By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
If you are looking for memories from the Olympics and happen to be on Facebook, you may have already realized that Claire Donahue’s smile – and her gold medal – is gracing more pictures than any Olympian from London! The Western Kentucky alum explains to us what went into London, and where she hopes to go from there now that her feet are back on the ground in the U.S.
1. What was London like?
Claire: It was very awesome. Being there in general was really cool because I have not been overseas before. That was pretty much my first time. We went to France (for training camp) and then to London. It was awesome. My family and I are already planning our trip back.
2. What was the best part of London outside the pool?
Claire: My favorite part was that it is a very old city. It is very historic, and you could just see the history. You could see that walking down the street.
3. Did traveling overseas change the way you look at things?
Claire: Yes, but not just that…the past two months have completely changed how I view the world, and kind of how I view myself – my entire view of everything, and way of thinking, has kind of changed. It’s broadened my perspective.
4. Your school – what’s the mascot?
Claire: We’re the Hilltoppers – that’s our mascot. We call him Big Red! That’s what we call him. Our campus is on a hill, that’s how they came up with it, I think.
5. Did you expect all this attention when you came back and were you overwhelmed at all?
Claire: It has all been great. The first day when I got back, I did not expect people would really want to do different things – have me be at their schools and everything. That first day, when everyone was calling me, that was the only moment I was overwhelmed just because I didn’t expect it. Since that first day, it has been so much fun. You are so used to the swimming aspect but to be able to see so much more and do so much more has been so much fun.
6. The kids smiling – does it ever take you off guard how excited people get to meet you and see the medal?
Claire: It’s kind of cool, going back to what you said about kids, and how they smile when they see – it’s just (laughs) insane the impact it has, and how much it means to them on a personal level. You can just see on their face how great it makes them feel. They get so excited and jumpy and happy just to touch it. That’s the same way I was (laughs) when I got it, all jumpy and excited! You have this image in your head of how it’s going to feel, but the experiences I have had in the past few months…nothing has compared to it. It’s even better than the dreams. To be able to get the medal was huge. I felt like a little kid wanting to run around and show everybody. Even adults, when they see it, get all excited.
7. People maybe saw you coming but didn’t pencil you in as a favorite going into Trials – yet all the hard work you put in for so many years, this certainly didn’t happen overnight did it?
Claire: I really think it was a progression. Ever since I was a little girl when I wasn’t very good at swimming, I just had to do more things and put in more work. In high school I got a little better. In college I made bigger leaps than in high school – or at least I continued to make good leaps. I dropped almost a second in college every year, which is just huge at this level. It’s cool to be able to do that. It’s been a progression since I was a little girl, slowly getting faster and learning more.
8. How did you end up at WKU and not a Florida or Cal?
Claire: When I was in high school, I won state my senior year but I wasn’t on that level… in the past five years from graduating high school, I have dropped five seconds, so I have come a long way in college. The schools I was looking at, and the schools that were looking at me, were not really the major schools just because of where I was as a swimmer at that time. I did look at the University of Kentucky, Louisville and Clemson. But when I sat down and looked at what I wanted, the beauty of this school is what I wanted, and I fell in love with the swim team. When I was looking at colleges, I wanted that team aspect, and we have that at Western Kentucky.
9. Was it hard to figure out where to go?
Claire: My Mom is really into stats, so she had me look to where I was going to go that would make me better. We saw a good fit in Western Kentucky. It wasn’t a big change from what I was used to and had success in, in terms of training. I knew I would be challenged. I felt like WKU was the perfect.
10. Chloe Sutton and some others have told me how much fun they had getting to know you – that must make you feel good, doesn’t it?
Claire: It’s good because I love them! You go into a team – and I told you I look for that family aspect – and when we went to London, we were together for two, two and a half, weeks before we headed to London. It was like a family, and it happened quickly; two weeks was not that much time, but it was enough. We were always together, eating and traveling, and talking for hours. It was cool because we got to know each other on a deeper level. It was such a neat level.
11. Do you talk to them still?
Claire: I am still very much in touch with some of the girls, Chloe Sutton and Lia Neal, and a whole bunch more of them. I have created friendships that will last a lifetime. That’s one of the coolest parts of being on a team – on any team – making that bond, and making those connections. If you ask anyone they would say, “That was such a great team.” Everything went perfectly, not just the races.
