By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Monday, February 22, 2016
Natalie Hinds moved to the front as she moved toward the end of her college career -- and she’s not done yet. Part of the historic 1-2-3 podium with Simone Manuel and Lia Neal in the 100 freestyle at the 2015 NCAA Championships, Hinds is focused on both finishing her college career in style and then moving onto Olympic Trials. She talks about her journey from Midland, Texas, to Gainesville, and what she has learned along the way about life, swimming, diversity and how it all fits together.
1. How is training?Natalie: Training is going good. We’re focused on the college season now. We’ve done a lot of turning work, and a lot of breakout work. We’re just getting really focused.
2. What’s it like with end-of-season taper for the last time as a college student-athlete?
Natalie: What’s nice about it is that there are so many great people going through it with me. We have it as a total team effort all the way at Florida and we are all on the same page.
3. Kind of a last run for a great group there now, isn’t it?
Natalie: Yes, and some of my teammates will leave soon as they head back to their home countries to get ready for their Olympic teams. So we will definitely miss our foreign teammates. Our group will get smaller. But we will stay focused. And once the college season ends, that part of the edge will be taken off as we focus on Olympic Trials.
4. You and Simone and Lia -- hard to believe that was almost a year ago already -- has it sunk in more during that time?
Natalie: I honestly haven’t thought about it (laughs) in such a long time just because of everything else that is going on. But when I read an article that mentions it, I still think, “That is so cool.” And I do have friends that bring it up. So while I don’t think about it a lot, when I do, I am still excited about it. The big thing is more looking forward and hopefully we will continue to break down barriers and do things like that so the focus doesn’t have to be on something that happened in the past.
5. You and Simone are both from Texas, do you talk still?
Natalie: I actually talked to Simone today, in fact! I am three hours ahead of her so with the time change that can be (laughs) a bit of a challenge for both of us. But we definitely still stay in touch. I am so proud of her, and Lia, for what they have done but more for what they continue to do.
6. Midland’s an oil-boom town known more for high school football and junior college basketball, how does being from that amazing west Texas city and going to Florida adjust your view of the world?
Natalie: I was definitely eye opening coming from such a small, comparatively sheltered, place, to Gainesville. So there was definitely a sort of culture shock that I experienced to go to a school in Florida, and see a difference in lifestyle and be part of a different culture -- just to see how people in another part of the country live their lives, what’s important to them, and what their history is like.
7. Did the NCAA podium last year change your life in any specific way?
Natalie: What it really did is broaden my horizons even more. I would say it increased my reach, and with that comes the exciting opportunity to affect more lives. I see how Make a Splash and Cullen Jones (working with the USA Swimming Foundation) are able to reduce the numbers of drownings particularly in minority communities, and that’s something I’d like to help out on. I can’t do it right now because of college and Olympic Trials, but I definitely think and hope that will be in my future. I think my story would lend itself to a meaningful move like that as I push forward in my life.
8. So ironic no media or NCAA folks got a picture of that podium, yet Simone’s incredible Mom got a screenshot off the livestream that is absolutely iconic, isn’t it?
Natalie: I honestly would love that picture. I didn’t really think about it at the time because the moment was still in my mind and I wasn’t thinking about preserving the memory. But especially a day or two after, when I got home, I thought, “How did I not get a picture of this” and “Why are there no pictures?” And then I saw that one. And even though it’s not a straight-on picture like you see of podiums usually, it’s a great image that gets the message across.
9. Simone said in this space two weeks ago that when she was an age-grouper it was hard to be alone at meets, which was just heartbreaking knowing her great personality -- did you experience that growing up too as an African-American in the sport?
Natalie: Yes, I definitely know what she’s talking about. Especially at state meets, I would see it. For me in particular, I would be the only swimmer there from my club. So being there alone, and being in such a minority, you could definitely feel lonely. I think that’s where I definitely got closer to my family and coach and appreciated those relationships even more, because it really got me through that. In fact that’s something that helped draw my family closer together. But now, swimming is getting past that. Things are moving in the right direction. I’m not at club meets as often anymore, but when I see a meet anywhere I go I can tell things are changing, and we are getting past that.
10. Where did the confidence come to move across the country from a small town to move your life forward at Florida?
Natalie: I attribute a lot of that to my parents and how I was raised. I was responsible and accountable for my decisions and the results. I was raised to own up to my mistakes and to not be afraid to talk to people. I think naturally and environmentally I’ve always been an outgoing person. I think the fit with someone like Coach (Gregg) Troy is important because his attitude is, “You can’t swim fast if you are not having fun.” I have a great life here, and a great friend circle.
11. And so with that you get ready to turn the page, start another important chapter of your life, right?
Natalie: With it being my senior year, I do feel some sadness, so I learning how to take everything in and process it appropriately. I am swimming really well this year. But as far as Trials, I am focused on the now of the college season, not tomorrow or even the next day, rather, on the task at hand.
