honors, and a big summer. But then something happened, and medically she was unable to compete. Well, things changed: she was finally able to understand what had happened in terms of her injury. Peacock had suffered a concussion earlier in the season when she hit her head on the wall practicing backstroke. But she made a golden trip to Russia, where she won gold in the 1500 and silver in the 800. She explains the emotional whirlwind in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What were WUGs like?
Stephanie: The trip to Russia was really, really fun. I had such a great time and an amazing experience. I got to know all the coaches there really well, and my teammates were just such amazing people.
2. Wasn’t that an interesting group?
Stephanie: It really was – no one could have hoped for better people. The teammates there, like Laura Sogar and Ashley Steenvoorden, and getting to meet so many people, was just amazing.
3. A lot of people might think this was your first time, but you actually went to WUGs in 2011, right?
Stephanie: Yes, and I was also glad I had the experience of going on an international trip before this one. Having that experience in China was great. I had gone to Australia as a sophomore in high school but I was pretty young then. Going to a big meet in China really opened my eyes; I saw how the team gets together and becomes the USA team, cheering on your teammates but individually doing your job for the team as well. In China my swim was close to the last day, I think the second to the last day, and watching everyone else was the most exciting thing ever, and really got me excited to swim. Having that confidence from China, I knew I could do this again. You have all those different countries and you are in a different place, so it can make you nervous, but having that experience really helped – so does having great teammates and coaches. Because of that, I was mentally prepared to swim the mile in Russia. I think I swam on the third or fourth day. I was sitting there just watching, and I was so mentally prepared for it. Everyone was doing so well. It gave me the confidence to go out there and race. I had a lot of confidence going into the mile. This race was just the second mile I had ever swam long course. So that made it a little bit different although I swam the mile short course a bunch of times. Going in swimming long course, and it being the second time, I just went out there and did my race based off a feel for how I was swimming. I started out with a really good pace. When I felt good, I picked up my pace more. I gave it everything I could for the last 300.
4. Not that you had something to prove, but having your NCAA season cut short, did that change things for you?
Stephanie: Yes this was a little bit different because I was not able to compete at my conference or NCAA meet, so I wanted to win a medal and make up for the fact that I wasn’t able to be at those meets – I needed something good to happen to remember this season by.
5. Certainly this is a privacy thing, but would you like to share what happened?
Stephanie: Basically what it was, is when I was training I was having extreme abdominal pain every time I was in the water training. My stomach would get big and cramp up a lot. My doctors and coaches pulled me out of the water. Eventually, my doctors told me that it stemmed from a concussion I had in December, and the doctors thought it impaired parts of my brain that control breathing and swelling. So I had abdominal distention, which in my case was worse than bloating. It would get really bad in high stress environments. So I am on medication now for it, something that is like a stomach relaxer.
6. All that time not knowing what it was until the post-concussion diagnosis, what was that like?
Stephanie: It’s really scary because you have no idea what’s wrong. You get to the point where you want them to tell you anything. It came to the point where I didn’t care what it was, I just wanted them to figure it out. I had a colonoscopy, endoscopy, I had to swallow a camera capsule and put that through my system. I went on a gluten-free diet, dairy diet, and had a gallbladder scan. Everything was fine, which was nice to know, too.
7. But your year ended early, when did it start up again?
Stephanie: I wasn’t able to compete at ACCs, and it was in the middle of March when I went to another doctor. This was during NCAAs. Once they figured out what it was, they told me that day, “You can swim again.” Basically, I got back in the water the next day, and just started to get slowly into shape.
8. You had the 1500 first at WUGs then, right?
Stephanie: Right. We had the 1500 in the morning, 1500 the (next) night, and the next morning was the 800, and the next night was the 800, and then the following morning was the 400 free. I did the 1500 (and won gold), and I was pretty excited. Then I realized I had the 800 the next morning, and I was feeling good (laughs) about that because, No. 1, I knew it was a lot shorter. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of it, because I had given everything to the mile in that last race. To finish with a silver in the 800 (less than two tenths of a second from gold), I was pretty happy with how my race turned out, and I was just four seconds off my best time. Considering all that had happened and that I had just swam the 1500, I felt really happy with how I did.
9. Can you expand on the “considering all that happened,” part, because it seems like it would have been hard to get back into shape after that kind of break, especially since it was related to such an illness, right?
Stephanie: It was really hard, honestly, getting back into it when I started to swim again. There were practices where, before the concussion, I would be at my peak and I was so optimistic on the spring and what it would be in summer in Russia. But then I went home for summer to train, because I really needed to be near my family even though my college coach and the university was so great about everything. I swam with my club coach, Mac Kennedy, and we focused on just what I needed each day. If I needed a recovery day, that’s what I did. Whatever it took to get back where I was. I also had that support system at home with my family. And my college coach Rich DeSelms stayed in good contact with me making sure I was all right. Then, at the Santa Clara meet, I was pretty close to my best time, and in the next meet I almost got my best time in the 400 (she also swam the 400 at WUGs). Each meet built my confidence. Then, on the WUGs trip, in addition to the great teammates, we had outstanding coaches. Matt Kredich, the head coach at Tennessee, and I talked about the mile. I told him, “I am a little nervous to swim the mile. I am afraid I don’t have my endurance back.” Matt smiled and said, “Listen, you are one of the first swimmers ever to show me you don’t have to be training all the distance to be good at distance. You have had great training. Just being out of the water for two months is not going to stop you.” I was stunned. I was like, “OK, thank you.” Having that great support system in Russia and getting to know those coaches was great.
