By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Matt Grevers had a 2012 to remember. After winning two relay golds in 2008 and a silver in the 100 backstroke, he claimed gold in a dominating 100 backstroke in London. He also won a gold and silver on relays. And on top of all that, he had the most viral proposal video, when he proposed at the Missouri Grand Prix to Arizona swim alum Annie Chandler. He talks about that, and what he is doing now, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How’s married life?
Matt: Life could not be better. It truly has been a perfect month and a half (since the wedding). I really didn’t think life could be this good. It’s amazing.
2. I have talked to Annie and gotten to know her through the years – what a thinker she is. I am guessing you appreciate that too?
Matt: Absolutely. I wake up every day and I can’t believe I found such a perfect person to spend my life with.
3. Your expression in London after winning the 100 back was pretty much like, “Yep,” more than shock – you were not nervous, were you?
Matt: I did feel like I had a very good chance of winning. Trials was my “nervous” meet; That’s where I wasn’t sure where I was at in the season. I was full of confidence and ready to race in London.
4. We chatted a lot when you missed the team in 2010 and talked about how it would, in the end, be a positive – is that how it turned out?
Matt: You were absolutely right when you told me right after it happened that there would be a fire in me from that moment on. Clark Buckle (who like Grevers is a transplanted pro group member at Arizona) also missed 2010. So that winter nationals, I was pretty fired up. I had trained with people who like me had missed their main goal that season, and that group and that atmosphere was awesome. We did extra work in the weight room, extra work on nutrition – nothing was left unattended. That taught me to never take anything for granted again. I stopped thinking, “Well, I’m a swimmer, so I can eat whatever I want.” To be the best in the country, to be the best in the world, you have to take everything into account, not just what happens in the pool. I think 2010 was the most important year in my career, as it turned out, and not for any reason I could have imagined at the time when I was ranked (No. 1 in the world) and didn’t make the 2010 U.S. team.
5. You and Nathan Adrian – probably one of the nicest and most well-rounded young men not just in swimming, but on the planet – rooming together in London produced a very human, nice storyline – that was a pretty cool relationship wasn’t it?
Matt: I was just trying to be a positive influence, and you could see that in Nathan too, how he’s such a positive guy. You know, he really is unique. Before the 100 freestyle (in London, which Nathan won despite never making the podium in that event before at an international event), you could not see the determination on the surface or anything. You realized that he was thinking it though, that it was inside him even though you can’t feel it in his aura. But then when Nathan got behind the blocks, that ferociousness comes out. Then it’s over, and you have that wonderful light-hearted vibe he gives off, and by being relaxed and happy, he has the ability to flip that switch when it’s time to go.
6. Speaking of similar circumstances, he was the odds on favorite not just to make the team in the 50, but to medal – yet he really had to recover didn’t he to focus on the 100?
Matt: Unbelievably so. It is unlikely to have that turn of events. You couldn’t have seen how disappointed he was after the 50. You had to think watching him that he knew he could win it. But still, this is a guy who is so unassuming but he can turn it on and win gold in his “backup” event at the Olympics! And even to just make top two in the 100 at Trials is a huge challenge. We have been friends since 2008 or so, and in 2009 in Rome we formed a great friendship. I watched him all the way through that journey through 2012, watched him overcome the adversity and win the gold – and when he won that I was in the stands and I jumped higher than anyone! I believed in him, of course, but I didn’t really think (laughs) think Nathan would beat James Magnussen in the 100 when Magnussen was at the top of his game! But you know what, who cares what anyone else thinks? Nathan knew he could do it, so he did. And he made me a believer forever.
7. That whole 2012 team – what was up with the love in that group?
Matt: It was an incredible team. I think (former Arizona coach) Frank Busch played a great role as a leader. That chemistry that was within the team had a lot to do with him and the way he approached it, the kind of freedom he gave us to enjoy it but having organized goal setting where we could get together, but to also have fun; Frank did a phenomenal job of having fun. Allowing Call Me Maybe on the plane’s PA system as we headed to the Games, with girls dancing through the plane, it just felt like we were part of something special. We just knew we would make it happen. Credit the coaches though for creating that atmosphere – one that would let us thrive.
8. Nick Thoman told me at Golden Goggles that Coach David Marsh actually told you guys, “Hey, let’s go 1-2” when you and Nick went out for finals – what was that like, to have our two best be the two best in the world?