12. How do you handle being a role model?
Natalie: So in regard to looking back at NCAAs, I want to say that I am very thankful for how the people I have met appreciate and respect what has happened to me. Now, I can inspire people. I don’t know if I knew that before -- maybe I hoped I could -- but now it’s a tangible thing.
13. Can you give an example please?
Natalie: I was walking on campus, about a month ago, like I usually do, and this girl I don’t remember ever seeing before, came up to me. “Are you Natalie? I read your article from NCAAs and I just want to tell you it’s really inspiring and such an amazing thing.” I walked away so speechless. So to inspire someone means a lot. And it’s a good reminder that people are aware of what you do -- that’s something to always keep in mind in how you carry yourself, how you respond to certain situations, as well as rising to the challenges.
14. You are known for that great 100 free at NCAAs, but you also won the 100 fly at SECs, and you have a time for Trials in the 100 back -- what events will you do at Olympic Trials?
Natalie: I will do the 50 and 100 free, and the 100 fly. I won’t do the 100 back. And I have worked on the 200 freestyle a lot, but that’s something I do for short course. I am excited for Trials but I am containing that right now because of the college season and I need to focus on what I am doing. But I am excited to “be nervous” again because this time I am prepared to handle it better than I used to be.”
15. So what is the next challenge after this year?
Natalie: I have thought about that. I’ve been so busy thinking what do with my life. That is something I would like to figure out. As I mentioned earlier, I am thinking about something related to the sport in diversity. Even here in Gainesville, with all the great swimming, there are places that kids are not getting what they need. I had one kid ask me if I played basketball, and I said that I was a swimmer. This person told me, “I don’t know how to swim” and I said, “You have to learn, it’s really important.” And that has happened -- with people telling me they can’t swim -- so many times, too many to mention.
16. It’s just incredible this is still a problem, isn’t it?
Natalie: It is. So I will do something, whether it’s in communities or with the schools. I have read to elementary students, and that is so special to me, but I sit there and I think, “How many of these kids don’t know how to swim?” So it’s important to get their reading level up, but we’re still going to leave them at risk for drowning? We can’t do that. So I have been looking at people to contact about what we can do, whether it’s an after-school program, for them to learn how to swim -- one of the keys is to enlist the people in authority who can make these decisions, because everyone knows this is a good, important direction to pursue. We just have to get it done.
17. What does Black History Month, and specifically, Dr. Martin Luther King, mean to you?
Natalie: As I said before, I feel like I am coming to these revelations later in life, now that I am finishing college and understanding the context, and how things fit together. I realized when I was little some of the snippets of what Dr. King said of “having a dream” being important. But now, it certainly resonates more. Equality for everyone - black people, white people, Asian people, Hispanic people -- all people, is such an important principle. It’s a starting point that we haven’t ever even gotten to.
18. How does swimming affect or contextualize your feelings and thoughts in regard to Black History Month and the issue of race – how has it impacted you?
Natalie: I understand it better now in large part due to my swimming career, where I feel like I am on the same level -- the playing field for me is now level -- and people are now coming to me for direction and help. And I know I have worked hard, and I am very thankful to my parents and coaches. But I also credit swimming, because I feel like everyone I have dealt with in the sport has been fair to me with everything under their power. I see it at Nationals, at other meets, and in college, and that’s another reason you see more minorities in the sport, and succeeding in the sport.
19. So that first-person experience shaped your understanding?
Natalie: It allowed me to put my mind around it, and yes, it empowered me. For me, unless you are living it, you don’t know how important it is. My father and I used to go to a lot of meets in Dallas, Fort Worth, Grapevine, Addison -- that was sort of our bonding time -- and we would be the only (black people) there. I don’t remember seeing others. So we didn’t know people there. I would talk to my Dad and Coach and that was it at first. But I was raised to be outgoing, and speak to people. No one had disrespected me or anything, it was just up to me to reach out and initiate the conversation. I did that. I think at that point they knew I’d be fine in life, like with going away to college.
20. I have talked with you, Lia and Simone several times, and I am so struck by how unique your personalities are -- how cool is that, because aside from the podium and the historic finish related to race, you three couldn’t be more different, could you?
Natalie: I think it is super cool just because the three of us are totally different. We definitely have three separate personalities. Simone and I are more outgoing than Lia, but Simone can also be reflective. And Lia’s outgoing side is amazing. So we are all totally different people -- I think even our majors in college are different as well. Our common love is swimming. And what has led us to success are dedication and commitment. So the diversity issue gave us a great platform for that NCAA finish, but it also showed what great things swimming does to your development as a person -- regardless of your race, type of personality, or where you are from. And I don’t think I realized how it showed everyone what is possible regardless of differences, until well after that happened last year. I think to the older generation it is even more important, because they have experienced it more and they sacrificed in so many different ways to make this path.