By Aaron Gabriel//Contributor | Tuesday, June 18, 2019
The time was right for Summer Sanders to return to a place which in the deep past had played such a key role in determining her future.
Her recent visit to Barcelona was as gratifying as that first one, only in a very different way. And her story provides evidence that if you keep moving long enough, the currents of time tend to bring you to familiar places.
By the summer of 1992, Sanders was already an international standout, having excelled while leading Stanford to NCAA dominance through her skill in the butterfly and IM, and having won in the World Championships the year prior. But she took her game to another level in the Barcelona Games, winning gold in the 200-meter fly and on the 400 medley relay, along with silver in the 200 IM and bronze in the 400 IM.
That performance made her the most successful U.S. swimmer of that Olympics and effectively earned her household-name status as well.
While she was in Barcelona, Sanders also started along the professional path that would sustain her for many years after her swimming days had ended.
Always a huge fan of Michael Jordan, she managed to talk her way into tickets to see the U.S. Dream Team perform on the way to gold of their own in Barcelona. Many believe that hoop group, with Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone and John Stockton (among many other greats) was the finest team ever assembled.
During that basketball fan-girl moment abroad, Sanders gained an introduction to Ahmad Rashad. And the rest, as they say, is broadcasting history.
After the Games, Sanders decided to give up the remainder of her amateur eligibility and quickly ended up getting her first high-profile television job alongside Rashad on NBA’s Inside Stuff. She also started working immediately as a swimming analyst.
The decision to stop competing was difficult in a certain sense. Sanders still had two years of college eligibility left but had already won NCAA Swimmer of the Year honors twice following multiple individual victories, and in 1992 she’d also led coach Richard Quick’s Stanford team to the national championship. With so much already accomplished, she decided to focus on her non-swimming career.
Post-Barcelona, she first tried to keep competing as a professional and remained as involved as possible with the Cardinal while continuing her education at Stanford. But because of NCAA rules she was allowed only limited contact with the college-eligible swimmers. That took much of the fun out of it, and ultimately, in the darkest of hours, Summer saw the light.
“The sun wasn’t even up yet and I was right in the middle of some impossible set, and I just remember asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ’’ Sanders recalls. “And once I started asking myself that question, I couldn’t stop. I think it’s hard to keep going once that question comes up and you don’t have a good answer.”
Meanwhile, the motivation to start a television career had already moved front and center. Sanders says she’d been planning for that likelihood about as long as she could remember, including back to her pre-teen days when, with a friend, she regularly audiotaped and then critiqued her own scripted performances.
“That transition to TV, a lot of people asked me at the time if I was pushed into it,” Sanders says. “But no, honestly. It was just that right here is this opportunity, and I knew I needed to take it.
“It was the biggest big-girl decision of my life at 19 years old, and Richard Quick supported it. I’m really grateful for that. One thing you often see in swimmers is how impressive they can be when you put them in individualized scenarios. I just think I was ready, and I knew it.”
Ultimately, Sanders made it a habit to take advantage of professional chances. She developed an extremely broad on-air resume, with regular sports work on all the major networks for just about every competitive activity under the sun. She’s also been a game-show host, a WNBA expert, an Olympic reporter and analyst. She dipped her toes in the waters of reality TV as well as acting, and has had key roles on Good Morning American and the Today Show, along with more recent efforts such as CBS’ We Need To Talk.
But her recent return to Barcelona had nothing to do with her wide-ranging career, and everything to do with family.
EXPANDING THE ROSTER
In 2005, Sanders married Erik Schlopy, a world-class U.S. skier. He’d competed in three Olympics and was a staple on the U.S. National team for 14 years. Notably, Schlopy had traveled extensively via his skiing successes.
Sanders, too, had always loved to travel for its own sake. A shared wanderlust turned out to be a central component of their marriage, and from the beginning the couple had discussed eventually spending a year abroad as a family.
“Nothing’s ever perfect, but I do feel like I’ve got the perfect partner in Erik,” Sanders said.
The arrival of Skye in 2006 and her brother Spider soon after made that year-abroad vision a real possibility. So from first grade on, both children participated in dual-immersion education, with about half of their day conducted in Spanish.
“We talked about the idea of letting them be renaissance kids, to have an understanding of their immediate community but also to learn about their much wider community,” Sanders said. “We know we’re very fortunate in that sense, and the experience of living abroad is really something beyond an education.
“One thing Erik and I had learned from our travel is that the world is big – and also, small. We hoped they could see that for themselves.”
After plenty of brooding over possible destinations, a decision was reached: Santander, a coastal town in the northwest of Spain. It offered a temperate climate that seemed familiar to Sanders’ northern California background and featured, importantly, a conveniently located ocean in which to surf and play.
Travel had already been a driving force in the family, with previous extended visits to Jerusalem, Spain, Italy and Slovenia. But the commitment to an entire year required plenty of planning and conviction.
Included in the sacrifices was a drastic reduction in “stuff,” as Sanders calls it, along with more difficult emotional realities such as leaving pets with trusted friends.
Sanders says they’ve had a wonderful and enriching experience, but that it has not been without challenges – including the kind that happen no matter where you happen to be living.
