By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
This time of year brings a familiar feeling to Leila Vaziri, the Indiana alum who came on strong at 2007 Nationals and went onto win individual gold and relay silver, and set American and world records, in the 50 backstroke. The sport’s tug has drawn her back into it – she coaches at Swim Bike Run (SBR) in New York City – and as things heat up in Indy in the water, Vaziri, an Iranian-American, catches us up on things in her neck of the world in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. You were, I think, in Florida last time we talked after finaling but missing the 2008 Olympic team – where are you now?
Leila: I am up in New York City. I have been here for two, almost three years now. I coach mostly triathletes here in the city, with some kids as well.
2. I saw some pictures of you overseas – was that recent?
Leila: I’ve been traveling; it’s nice because my schedule is flexible. I’ve been working hard though, and focusing on my coaching.
3. This time of year bring back some special feelings?
Leila: Yes, yes it does. I kind of know a little more about what is going on, because my friend from the National Team, Kim Vandenberg, moved to New York and we swim together and train together. She reminds me of when (laughs) the meets are. She always tells me what is going on. I do hear more about masters swimming now, more than anything else. But of course I think about it, and keep in touch with my good friends.
4. What do the people you coach think when they find out they are being coached by a World Champion and world record setting swimmer?
Leila: They are maybe impressed in their own way when they hear about it. It’s always cool when people hear world record or world championship, and I can say, “Yes, I won Nationals and swam for a lot of years.” I also share stories with the incredible athletes and coaches I know - people everyone knows, and it’s funny to see the reactions when I do that.
5. Are all your medals with you?
Leila: They are back home in Florida, and safe there. I feel on the one hand that it was a long time ago, but on the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago. Some of the memories are so real and alive, especially this time of year, especially with it being Nationals in a non-Olympic year but a big World Championships coming up.
6. What was that like, winning after college – where you had a good career, but really blossomed winning the 100 back at Nationals in 2006 – and becoming one of the elite athletes in the sport?
Leila: I remember when it happened – I know that I was really aware of it, because I was able to get sponsorships to continue as a professional .That was back when almost all of us had really good suit deals, so it really was the right timing for me. My career could go on, and I didn’t have to worry about anything but swimming. I think back fondly on my whole career though, not just that amazing time, because I loved it as an age-group swimmer, in college and as a professional – and especially representing the United States with the most incredible group of teammates in the world.
7. Who is amazing you now?
Leila: Well, there is Missy Franklin, she seems (laughs) to be doing great. There’s still Natalie (Coughlin) in there, who is just amazing. Those are the two that I have been aware of and watching. I think that I needed to change and do something else after 2007 for a while, and I moved away from full-time training. As a swimmer, you don’t lose it – and right now as I speak to you, I don’t feel like I have lost that much. Now, I am not going to jump back in (laughs) and challenge Missy or Natalie, but compared to other (non-swimmer) friends from college, I know, in my post-competitive career, that my body still remembers a lot; there is a lot of muscle memory, and I feel like I am in great shape for my masters career now.
8. Isn’t it great to see people like Natalie and Rebecca Soni not just still going strong, but leading by setting such a good example?
Leila: I think that they, Rebecca and Natalie, are doing a great thing, and they are showing what female athletes can do at the highest level, and by doing it the right way with balance and class, having a long career. I like how they keep me connected to the sport because they are the ones I know. It would be nice to catch up with them at some point.
9. Isn’t it funny that those two are regarded as two of not just the greatest athletes, but finest people in pro sports?
Leila: It is true that swimmers are known for being down to earth, and good people, and I think that’s very true in this case as well. Now that I get to see different athletes in different sports, I really appreciate the culture of swimming. It’s outstanding.
10. How do you like New York City?
Leila: I love it. I am having such an amazing time right now being here and what I am doing. Swimming helps me meet so many people too, so many interesting people in NYC. It’s the greatest city. It’s helped me grow into the person I hoped I would be. There’s definitely the atmosphere from the energy and culture that I find contagious, I love being here for that. There is this great diversity in every single thing. The ethnic backgrounds, the work opportunities, all the things to do – New York is just the place to be.
11. Do you still swim?
Leila: Actually, I do. It’s funny, when I get back in the water, I feel so good and graceful and fluid in the water. I’m a pretty athletic person, so I also run and ride the bike, but it’s when I get in the water that things feel most natural for me.
12. How did you rebound from not making the Olympic team in 2008?
Leila: Well, it was obviously a disappointment to not make the team. I had trained so hard for it; that was my goal. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hurt at the time or disappointed. At the same time, I knew I was going to take a break after the Games, regardless whether I made the team or not. I knew that was coming. Yes, missing the Games was disappointing. But so many of my teammates were there, Dara Torres, who did so great, and Russians and Germans who were training with (the late coach) Michael (Lohberg). So I was able to experience the Games through my teammates.
