By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, August 16, 2019
After living, training and coaching in France for the past three-plus years, Lara Jackson is excited to be back in her home country.
A new coaching opportunity at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla., brought the former University of Arizona All-American and NCAA Champion home a couple of weeks ago, and she started her new gig this week as the assistant coach of the Eagles’ women’s team.
She joins the staff of Head Coach Dave Rollins, who was an All-American swimmer at Arizona the same time as Jackson.
Strangely enough, however, when she was in college, Jackson never saw her future involving coaching – at least not humans.
“I was an animal science major and wanted to work with caring for and training equines (horses) as a future career,” she said. “After 2012 Olympic Trials, I did just that. I moved to Lexington, Ken., and spent a year and a half working with horses, but I realized I wasn’t done with competitive swimming. I still love horses, but my career path took a much different, unexpected path instead.”
When she decided in 2014 that she wanted to give the Olympics a go for a third time at 2016 Olympic Trials, she moved to Auburn to train. She coached Masters swimmers in Opelika, Ala., at the same time – getting her first taste of working with athletes.
Halfway through her time there, she decided it wasn’t panning out as she’d hoped, and shortly after that, moved to Vichy, France, to live and continue to train.
She also did some personal coaching and training for the swimmers she swam with at Vichy Val d’Allier Natation and discovered her true calling. She served as both the head senior coach as well as the head strength and conditioning coach.
She also found her future husband, Julien Mathias, who swam with her at the club. They married three years ago.
“Coaching in France was a great experience for me; I feel like I really came into my own as a coach,” said Jackson, who studied French in college and had a good foundation for communication once she arrived.
“The system in the United States is so much more conducive to performance with all the resources available. We don’t realize what we have here in the states until you go somewhere else and see the difference. When the opportunity to come back and work with Dave came my way, I jumped at it. It’s definitely the right next step for my career.”
As a competitor, Jackson’s swimming career was full of twists and turns, highs and lows just like anyone else.
At 2008 Olympic Trials, she swam so well in the 50 free semifinals that she set a new American record. However, in the next evening’s finals, she finished third behind eventual Olympic silver medalist Dara Torres and Jessica Hardy and didn’t make the team.
However, when it was revealed prior to the Beijing Games that Hardy tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended from competition, it was too late for Jackson to be added to the team.
She had to watch the Olympics from home rather than be there and compete as she should have.
“The team was already at training camp and the roster had already been submitted to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), so Tara (Kirk, who was third in the 100 breaststroke) and I were left off the team,” Jackson said. “It was a very difficult time for me. I watched some of the Olympics – to support my teammates and friends – but I couldn’t watch the women’s 50 free.”
And even though she said she has played the “What if” game in her mind since she was denied that opportunity to swim for Olympic gold, Jackson didn’t allow that disappointment to taint or slow down the rest of her career.
She returned to Arizona and at the 2009 NCAA Championships, she set the meet and American record (short course) to win the 50 free – one of her nine NCAA titles and 14 All-America honors.
In 2011, she represented the United States at the Pan American Games, where she won a gold medal in the 50 free, setting a new meet record.
She kept swimming through the 2012 Olympic Trials, where she finished 8th in the 50 free, and then she decided it was time to walk away on her own terms.
Five years later, she was inducted into the University of Arizona Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2017 – not bad for someone who walked-on at the University of Arizona and left as one of the most decorated swimmers in NCAA history.
And while she admits things in and out of the pool didn’t always pan out as she had planned or wanted, Jackson said its been the lessons she learned as a top-level competitive swimmer that carried her and continue to carry her through all of the highs and lows of her life.
She’s looking forward to passing on these same lessons to her athletes at Florida Gulf Coast. Practice starts Monday, August 19, and she’ll be working with 26 young women – 20 swimmers and 6 divers.
“My experience as an athlete, teammate at Arizona and member of the U.S. National team taught me so many things, but just being a swimmer gave me some foundational experiences and traits that still pay off every day like patience, long-term goal setting, determination and just being a good teammate,” said Jackson, who hails from El Paso, Texas, and still rides horses whenever she can. “These definitely help shape the person you are later in life.
“I have always tried to lift my teammates up, to help them by letting them know that I have confidence in them so they find their own confidence. That’s why coaching has proven to be such a natural – albeit unexpected – transition for me. Every day, I get the opportunity to lift up my swimmers, help them find their own confidence and strengths and become their own best swimmers and people. It’s so rewarding to know you play a part in someone’s life that way.”