Matt: It was incredible. I was actually surprised that David said that, almost calling it out, “Hey, let’s do this.” I was going to do my part, and Nick was ready to take care of his. You think about it though, and really what are the chances of both of us taking care of it in this event? That’s what this team was, because we all thought we could do whatever was possible. I think it’s a great story, so don’t take this wrong, but at the point David said that in the ready room, you are not really listening to what people say – it went in one ear and out the other, and it wasn’t until later that we all really talked about it and the story got out there. The fact is, when you are in race mode and ready to compete, you’d better be ready to do it, or else nothing anyone else tells you is going to matter.
9. We’ve been talking for almost a decade now, since 20 Question Tuesday started in late 2003 when you were a teen – yet you knew even then you wanted to be an Olympian. What did it mean to make that first Olympic team?
Matt: It is absolutely even better than I could have hoped – absolutely. My purpose was to make it onto the relay team because I wanted (laughs) to get the Olympic rings tattooed on my arm! And more importantly I wanted to represent the U.S. on the highest international stage. I wanted to say, “Hey, I have been part of the U.S. Olympic team.” But then I magically made the 100 backstroke, which wasn’t part of the original plan. My coach (at the University of Arizona) Rick DeMont and I have had similar plans for me, and it’s incredible how it worked out.
10. You went to Northwestern, one of the best schools in the nation in Illinois, so going to the desert heat was a big adjustment for you – but it, suffice to say, was the right move, wasn’t it?
Matt: Exactly! I’ve been here for quite some time. I love it; I get to go through college again, only now without the whole going-to-class (laughs) part of it. It’s been amazing. I came in when Cory Chitwood was a freshman, so when he graduated I was like, “Man, I have been here a long time.” We’ve dug in a little here, buying a house. We just love Tucson and a lot of it has to do with the success I have had in the pool. Had I not succeeded early on I might have moved back to Chicago. Even in 2010, it was a rough year, but you have those bad seasons, and it’s not the bad season itself, but what you do with it from there and where it takes you, that defines you as a person and shows you who you are.
11. You move to Arizona to work with Frank and Rick but then there is some staff change with Frank getting the top USA Swimming National team job – but you say that’s a positive overall, right?
Matt: Absolutely, and I really miss Frank as a head coach, but I really enjoy Eric Hansen. He has done phenomenal things for my backstroke. I came to Arizona to jumpstart my career in a new program and to prove myself, and when the new coaching staff came in, it was around when I had that off year, so I had a chance to learn a bunch of new things as they started a new era. Having Frank as my coach was very important, but the other coaches here have all been as important as well. I am very fortunate.
12. Going back to your wife Annie, as neat as the proposal and all that stuff was, doesn’t it catch you off guard how kind she is, and how she’s so intelligent that she can be in any conversation on any topic at any time?
Matt: That’s exactly what I was originally attracted to , how smart she is. She is absolutely beautiful and anyone can see that, and in fact I teared up at the wedding when I saw her in that dress – it hit me in the chest that I get to spend the rest of my life with this stunningly beautiful woman. But you are absolutely correct, she can talk about anything. I like to play devil’s advocate when we talk, but she battles me all the way with that incredible intellect, and I end up learning so much from her ability to understand things.
13. But yet she’s probably one of the most gentle-hearted people in the world I have met – agreed?
Matt: Her kindness is addictive and it has made me a better person. One of greatest qualities about her is not just how great she is but really how awesome she wants to be. She has really improved my own character a lot, and I appreciate that. She taught me humility with how she’s so good and unassuming.
14. Back to your days at Northwestern – the academic loads you’d be under when we talked around NCAAs, what did that teach you?
Matt: That you just have to adapt to different situations. I remember one quarter where I had three 10-page papers due within three days and several finals; you have to find time you don’t think you have. I learned I could live on just a few hours sleep if I needed to and still find a way to perform at my highest level. You can’t be brain dead and expect your body to perform. That really helped prepare me for the Olympics – think about it, trying to write 30 to 40 pages in a week on a couple of topics that you are just finally fully starting to get a grasp of. Yet you have to find the energy to stay with it, follow up on all of those and other responsibilities, and get it done.