12. How did you go from a smaller program to the big time so smoothly and not be overwhelmed?
Claire: That’s just something I have been working on. You build up to it. You start out at smaller meets and smaller pools, and then you get to those bigger meets. I was lucky in that I was able to go to Indianapolis and Nashville. I have been working on the mental aspect of swimming, getting past the idea of it being the Olympics, and looking at it as just another meet, just doing something I have done a million times and being able to race my own race.
13. How much has your family helped you deal with this stardom, because you really seem to handle everything with such dignity and class?
Claire: My family has been so supportive of me. They have instilled in me what I see as very good values. Even going into the Olympics …I feel like from going into it, until now, the biggest thing that has changed is my perspective on things, and that’s part of growing up. The biggest thing is enjoying everything and taking it as it comes. The biggest thing they (USA Swimming coaches) told us was to take it all in, because it will go by fast. That’s a lot how life is; we take things for granted, when really what we need to do is step back and enjoy it, and have that positive outlook on things.
14. Are you coming down from that emotional high yet?
Claire: It’s still such a high. I got back and took three weeks of break, and now I am back in the water. We have short course Worlds in December that I want to do well at. London was a high, but here and at home in (Lenoir City) Tennessee has been so great. People are still so excited, and still treating me (laughs) like a huge movie star!
15. What do you study at Western Kentucky?
Claire: I earned my social work degree a year ago. I did an internship at a place called Evergreen and they provide support to people with developmental disabilities. I love that so much. They are very flexible and have let me work when I can. I am very passionate about social work; there are a lot of people you can help. I want to be involved in that area for a long time.
16. So will you train for 2016?
Claire: I have been telling people that when I look at it the past few months – swimming is very hard mentally, but I still love it – that it’s fair to say I want to swim in four years.
17. What about having teammates like Natalie, Dana and Rebecca in London, what was that like?
Claire: That was a very cool part of it. Dana is just a year older than me, but I look up to her so much. Being able to ask her, Rebecca or Natalie – or anybody – something, they were huge helps to me. They really helped us mentally prepare. It’s a huge deal, the Olympics, but you have done so many meets before, and they reminded us of that, “You have swum the 100 fly so many times.” I looked up to them before I met them and look up to them even more now.
18. What was it like seeing Missy Franklin amaze the world?
Claire: It’s funny because you have such a range of people, and Missy was such a great girl and so great to be around – along with a lot of other girls. Missy did so well and it was so fun to watch her swim. To be a part of that was definitely something special. It’s cool because all the kids ask, “Did you meet Missy Franklin,” so I get to tell them all about her and how awesome she is. I was able to not just be a part of a great team, but to be able to watch history in the making.
19. With Missy, but also with the winding down of some long-time stars’ careers, and Michael possibly being done, Ryan hitting his stride toward 2016, Brendan Hansen finishing off an amazing comeback, Matt Grevers’ domination, Nathan Adrian – I mean, have you thought about all of that and how historical it will be for forever more in the swimming and Olympic communities?
Claire: I know! I actually haven’t thought about that really that much, but just to think about being on that team was amazing. There were so many great athletes, really so many athletes who have had legendary performances and careers. To watch them compete was amazing. Not many people can say they were part of so many great careers, and I am very fortunate.
20. This question could take you two hours to answer, but what have these past few months been like for you?
Claire: I mean, I think like I said before, the past few months have been amazing. It has really opened up my eyes to what swimming offers, and how amazing it is as a lifestyle and sport. A lot of times you get into the grind of swimming, and you think about how you don’t like swimming and you don’t want to do it anymore; it’s hard to see the good parts of swimming when you are trying to push yourself harder and are putting in all those hours of swimming, running and weights. These last few months, I have been able to enjoy the best parts of swimming and connect with people. I know that it will be hard again soon, but I know that it will always be fun, too. You can have a bad practice or bad morning, but you can make it fun, and have a great attitude, and make it a positive. You can do that in life as well. I feel so blessed to be able to see that just in the past few months.