By Chase McFadden//Contributor | Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Maya DiRado knew she was trailing the “Iron Lady,” but she didn’t know she was trailing by that much.
Nearly a body’s length separated her from Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu as they came to the surface for the fourth 50 of the 200 meter back final in Rio, a seemingly insurmountable lead. Fortunately for the American, she was unaware of the sizeable gap between first and second, her gaze firmly fixed on the steel trusses supporting the Olympic Aquatics Stadium’s roof.“You know vaguely where you are, but you’re not very aware,” DiRado explained of the steady, gazing-towards-the-heavens focus inherent to the backstroke. “I knew Katinka was ahead of me, but you’re not looking around too much. It depends which way you flip that determines what kind of information you get, so I knew I was behind on the last turn. And I still couldn’t see her out of the corner of my eye as we came towards the finish, but I knew I was getting closer because the crowd was getting louder and louder, so I assumed I was catching up.”
No one was as surprised as DiRado herself. She still can’t quite believe that she charged back from such a deficit.
“I was at an elementary school recently talking to kids and they showed the race, and I’m so far behind until the very last stroke! It’s just silly. If I’d known at the time that I was that far behind, I might not have won, but in my mind I could kind of delude myself into thinking, ‘I’m catching up! I’m almost there!’”
The victory capped off a spectacular week for the California native, and provided a fairytale ending to her swim career. Coming to Rio, DiRado had made it clear that her first Olympics would be her last. In her final competitive race – one of thousands she’d swam since age 6 – she won an individual gold. As DiRado gazed at the results on the scoreboard, it seemed impossible that what she’d imagined was in fact the reality.
“I immediately looked up, saw it and thought, ‘No way.’ It felt too much like a dream for that to be real. To be my last race and to win? An Olympic medal is one thing; an Olympic gold is a whole other piece.
“It felt too good to be true, and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I don’t have a reaction, I don’t practice a celebration or anything, so my body was just overwhelmed. I think you can see that. It hits me in waves. You’re trying to process this incredible event in front of the entire stadium, and you try not to think about the people watching at home.”
If her Olympic script had played out differently – if she hadn’t come home with two golds, a silver and a bronze draped around her neck -- would the 23-year-old retiree have second thoughts about hanging up her goggles? No. In fact, an average Games may have made her decision easier.
“For me, honestly, just making it to the Olympics was the way I wanted to go out. So if it had ended with a moderately-okay performance, maybe no medals, that would have probably made it even easier to say no to coming back. I could tell myself, ‘I did it, but this is clearly the best I’ll get and it’s time to go do something else for the next four years.’”
Interestingly, her success in Rio was the scenario that made DiRado wonder – ever-so-briefly – if she should make a run for Tokyo 2020. But she’s at peace with moving on to the next chapter of her life.
“Honestly, what made it harder was the crazy, unexpected success because you get addicted to that,” DiRado explained. “It’s an amazing feeling. Of course when you’re in that moment on the podium, you think, ‘Yeah I want to do this again!’ But you can’t do it just for that moment four years later. You have to be invested in the everyday process and waking up and committing yourself fully to that specific craft, and I’m not ready or able to do that again for another four years.
“This was the perfect way to go out the door.”
USA Swimming is re-celebrating the top moments from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Check back on USASwimming.org every few days for new profile on the the swimmers who made those moments happen. Also, follow us on Facebook and Twitter @USASwimming for more on our success in Rio.