15. But you got more than you hoped for when you moved to Tucson, didn’t you?
Matt: I came here thinking that I had my degree and it was time for swimming. It is a different atmosphere. Everyone is completely engaged in swimming; even while they are in school , they are motivated to swim fast. There is an atmosphere on deck where everyone wants to be here, and everyone wanted to train hard. It is so easy to go to practice when everyone wants to be here and train hard. This is just a different caliber of swimming than what I was used to, and I have nothing but respect and affection for Northwestern.
16. Quite the international crew on the Tucson pro team too, right?
Matt: So many people, both national and international, that if I tried to mention them all I’d still leave so many good ones out. I did get to know Simon Burnett. He sits atop the swimming world as such a great swimmer, but more than that, he is such an incredible guy and very intelligent; he would sit for hours and talk about whatever you wanted. He and his wife Whitney (Sprague, former National teamer and Arizona all-American) were great to be around. Seeing how they handled a “swimming relationship” and made it not all about swimming really taught me a lot about how to handle things.
17. What is it like living in Tucson – after living in Chicago Matt, I now can’t imagine you without a tan, can you?
Matt: (laughs) Tucson is a perfect lifestyle for me. It is more relaxed than Chicago. Believe it (laughs) or not, I am not really such a Type A (personality) anymore, so I like to take my time and be more deliberate than I have ever been. Don’t get me wrong, I still like the hustle and bustle when I am doing something. But this “retirement atmosphere” is just awesome; I love the sun. I love training outside, and I do agree I look better (laughs) with a tan. Seeing pictures of me, it’s not just the tan; when I came here, I still had a little bit of a belly from too much soda, and a little bit of back fat. I learned how to eat better, and take care of what I am putting in my body, so getting leaner has helped me feel better about myself. And there is something to be said about the confidence that comes with that.
18. So you changed the soda and diet thing – was that easy?
Matt: It wasn’t right away, but making that change was, yes, a conscious choice. I was living with these guys, and I remember Lyndon Ferns came in my room – I was living with him, Dave Rollins and (Masayuki) Kishida. All of these soda cans were everywhere and Lyndon said, “Man, you need to pick these up when you are done.” I was like, “These are just from today.” There were 14 soda cans. He started pinching my back and said, “You will not make the Olympic team with this.” Lyndon was a South African Olympian and knew his stuff. It just hit me: I do need to be stronger and look stronger. We have all these huge, fit guys on the swim deck, and I needed to start eating healthier. People underrate the value of nutrition and how it can affect your body.
19. All these new best friends from different countries – has that shaped you?
Matt: It is great to learn the characteristics of people from different countries. Annie and I see everything, from the benefits of how other countries do things, even to how some countries don’t treat women right in our opinion. I lived with some Canadian swimmers and they taught me the value of having a smile on my face – even when you’re not actually happy, if you smile, you can trick yourself into feeling better.
20. Okay, no conversation with you apparently is allowed to end without the proposal break, and I guess this is version 4.0. Ben Wildman-Tobriner said he was in New York when he saw it, and we all have stories about our memories from it – did you have any clue it would become such a phenomena?
Matt: Not at all, and you know me, so you know that certainly was not my intention. That being said, I did want to do it in a way that my family and friends would be able to enjoy it in the moment with Annie and I. But I had no idea it would be on YouTube. I had called USA Swimming’s Russell Mark and asked him if he would send me the tape from that part of the meet. He said, “It might just be easier if I put it on YouTube, and you can refer friends to the link to access the video.”
That next day, it had several thousand views, and we never thought it would have that many. And then a couple of hundred thousand, and after a couple more days, a million! Our family in Holland called and said it was on their main newscast. I certainly didn’t want to exploit the moment; that’s what I was concerned with when I saw it getting so much attention. But then I saw the comments people were leaving, about how joyful people were to see it, and that made us feel good. It was coincidentally around Valentine’s Day. Strangers and friends alike – and everyone in the swim community – talked about how they thought it was pretty neat.
You know, it just went onto become something bigger than we could have ever imagined. But most of all, it showed me what a great community the swimming community is, and how fortunate we are to be a part of it. Say what you want about any sport at any time, but when it comes to swimming, we have some of the greatest people of the world in this sport, and I am very thankful for that, and very humbled by it. I am proud to have that video, but the swimming community turned it into what it became – something wonderful beyond our wildest dreams.