By Mike Watkins // Contributor | Thursday, September 21, 2017
In 1990, Crissy Ahmann-Leighton (now Perham) and her then-coach Frank Busch had an epiphany that included a Yellow Brick Road.
Even though she’d been making steady improvement over the course of the previous couple of years, it was during that fateful summer two years before the 1992 Olympic Trials and subsequent Olympics that she realized she had the potential to support her lifelong dream.
“I told my parents that I would be an Olympic athlete when I was 8 years old,” she said. “I don't remember why or what prompted me to share that with them, but I always identified myself as an athlete.
“I was always improving, but the summer of 1990 was really the turning point for me. Frank and I had a little Wizard of Oz moment when I won my first National title... ‘you always had the power’...I just needed to put in the work.”
That work resulted in some quick success.
The following summer, she qualified for the 1991 FINA World Championship team, winning a silver medal in the 400 medley relay (qualifying for the team in the 100 butterfly), and also won gold (400 medley relay) and silver (100 fly) at the Pan Pacific Championships.
Two years later, Perham realized her childhood dream when she won two gold (400 freestyle and 400 medley relays) and a silver (100 fly) at the Barcelona Olympics.
And as soon as she finished her final Olympic event, Perham was done with competitive swimming.
It was a different time in the sport with very few opportunities to swim beyond college and earn a living.
She knew it was time to move forward.
“I retired right after my last race at the ‘92 Games, but I did briefly try a comeback and placed 5th at 1996 Trials,” she said. “There really wasn't a big incentive to keep swimming and there weren't a ton of opportunities even if that had been something I desired. I was really looking forward to moving on and being out of the pool.”
After leaving swimming, Perham soon after divorced her first husband (Glenn Leighton) and met and married an officer in the Air Force (Charlie Perham). Over the next 20-plus years, they moved every couple years, spending time in Europe, on the East Coast and back to her Southwestern roots.
She’s had several years within those moves, but swimming was always a constant, as she had many opportunities to coach.
She also made a brief comeback in 1994 to attempt to make her second Olympic team but came up a few spots short of that achievement but never regretted her decision to try.
“I was coaching in ’94 and had a young son, but I felt compelled to start training again,” said Perham, who now lives with her tired husband in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and works for a vintage and antique online marketplace called Chairish. “I felt like I had some unfinished business with my silver medal (in 92), and I felt like I should try again for gold.
“Obviously, that didn’t work out, but m y time from ’92 (Trials) would have won in ’96. Oh well…time waits for no one. I was definitely glad that I made sure I tried again, even though it didn’t end the way I would have preferred.”
In between moves, the comeback and her career decisions, Perham made time to have and raise two sons who are both athletes. Alex, now 24, swam in high school and one year in college, and Ryan, 16, is a swimmer who excels at water polo and is “surrounded by great coaches and very successful teammates.”
“I just always wanted my kids to be doing things…I didn’t really care what that ‘thing’ was, but I’m partial to sports, band and choir.”
Even after her competitive career was over, Perham continued to also stay active to keep in shape – any way but swimming.
She played in a men’s basketball league, learned boxing and Crossfit and participated in exercise classes and obstacle course races.
And even though she no longer gets in the pool, she’s still an avid fan at every level – especially following kids she coached as well as their kids.
“I love to see kids that I coached have their kids becoming swimmers,” said Perham, who started swimming in second grade after following her classmate to practice. “I love to watch my sons swim, and like a million other people, I can get enough of high-level swimming at the collegiate level and the National and international levels.”
With 25 years gone since her only – albeit highly successful – Olympics, Perham credits much of who she is and what she’s accomplished outside of the pool to what she learned from swimming sports in general.
“Being an athlete has shaped my whole life and that is not an exaggeration,” she said. “I know how to set goals, work hard, listen to coaches, ask for help, try new things, make friends and work with others. Most of all, I have learned that I love being a part of a team. It’s my favorite part of sports and now my favorite part of work – setting goals and working with others to make the magic happen.”
While she said she knows she had a good bit of natural ability, Perham attributes her success largely to her “stubborn personality” and her love for competition.
It’s something she knows she’s happily passed on to her boys.
“I know I was a gifted athlete who loved to compete and push myself,” she said. “With that said, all of that would not have been enough without a great family, teammates and coaches.
“As one of my favorite (Arizona) Wildcats says, ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ You wouldn’t be interviewing me without someone having helped me take my gifts to the next level, so as I say a lot, I’m very lucky and thankful.”