Spider, during a winter ski trip, suffered a spiral fracture of his lower left leg. That kind of thing is tough for any parent, but it was especially difficult in this case as simply communicating the details of the injury and subsequent treatment proved challenging.
Among the lessons learned: ‘Ibuprofen’ is an internationally recognized term, and that in a state of duress, one should choose words carefully.
At one point in hearing the details of Spider’s diagnosis, Sanders intended to say ‘Tengo miedo’ – I am scared. What emerged instead was ‘Tengo miedra’ – and if your Castellano is any good, you will understand the humorous difference between those phrases.
BACK TO BARCELONA
Sanders had been back to the Piscines Bernat Picornell in Barcelona once before, but the way her pool visit worked out this time was special.
The Olympic Channel had called to see if there was any chance they could send a crew to Sanders in Santander to record interviews for a retrospective on her achievements. Instead, with her mom Barbara visiting from the states in May, Sanders wondered if that meeting could take place in Barcelona.
So that was the plan, enriched by the fact that Sanders’ mom and children would be along for the adventure.
As the extended family was trying to enter the pool area, Sanders was met with a stark reminder that time had indeed moved on.
“I’m in line waiting to go in, pointing to my name on the wall (as a former Olympic champion),” Sanders said with a chuckle, “and the person checking us in wasn’t having any of it. I had to pay just like everyone else.”
And of course, the mood and general setting on this day was a stark contrast to 1992. Sanders said there were maybe 50 or 60 people sunbathing in the stands, and perhaps five or six more brave souls willing to test the pool’s unheated waters.
Even in that lightly attended state, the place itself holds a special allure for Sanders.
“It’s one of the last true outdoor international venues, and to me it’s still gorgeous, absolutely magical,” she said.
The outing included plenty of non-aquatic activities in Barcelona, with a visit to the famed Sagrada Familia and other sightseeing fun.
But there was no doubt that the family’s highlight was the pool.
“It was really emotional for both my mom and me, and the kids, everywhere we went they were just soaking everything up,” Sanders said. “I think my mom had a little bit of a hard time just keeping it together for a while there at the pool.”
A PRELUDE TO GREATNESS
Especially poignant for Sanders was finding the same private spot that had helped prepare her for Olympic gold in the 200 butterfly almost 27 years ago.
After checking into the ready room, she sought some time to herself. But this wasn’t just another big race, and Sanders knew it. It was the 200 fly, her signature event and also her last chance in the ’92 Games to win an individual gold medal.
So Sanders wandered down an obscure hallway and found a tiny bathroom, giving her mirrored reflection a small heart-to-heart lecture in an effort to remove some of the doubt that had crept in.
“I was in a place of last resort, emotionally,” she said.
The race did not start well. Sanders, known for grabbing the lead and then holding off competitors, started slowly. She trailed badly after the first 50 and was still only in third place after the first 100.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if I didn’t even finish the race?’ ’’ she said. “But then I started to inch my way up.”
Sanders also recalls gaining confidence, while she was racing, due to her deep understanding of the grim physiological realities of competing in the 200 fly.
“The reality is, everyone dies at the end of the race,” Sanders said. “You just want to die a little less than everyone else. Everyone’s tired – so you just focus getting those arms back out of the water, staying with your stroke no matter what.”
And then, it was over. Sanders had won, dramatically, in an Olympic record 2:08.67.
“When I turned around and saw the board, it was pure relief,” she said. “The truth is, I swam a very imperfect race but still somehow won.”
Nearly 27 years later, Sanders discovered that her tiny bathroom still exists. She remembered it, of course, but stumbled onto it quite accidentally once again this time, having forgotten the exact location.
That same mirror’s reflection now showed a 46-year-old mom and wife with a vibrant career and a fully multilingual and adventurous family.
Sanders and Co. are due to return to the states in July. Summer describes it as a mix of emotions – excitement about what’s ahead and reuniting with family and friends, but also remorse over the impending end to a great chapter of her family’s life.
She says she wouldn’t change anything about the Spain experience, including the difficult moments.
For Summer and Erik, the toughest part has been the language challenge. They’ve been taking regular classes and have made great progress but are eager to relapse fully to their native tongue. Especially challenging for them has been mastery of the present-perfect tense in Castellano Spanish.
Sanders has kept her English skills sharp by posting regular blog entries about the experience, but part of her enjoyment has been, as she puts it, “hitting the reset button” on her career.
One benefit of the family visit to the Barcelona pool was the opportunity to reflect upon how fortunate Sanders had been in her own upbringing. She recalls seeing others struggle with the pressure of high expectation and is thankful her own family took a very different approach to swimming.
“Performance never dictated my level of happiness,” Sanders explains, “because the pizza party existed whether I won or not. So none of it ever felt like a burden to me.”
Now, as ever, Sanders displays a resilient appetite for what might come next. She’s eager to return to her broadcasting roles, pleased to have had the adventure of a lifetime with her family.
Foreign language issues aside, consider this Olympian to be completely fluent in her own version of the present perfect.
“Part of the fun has been that this isn’t about me – it’s about all the little things that have happened to us together, as a family. Really, in some ways, it’s been indescribable.”
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