By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Following the 2012 London Olympics last summer – where he won his second individual bronze medal in the 400 freestyle – Peter Vanderkaay needed a break.
“I’ve been so focused since 2008 on making it to the 2012 Olympics that now is a great time for me to decompress and evaluate what’s next for me,” he said back in September. “I will exercise and stay in shape, but now is the time to step away so I make the right decision about my swimming future moving forward.”
He did a few clinics and traveled, spent time with family and friends and did some work for his charities, and for the first time in more than a decade, had some much-needed “me” time.
At the least, he was contemplating taking a long absence from competitive swimming and, at the most, retiring from the sport he started as a youngster in Michigan.
Rather than make a hasty decision so close to the finish of a strenuous yet successful year in the pool, he wanted some time to reflect.
It didn’t take long for Vanderkaay – the second-oldest of four swimming brothers – to decide it was time to call it a career.
By Christmas, he knew his time away from the pool had given him the perspective he needed to realize he had done all he wanted competitively and now it was time for the next phase of his life.
“I decided to retire around the holidays,” said Vanderkaay. “I just felt like it was the right time to move on and step away from the sport. It was a tough decision because I always enjoyed being an athlete.
“I knew it was something that I would be considering, but I didn't want to give it much thought until after the Games. I wanted to take my time to make sure I was making the right decision.”
Vanderkaay went into last summer’s Olympic Trials in Omaha with a renewed focus, having changed up his training regimen, approach and even his training location and coach. It all paid off when he won the 400 freestyle and made his third consecutive Olympic team.
Ask any top-caliber athlete about the commitment and sacrifice that goes into preparing to make an Olympic or World team and they’ll tell you it’s all-consuming for the better part of the two years leading up to the team-deciding competition.
As early as July 2011, a year out from the 2012 Olympics, he had been giving hints that the idea of retiring soon was on his mind – talking about the day when he would wear a business suit instead of swimsuit to “the office.”
But he said he knew he wanted to try once more to compete in the Olympics before making any kind of life-changing decision.
Suffice it to say, he’s very content with his decision.
“Life is good,” said Vanderkaay, who has returned to his Michigan roots and continues to do the occasional clinic while doing contract work for some companies in Michigan. He also remains active supporting charitable causes important to him.
“I've managed to transition away from training and find other things to fill my time. Sometimes I miss it, but I think that will always be the case. There's a lot to like about being in the sport but the reality is that my competition career time was always finite.”
Not unlike his competition days, Vanderkaay travels quite a bit for work as well as with family – having taken a recent trip to Canada with his dad, uncle and brothers – something he wasn’t able to do while training and competing.
And even though he’s done with his competitive days of swimming, he said he would like to stay involved with the sport in some capacity, whether it is governance or coaching.
“I've done quite a few clinics lately and enjoy giving back to the sport on the grassroots level,” Vanderkaay said.
And while many memories from his three Olympics and four World Championships (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011) have become somewhat blurred over the years, Vanderkaay said he is very proud of his pool accomplishments and holds his many memories and relationships he’s built in and around the sport close to his heart.
He added that he hopes he’s remembered as a tough competitor and sportsman – someone who always tried hard to do the right thing – although he knows that’s not for him to decide.
“I don't think there's necessarily one thing that I'm most proud of, but I do think the best part has been all the great people I've met throughout my journey,” Vanderkaay said. “I don't have any regrets, but there are always things I wish I would have done differently. That's the benefit of hindsight, and I've learned a lot from mistakes.”
And what about a potential return to training and run at a fourth Olympics in 2016?
Most likely, not.
“I'm sure that itch will always be there, just simply because I always loved to compete,” Vanderkaay said. “I don't think I'll ever act on it though because I'm committed to my decision. I've had a great run, and I don't have anything else to prove to myself.”