By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, March 2, 2017
During his open water career, Alex Meyer swam through, around, over and by his fair share of obstacles.
So when he decided to retire last summer and focus on the post-swimming phase of his life, it made sense that his career path might also involve overcoming obstacles.
Now, he organizes and produces courses as a race planning project manager with Spartan Races to challenge other people as he was challenged as a competitive athlete.
Who knew obstacles could be so rewarding?
“There are definite parallels between open water competition and my current job,” Meyer said. “I’m not only designing courses, but I’m doing festival layouts and making exciting courses to challenge people while still being spectator-friendly. We produce 60 obstacle course races per year, so it’s a big job.
“This is more than just putting on races. Spartan is a lifestyle brand like Ironman or triathlons – and its great being back in Boston (where he lived while attending Harvard University).”
While he waited to make his final decision to retire until July last year, Meyer said the idea of calling it a swimming career had been on his mind since Open Water National Championships in April 2015.
At that meet, he missed out on making his second Olympic team when he finished .01 seconds behind Sean Ryan in the 10k for third place.
Because only the top two swimmers qualify for World Championships – the qualifying meet for the Olympics – Meyer knew his dream of swimming in another Olympics (he finished 10th in the 10k in London) and winning his first Olympic medal were done unless he wanted to wait until 2020.
He knew that wasn’t going to be an option considering where he was in his life personally and professionally, so Meyer decided to enjoy the rest of 2015 and the first part of 2016, compete at U.S. Olympic Trials and do one more open water race to bring his swimming career full circle.
“After Nationals, I had to take a step back and decide what I wanted and wanted to do next,” he said. “I asked myself if I was done and if there was anything more I wanted or needed to do in the sport, and I realized I didn’t.
“I accomplished a lot during my career – more than I ever thought actually – and I was very content to move onto the next phased of my life.”
Even though he didn’t get to compete in the 10k at Worlds in 2015, Meyer did swim the 25k – the event in which he won his first international gold medal in 2010 – in Kazan.
He said it was one of the most difficult yet rewarding races he ever competed in – and at one point near the end of the race, he almost quit.
“There was about 7.5k left to go, and I really lost my grip on the race,” he said. “I felt really bad physically, and I lapsed mentally, and before I knew it, I was 150 yards behind the pack. I started thinking about what excuses I could use to tell my mom and girlfriend for quitting, but I couldn’t do it.
“Once I hit the part of the course with the huge Jumbo Tron that shows close-ups of the athletes, I feel like I started coming around – came back to the other side, so to speak. For the next half hour, I was able to catch up, pass girls and guys, and before I realized it, I was back in the lead. It was pretty epic for me to mentally pull everything together. To come from where I was to where I finished – second and right there in it until the end – was great.”
After Olympic Trials where he swam the 1500 freestyle “mostly for fun,” Meyer was able to check one final event off of his bucket list – the 32 open water competition in Lac St-Jean, Canada.
In the past, the timing never worked out for him to compete in the event, and if he had made the Olympic team, he would have had to bypass it again.
But with the end of his career quickly approaching, he knew he wouldn’t have another chance to compete, so he made the trip – and left with gold in his final open water competition.
And while he said swimming conditions were miserable – the water was much colder than anticipated and for what he trained – finishing the race and winning the event was a fantastic way to say goodbye.
“Once I was done and had a little time to reflect, I was actually glad I didn’t make the Olympic team because I wouldn’t have been able to compete in Lac St-Jean,” Meyer said. “This race meant more to me than an Olympic gold medal, and the way things went, it couldn’t have been any more perfect. I’ve never been more amped up for a race.”
Even though he said his shoulder was in excruciating pain for the last 30 minutes of the race, completing what equaled the longest race of his career was more satisfying than he ever imagined.
“Cold water and temperatures were the biggest challenge for me, but when I saw a boat go by me with an American flag flying on it, that fired me up even more,” he said.
When he emerged from the water victorious, the fact that he won didn’t really even register for him. After 6 ½ hours in the water, he was dizzy and mush-mouthed, and all he wanted to do was get his suit off and warm up.
And once he did get the suit off and get in a nice, warm bed with heat packs on his body – and then saw his former Harvard coach (and 2012 Olympic Open Water head coach) Tim Murphy there to congratulate him – Meyer said he realized he ended his career the way he always competed: on his own terms.
“This was a true perspective shift for me, because I can’t say that I always competed for the best reasons, but I did this final race because I wanted to and I loved it,” said Meyer, a multiple open water National champion over the course of his career.
“Swimming gave me so many tangible and intangible gifts and lessons over my career – delaying gratification, giving and receiving criticism, communicating with people effectively, being gracious in victory and defeat, as well as many others – that are already proving beneficial for me in my career. I learn new things every day, and I’m enjoying this new phase of my life.”