10. Winning gold in the mile and silver in the 800 after all that, what does that tell you about your swimming?
Stephanie: It tells me when you set your mind to it you can accomplish anything. Swimming is such a mental sport. Before swimming my mile, that confidence and excitement I had, that’s what really helped me when the race started. You do need to train, and train to get better, but when you go into it with passion and confidence, you can do anything you set your mind to.
11. You must have really appreciated seeing what Katie Ledecky did in those events at Worlds?
Stephanie: It’s really exciting to see someone like Katie Ledecky go out at Worlds and accomplish that much. Just watching her swim was really inspiring. It’s exciting to know there’s such a great competitor like her in these races. I am excited to race her because she’ll bring out the best in me. All of our distance swimmers – Katie, Ashley Steenvoorden, Chloe Sutton, and the others – all of them are outstanding swimmers and people.
12. What about what Katie Ledecky did in London, did that also inspire you?
Stephanie: Katie in London – oh my gosh! Seeing her drop five seconds going from prelims to the final of the 800 was completely crazy! I feel like a lot of that is mental; you just go out there and race. When you have that inside you, it comes out in your best races. She had all that training under her belt, and she was ready to go. It was exciting to watch.
13. So you are inspired by your teammates rather than being daunted by such great competition, even to make an international team?
Stephanie: That’s really for us as a team, and it gets us fired up to swim when we see our USA Swimming teammates doing amazing things – we all want to go out there and do the same thing. We want to be part of that.
14. After Beijing, it kind of seemed like the 800 and even 1500 had fallen a little bit off the radar, but the depth now – even with the great Kate Ziegler not competing – is as strong as ever, isn’t it?
Stephanie: It is, and it was just crazy to have the U.S. be kind of the talk of the women’s distance events at both Worlds and WUGs – that’s really exciting. To be completely a part of all of this is amazing. This is something I dreamed about, to be part of a women’s team like this now in the U.S. And I still feel like a bunch of younger swimmers are popping up all over the place, which is also really exciting. When I was 15 at National meets, I was scared, but seeing how Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky handle it as teenagers, and the confidence and poise they have, is really inspiring to everyone.
15. What’s it like to race them?
Stephanie: Competing against them is such an honor, because you know they are the best. But the coolest part is just being around them because of the kind of people they are. This goes back to racing people like Kate Ziegler, who was just a great champion, or someone who dominated for so long like Katie Hoff did – just to be around those people at Olympic Trials and get to watch them prepare and how they handled everything, that’s a big part of your development.
16. How is school going and how does your major fit into swimming?
Stephanie: It fits in pretty well. I’m an ESS (Exercise Sports Science) major and I want to go to nursing school. I love my major, the science and learning about anatomy and physiology. It’s hard academically, but I love the challenge – it balances me out. I don’t mind having to study for a test – I have to challenge myself outside the water just as much as I do in the pool.
17. North Carolina has a great academic reputation, did that play a part in deciding on a college?
Stephanie: I knew it would be great to pursue a degree from North Carolina, and to be an athlete here. North Carolina offers this leadership program, the Carolina Leadership Academy, and I believe only nine other schools have something like this. You go through this program learning how to be a leader. I think that’s really helped with our team because we have an incredible amount of leaders on our team, not just one or two people, everyone.
18. You mentioned Rich, and that’s been a good fit too?
Stephanie: Oh, it really is. It’s really nice to have coaches that want to see me succeed in all areas of life. Rich has always been about emphasizing academics as well. He’s always aware of that and stresses academic importance – he’s plugged in on that and you’ll leave practice and he’ll say, “Good luck on that test.” That’s really great. It has been awesome training with him the past three years. I’ve been training back home with my club coach since I was 12 years old, and that’s a great working relationship and support system, too.
19. What was it like when you won the 1500 in terms of emotion?
Stephanie: I would have expected myself to cry tears of joy after everything that had happened, but I was (laughs) so shocked I didn’t cry. When I finished the race, I was like, “Did that just happen?” Being on the medal stand felt so good. I was like, “I can’t believe I did that!” I still had four more races to swim if you count prelims and finals. It was just a really exciting moment. Now when I think back on it, I do get emotional because I was able to do something like that, and it gets me even more excited about what I can accomplish in the future. There’s no feeling in the world like being on that stand.
20. What has this year – the big run up to ACCs and NCAA and then being out, and then coming back to WUGs and winning – helped you learn about yourself?
Stephanie: It taught me that I am capable of things that I didn’t think I could do. When I had that illness and everything, I was thinking, “How am I going to ever swim in Russia?” I learned a lot from that. What it taught me is that I am able to put things behind me, and focus on goals – and if I do that, anything is possible. I kept telling myself during the training that I couldn’t think about what had gone wrong or why I couldn’t compete, that I had to think about the future. With the support system I had, I was able to get focused, and do what I had to do to reach those goals.