By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Rebecca Soni called it a career Thursday, officially retiring. And what a successful career it was for the most dominating breaststroker of the era. In addition to her new venture with 2012 Olympic teammate Ariana Kukors – www.theatlasventures.com – Rebecca, who turns 27 in mid-March, offered up some heartfelt, deep insights into her amazing career in a special tribute for this 20 Question Thursday.
1. Did one Olympics seem more memorable than the other for any reason?
Rebecca: They all meant a lot for different reasons. Every new step to me was like a new world. I never thought I’d make an Olympic year until the year before. The year before Beijing, it wasn’t a calculated journey where I thought, “I’ve got this.” It was a ride I was holding onto with both hands, trying to stay on board.
2. How did you know it was time to retire and was it difficult?
Rebecca: It’s always going to be hard to make a decision like this. After London, I had the feeling I was done. I thought about going back, and I did go back and forth, but lately I have been very grounded in the fact that I am done. I am absolutely done now, and having something absolutely as exciting as what Ariana and I have now makes it more excitement than bitter. But it is hard to step away. I have been reading the notes all day on Twitter, and I really feel and appreciate all the support. Retirement is always going to be sad in some ways, that’s just how it is.
3. It’s hard to move on, but have you been able to look back on your accomplishments – three Olympic golds, three silvers, and those World Championship, Pan Pacs, and WUGs medals, plus all the National titles and NCAA honors?
Rebecca: I don’t see it as walking away from all that, but I am totally grateful to have had all of those people I have come to know be part of my experiences. It’s been a while since I have been at a practice or a swim meet; I have a different routine now, and I have to look back and think about all that I was able to accomplish in my career; it catches me off-guard, I forget things and when it comes up I am like, “Was that me? Did that happen?” I feel proud and blessed that was a huge part of my life.
4. To dominate in such a competitive event for so long – how do you understand that at this point?
Rebecca: You know, I never expected it to ... I never really put too much thought in that direction. That’s not what motivated or inspired me. It was pretty amazing (laughs). And I realize that more looking back on it – you don’t realize it when you are swimming every day.
5. To finish it off so strong, and even to claim all those golds at the World Championships you went to, is so impressive – and how many people you inspired – what does all that mean to you?
Rebecca: Looking back on it all really is interesting and exciting. At the same time, I am excited to watch the breaststrokers now who are progressing, and seeing the breaststrokers in Barcelona or in the World Cups. It’s been exciting to watch. My hope is having been on top of that event for a little while, maybe I was able to hopefully inspire those girls a little – kind of a “Come get me, chase me down!” sort of thing
6. Does a moment stick out?
Rebecca: I mean, it’s hard to pick a favorite. The way that I see it, the (2:19.59) in London was the peak performance, the ultimate for me, because that’s what I was chasing. But I would not have been able to do that without everything else that went into it and got me there. At the same time, the 200 breast in Beijing and the surprise of that moment was so exciting.
7. Other memories?
Rebecca: For me, being part of the NCAAs was so important, going to USC and being part of that family.
8. So it’s not just the Olympic gold medals, safe to say?
Rebecca: Being elected team captain of the Olympic team in 2012,that was one of my proudest moments too, so there was not just one moment by any means. And so many people I have to thank.
9. On the medal stand, what did you usually think of?
Rebecca: By the time you are on the stand everything else is a blur. That moment is hard to capture, because there is so much going on. But it is about everything else, the hard work and training, not just the day to day, the whole career and how it went together.
10. How did you end up working with Ariana on your new company, the website -www.theatlasventures.com – just launched today, you must be excited?
Rebecca: Well, it was kind of the way it worked out. It came about because we obviously were good friends from the National Team and all that, but we also had a lot of time to spend together, and talk about different things in our training.
11. You learned long ago that you want to work with people you like and get along with, right?
Rebecca: Absolutely. We really connected on that level and were on the same page. After we were both done training for a little bit, we talked about doing clinics together. We are trying to make it more the way we are envisioning it and less than like a typical clinic. We saw we were on the same page here, and we wanted to make it a way we wanted to do it.
12. That’s funny because when I talked to her before and saw the first clinics you did last year, this seemed like a new format, but you both had the same idea?
Rebecca: We kind of think the same way. Just last night we were going through the website for the launch, and when she’d say something, it was like, “Are you reading my mind?”
13. I love clinics and have been to a few – yours is different in that you “crash practice” and some different ideas, right?
Rebecca: Definitely. The reason I love it so much is that for me, I am not a very technical swimmer as far as stroke technique. I know what works for me. But like I tell everybody, I don’t know everything about breaststroke. I can teach you the tips and tools I have developed over 15 years of swimming and training, and that might work for you.
14. And there are some life applications your instructions provide too?
Rebecca: We both think this is something that is not really covered in the swimming world; when you are a kid and you are training, it is all about how many yards you can put in, in the pool. We don’t want to challenge that, that’s fine. But had I known then what I know now from the experiences I have, I could have done so much more.
15. Do you remember what it was like when you came onto the scene and the breaststroke had become so competitive that medal winning Olympians and world record holders didn’t even make certain World and Olympic teams?
Rebecca: Going through that time of being an underdog is definitely part of what shaped me. I always joke that I much preferred the underdog position to the spotlight, because I thought it was a more powerful striking point. I didn’t want the hoopla, I just wanted to come and swim.
16. Even after all the wins, still an underdog later in your career?
Rebecca: From Beijing (2008) on, I still kind of had that feeling. I always thought, “Well, maybe I am stepping on the blocks as the top seed, but I never had the feeling like it’s a given I’d win – I always approached it with that underdog mentality. That’s where I started from, and that is the root of my competitiveness.
17. How much did that competitive field of breaststrokers affect you when you were competing?
Rebecca: You know, I am not really sure how to approach that for an answer; when I was back in that time, I never really followed what was going on – that was my approach to swimming in general. I didn’t know what times were being put up. I knew what the world records were but I didn’t know who was faster than me. I didn’t keep track of that – that’s not something I needed to think about or focus on, or even be aware of. I knew that in general, not a lot of people made it onto the National Team in swimming, so I had a lot of work to do (laughs) for myself rather than be concerned about what others were doing.
18. People love you not just for the swimming, but how you carry yourself – the humility, the class and dignity – you never called attention to yourself, you let your swims speak for you, didn’t you?
Rebecca: I am always a big lead-by-example kind of person. It’s not about what you say. You don’t need to say, “Look at me! Follow me!” You really want to embody what you do and how you feel in your morals … you can’t just talk about it – you have to live it.
19. The heart condition and some injuries you dealt with, how hard was it working through that?
Rebecca: I actually feel I have been pretty lucky about injuries. The ones I did have … the heart condition was fixed through a procedure that was quote-unquote easy, even thought I shouldn’t say any heart procedure (laughs) is easy! But it wasn’t like a shoulder injury that would not go away. I feel lucky as an athlete that I came out of it with all I have. But again, injuries and all challenges always teach you a lot.
20. Tough one to end it with because you are so generous with your time and insights with us so often, but what has swimming taught you about yourself – how has it shaped you?
Rebecca: Along the way the most important things I learned were to trust myself, my instincts, and to listen to what my body is telling me – I learned how to take care of myself. It’s not just about how hard you can grind your body and force it through this; it’s about taking care of it. Even if you have to take a step back, it will lead to a step forward down the line.