By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, February 9, 2018
When Jacob Pebley touched the wall in the 200 backstroke final at 2016 Olympic Trials and saw the number 2 beside his name, the first person he thought of was his mom, Cathy.
He did the same thing after he won the bronze medal in the same event last summer at FINA World Championships in Budapest.
It’s become a common practice at most of his meets the past few years. After all, it was his mom – who passed away from cancer in 2006 – who drove him and his brother to swim practice every day, made them big breakfasts before swim meets and encouraged them to follow their dreams in the sport and life.
“I think about her every time I jump in the pool,” he said. “It was incredibly hard losing someone who wanted me to succeed probably more than I wanted it myself. I think when she passed, I gained her vision for my success and took it with me to the pool every day.
“It made qualifying for the Olympics incredibly emotional for me. I saw my name on the scoreboard having qualified and my mind jumped back to me and her on the couch watching Aaron Peirsol qualify in 2004 when I first thought about becoming an Olympian.”
A lot has happened in Pebley’s life since he made his first Olympic team. He said the past few years have been surreal – almost like’s been going up a steady staircase.
He attributes that to his coaches getting him to focus more on the day-to-day grind rather than the big goal at the end.
But he’s experienced some personal milestones over that time as well, most notably getting married last August to his wife, Nicole. Like many couples, they met on a dating app and communicated online for a while before finally meeting – a day that changed his life forever.
“It was quite the day when we decided to finally meet in person and we were both wondering if the other person was real or if we were going to get ‘catfished,’” he said. “She was a student-athlete at Cal so we met in Berkeley at her friend’s house and hit it off. The rest is history.
“The wedding was incredible. We got married by a river we both grew up going to with our families, so it was a really special place for the two of us.”
Pebley’s first Olympic Trials experience was in 2012, and he described it as being “interesting.”
He got really sick a couple weeks before the meet and actually wasn't able to swim for three or four days a week before he left for Omaha. While not being able to train much, he also lost 10 pounds and ended up scratching the individual medley races so he could focus on his backstroke events.
He tied for 17th in the 100 back but moved into the semifinals when two swimmers ahead of him scratched the event. In the 200 back, he made the final, finishing 7th and proving to him that he could swim well even when he wasn’t at his best.
“Knowing that I could do pretty well when I was at my worst gave me a lot of confidence four years later when I was much stronger and healthier,” he said of his 2016 Trials performance. “Becoming an Olympian was always a dream I had had since I was about 10 years old. I would say the day I made the team, it still felt like a dream.”
Even after earning his spot on the plane to Rio, Pebley said he never fully comprehended the gravity of what he had accomplished until he swam in the 200 back final at the Olympics.
To know that millions of people were watching that race was incredible and the most pressure he said he has ever felt – impacting his performance but proving to be a great learning experience for him.
“Looking back, I probably took that pressure too seriously and didn't relax enough,” said Pebley, a five-time medalist at two World University Games (2013, 2015). “I definitely am burning for another shot because I know how much I learned from that experience, and I know I will thrive when the opportunity comes again.”
Over the next year, Pebley dedicated himself to making the U.S. World Championship team in 2017 and finding his way to the podium.
It was really what he was fixated upon from the end of Rio to his swims in Budapest – remembering the feeling of seeing his friends and teammates in Rio sporting their hardware and him wanting to do the same in the future.
“It was extremely tough going back to the Olympic Village in a dorm with Tony Ervin (Olympic Champ), Nathan Adrian (four medals), Ryan Murphy (three golds), and Josh Prenot, who just missed being an Olympic champion himself,” Pebley said. “I felt like I had something to prove.”
Having accomplished his goal in Budapest and married his best friend, he and Nicole are now focused on her getting into medical school – she wants to be a surgeon – and choosing a new place for them to live.
She has been accepted into a couple of programs so far, and ultimately this means they will be leaving the Bay area (Pebley stayed in the area to live and train after graduating from Cal in 2016) at the end of the season.
Fortunately for him and his future in swimming, both locations have great swim programs he can join to continue moving his training forward – even though it will be hard to leave the place he and Nicole have called home for the past 6 seasons.
And while he’s given some thought to his life after swimming – using his psychology degree and competition experience in a potential coaching position somewhere – for the time being, Pebley is focused on continuing to get the most out of his career in the water.
His motivation now involves finding new, innovative ways to be more efficient. He’s become more of a video nut, analyzing so many little things to find ways to get better.
“As of right now, I want to swim at least until 2020 because I feel like I haven't come close to my prime athletic ability and I want to push myself in this sport until I am satisfied I have reached that point,” he said.
“Josh (Prenot), Ryan (Murphy) and I were talking after practice a few weeks ago, and we were laughing about how cool it would be if we were still competitive enough in the sport to make the Los Angeles Olympic team in 2028. I don't know what will happen in 10 years, but I do know it would be a dream to either compete in that Olympics or at least give it a try.
“I have diversified my life, and swimming isn't my only passion, and that keeps me motivated and the sport stays fresh for me. I now have a family between my wife and our dog and a new hobby – rock climbing – that I love almost as much as swimming, and I know what I want to do when I am done competing. I wouldn't say I am concerned about being done because I have so many other things to look forward to.”