By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
He is known as one of the classiest and most humble professional athletes – and consistent, when it comes to winning medals at the last three Olympic Games. University of Michigan alum Peter Vanderkaay’s feet are always on the ground – or in the water – and it seems like if there ever was a template for what being a leader should be, it would look a lot like him. He talks about his journey from Athens to Beijing and London in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. It meant a lot, to get such great comments from people after you won the bronze, didn’t it?
Peter: Absolutely. I had so much support from friends and family, and some people who I didn’t even really know really well or at all, who reached out to me, and said those nice things. That makes you feel really good.
2. All the medals, the great teammates – do you realize you were part of history?
Peter: It’s kind of crazy to think about it. I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. And I also never dreamed I would be in this position. It’s just been a fantastic journey for me. To have that success is something I am really proud of.
3. What was special about the 2004 Games?
Peter: What made it unique for me is that it was my first Games. I had an incredible experience in Athens and learned a lot. It was my second international competition but far bigger than World University Games – which was also a great experience and a big international meet. Athens was also kind of an eye opener. When I reflect on it, that’s how I feel about it – that was the start of things for me.
4. People talk about Beijing and London, but Michael Phelps really started his greatness in 2004 with that performance – what is memorable to you about that?
Peter: You know, that’s a great question: Just looking back and remembering how well Michael did at the competition in Athens, and how he set the bar higher for four years later. And I was able to train with him (at the University of Michigan). To be able to see that first hand and what he’s been able to accomplish means a lot. Most people who saw him win six golds in Athens thought it was amazing, and thought where could he possible go from there – well, he went to Michigan, and then won eight in Beijing.
5. People and the media thinking Ryan, or anyone, could replicate what Michael did in Beijing – does it make what happened in China mean even more now? And how much does it mean to have been a part of that?
Peter: Yeah, definitely. I think it even means more looking back now. After London, it gave people a little more appreciation for what he did and how difficult that was. To look back and say maybe I had a little bit of a part in that – obviously, I didn’t have a big part – is a good story, and something I can be proud of.
6. That relay in Beijing, to go under seven minutes and win the gold – did you see that coming, the record, and being so fast?
Peter: That was actually one of our goals going into the race. We said, “Hey, we can go under 7 minutes and no one has done that before.” I don’t think it really surprised any of us. I think that’s probably why you didn’t see a whole lot of surprise on our faces because we expected to win and set the record.
7. To win a medal in 2012 individually – how incredible is that?
Peter: Just to win a medal is a fantastic feeling and experience, and something I will remember forever. This Olympics was about what we did as a team, men and women. If you look at our team as a group how many medaled and finaled – and factor in just how competitive the world is across the board in swimming – we did really well. It is one of the most proud accomplishments I have ever been a part of, what this USA team did – as a team.
8. How much did it mean being a team captain?
Peter: It’s definitely a good feeling to be elected a team captain. You have responsibility to lead by example and kind of impart some knowledge to some of the less experienced athletes on Team USA. That was the kind of role I felt like I needed to fulfill, trying to help anybody anywhere I could.
9. This men’s team getting medals from you and Brendan, Conor Dwyer, Tyler Clary winning gold, Grevers and Thoman going 1-2, Adrian winning the 100 – it was unreal, wasn’t it?
Peter: It really was. We exceeded everyone’s expectations, including our own. If you would have told me before hand what we would end up with in terms of medals, I would have said, “That’ a little ambitious knowing how competitive the world is today.” But once we got the ball rolling, we kept it going.
10. That group of veterans, such a special bond, such a place in history – has it dawned on you what that group means to the country, to swimming, and really, to each other?
Peter: I think you said it best right there. In a weird way, everyone that had been on the team for so long, you almost feel like family. They might not live close by, but every time we see each other, it’s like a family reunion.
11. Your brothers all swam, and were all good – was that part of your day-to-day life in that amazing family of yours?
Peter: With all of us swimming, it’s really kind of funny because even our family vacations were planned around going to swim meets, even in the later years. London was like a family vacation for everyone coming over to the Games.
12. In 2012, the team accomplishments were amazing, but in a way, didn’t what Michael did in 2008 also feel like a team accomplishment?
Peter: It definitely did, because we had this element of cohesiveness where we were just comfortable with our team. It just felt like time to break world records. It wasn’t talked about too much, it was almost understood that we knew what we wanted to do, and had to do, so we went out and did it.
13. Moving to Florida to train under Coach Troy and swim with Lochte and Dwyer – that was a good move looking back, wasn’t it?
Peter: I think it was definitely a good decision for me. I look back at it fondly because of the people I met and the experiences I had down there, and how I swam. It was a new challenge for me, and I feel like, I guess, I conquered it. It’s just something I set out to do and made a change, and I can look back and remember that time I lived in Florida the rest of my life.
14. Where are you now – will you return to Florida?
Peter: I’m back in Michigan but I haven’t decided fully what I want to do. I am staying in shape and seeing how it goes for the next couple of months just because I don’t want to make a knee jerk decision either way.
15. Why did the 2012 team work so well together?
Peter: I think it just worked because we’re all different personalities but the one thing we have in common is we are going to practice hard, and work to get better, and help each other get better. That was definitely our common ground.
16. You mentioned WUGs as a great stepping stone – good memories?
Peter: I definitely have a lot of good memories from the WUGs and positive ones as well. I think what it did for me that people won’t see is give me the experience that I could use each time the Olympics came around. Like you have said, it’s not as well covered or talked about as the Olympics, but the competition there is just as high.
17. Club Wolverine from 2004 to 2008 – speaking of memories, right?
Peter: I look back and I remember who I trained with, and some of the sets we did – and just how stacked our team was. I don’t know if there will be a Club Wolverine, circa 2008, in terms of what we had as a training group. And it was a special time for us.
18. What about the U.S. women’s team in London?
Peter: They certainly performed amazing. To come back after 2008 where they performed well as a team, but 2012 was on just another level.
19. And it wasn’t just the veterans was it?
Peter: Some of the young fresh faces – the ones without a lot of experience – really stepped up in a big way. It was amazing to see. Katie Ledecky’s 800 was one of the best races I have ever seen in my life. There were a bunch of moments like that, that those women created. So many great swimmers on that team, and great people too. (Club Wolverine former teammate) Allison Schmitt – seeing her do so well. Allison is such a nice person and such a hard worker that to see her do so well was like a storybook kind of thing in its own way.
20. You epitomize class, dignity and leading by example – that sense of humility you have that we all admire so much, where does it come from?
Peter: That’s very kind of you to say. For me, it’s always been about doing what I like to do, and trying to do it the right way. That’s the way my parents and coaches taught me. If you do things well, people will notice, and if they don’t, then they don’t, that’s okay, too.