13. Did you watch 2012 the Olympic Trials?
Leila: Yes, some events were the same times as in 2008, and I thought, “I could have fit into the mix.’’ And I really could picture myself being in there and doing it. There were a few new faces on the team and some outstanding new talents. That was a fun team to watch and cheer for.
14. How do you move past the Trials – that hundredths of a second feeling, as so many describe it?
Leila: I would say for myself, personally, it’s a disappointment because you are so focused on that goal. But it is kind of like, hey, you’ve got to swallow it and move on. I don’t know if people expect me to be hung up on it, but I’m not – it doesn’t cross into my consciousness on a regular basis. In fact, the whole experience helped shape me into who I am. So I got where I am today in large part from that entire experience, from the gold at worlds to being 7th (at Olympic Trials).
15. Is there more of an Iranian community in NYC than where you were before?
Leila: Yes, certainly more than when I was in college in Indiana, but I don’t know if it’s more than Florida, because there are some Iranians there. Certainly, in NYC there is a mix. There are more here. One of my good friends from the triathlete store is from Algeria, this great runner who made Worlds.
16. What do you make of the election in Iran?
Leila: I think that’s really, really good news. I was surprised to hear it. I think the people in Iran were even surprised to see that – the good turnout. It’s a country that needs some good news. Hopefully, some good things will happen sometime soon for that country. People have been waiting for that for a long time. It’s about time for something good to happen for the younger generation in Iran. Like other people, I will be watching and listening for even better news.
17. So you still have regular conversations about Iran?
Leila: I still talk about Iran. How could I not? It’s who I am – by that I mean I am not an Iranian from Iran, I am an Iranian American – my father is from Iran. So I can relate to them, but I’m an American. I do celebrate my culture and my heritage, and a lot of my friends are internationals.
18. All the times we talked seven or eight years ago, and in that iteration of 20Q five years previously, I had always asked if the person intended to go into coaching – you said you did not, remember?
Leila: That was a truthful response because (laughs) I did not see myself as a coach. When I moved to New York, I was going to look for advertising and marketing jobs, because you remember we talked about that was my major at IU. I literally fell into coaching while looking for a job. When I was hired at Swim Bike Run (SBR-NYC), I was so nervous. I don’t know what my expectations were, and I didn’t truthfully know if I would be good at it or not. I had great coaches, so any success I have had is due in no small part to that. I am also a good communicator and have interpersonal skills, and as a former swimmer, I can relate to what they need and what they are asking, feeling and experiencing. I am also lucky because I coach people who are often coming into the sport later in life, so they know what they want to do. I really enjoy the people.
19. Looking back on your journey, how happy are you that it involved college in Bloomington, Indiana?
Leila: I love Indiana. No one asks me about it much anymore these days, but that was a wonderful experience, and that chapter of my life being there was so important for where I was as a person, a thinker, an athlete, and everything. Part of it being special was that this was a place that was probably the least likely for me to end up since I am primarily an east coast person. But what a place it was, such a beautiful campus, the people are so nice, the professors are world class, and the town itself is the friendliest you will ever see, a cute and artsy community that you’re just so pleasantly surprised to experience. The girls on the team and the athletic department were so supportive of us. The university itself has so much sports history, and not only the amazing men’s basketball and swimming under Doc Counsilman and Mark Spitz, but history in track, bike racing and other sports. I miss Indiana.
20. With your ethnic background and the fact you were able to come back to the sport, I think you also were an important part of women’s swimming during that amazing era – do you feel that, at least a little?
Leila: Well, thank you, but I don’t really know where I fit in with that. I do know that I love swimming, and I cannot even start to believe all that it brought me. It’s a lifestyle, so whether I was all in training for Nationals, Worlds and Olympic Trials, or swimming in college, or swimming now, it is something that has and does always make me better – my mind, my body, and it has been a big part of developing me into who I am as a person. I still love to do it, and I love most of all to share with people what I have learned from the best coaches and teammates in the world. Some of the teammates I had were women who knocked down doors in this world for female athletes. A lot of stereotypes were kicked out of the way. Being there when that happened inspired me to chase my dreams and realize nothing was standing in the way of me doing what I set my mind to achieve. I hope this impressive new generation continues to do those things – and do even more.
Watch the Phillips 66 National Championships live online at usaswimming.org/nationals or on your mobile device with the Deck Pass Plus mobile app.