By Mike Watkins// Contributor | Friday, April 3, 2020
Now that Olympic Trials and the Olympics have been postponed until 2021, the extra time is giving Weir more opportunity to get back into top racing shape, as well as continue to evaluate how much longer she wants to compete.
Suffice it to say, this delay has only refreshed her excitement for swimming and Trials.
“At this point I don’t think it changes my decision (about competing at Trials),” she said. “If anything, I’m looking forward to more time to prepare, another year of meets and generally just more time do the thing I love.
“I think it was the right decision (to postpone), though certainly a difficult one. There was just way too much uncertainty for athletes all over the world. Now, the right things will be prioritized – a clean, level playing field and the health of all the athletes, spectators, volunteers and officials.”
Even before the announcement to postpone – a first for the Olympics, although the 1916, 1940 and 1944 Games were canceled because of World War – it’s been a tough few years for Weir.
But knowing that she has qualified for her sixth – yes, sixth – Olympic Trials is making those trials and tribulations a little more tolerable.
They’ve also helped refresh her love for swimming – something she thinks she’ll be involved with from a competitive standpoint as long as she still loves it and her body allows it.
“To be honest, it was a little surreal to qualify for that sixth Trials,” said Weir, a former world record-holder who accomplished the feat last July. “The past few years have been quite a struggle and to qualify for Trials at first felt just like an obvious box that needed to be checked on the way to more lofty goals. It took a little while for it to sink in and to allow myself to celebrate that accomplishment.
“I have our incredible swimming community to thank for that. I received so many words of encouragement and congratulatory messages after that swim that helped me to realize that it was something worth taking a minute to reflect upon. I’m so appreciative for having had the opportunity to do this for so long….and it’s been long!”
Just how long, you might ask? Weir, still a very young 34, qualified for her first Olympic Trials in 2000 as a 14-year-old and made her first Olympic team in 2004 as a recent high school graduate.
Since then, she’s experienced more ups than downs in the sport, making her second Olympic Team in 2012 and again in 2016 – winning a total of four medals (three silver, one bronze) as a relay stalwart.
However, the year after those Games in Rio, Weir, who was at the top of her game, experienced some pain in her neck that kept her out of the water for a few months and also kept her from making several international teams over the past three years.
“In spring of 2017, I started to have a lot of pain in my shoulder and arm,” she said. “I swam through it, but things kept getting worse. My arm kept getting weaker and weaker, and I started to lose coordination on that side.
“That summer after Nationals, we got to the bottom of it and found that I had two badly herniated discs in my neck that needed surgery sooner rather than later.”
To alleviate the problem, Weir had two artificial discs placed during surgery, and she has been working on regaining her strength and coordination on her left side from where the nerves were compressed ever since.
She said she’s still training full-time, as well as doing strength training, physical therapy, etc., and she’s seen lots of improvement over the past several months.
She was competing pretty regularly until the pandemic outbreak, and has had a lot of ups and downs but is still not where she had hoped to be by this point.
Considering the severity of this injury, however, she knows she’s come a long way.
“This injury has been a much harder recovery than anticipated, and also has created some mental hurdles I never expected,” she said. “However, it has given me so much appreciation for my health up until this point, and just how many things have to fall into place to compete at a high level.
“I never really considered calling it quits after my diagnosis, because a part of me thought I could be back stronger than ever. That part of me is what has kept me swimming for so long and I can’t give up on her. Also, I know that swimming and rehabbing to continue racing is the best way I can ensure a healthy body for the rest of my life. I want to be able to swim, lift, and be active whenever I want to; lofty goals or not.”
Success is something Weir has always enjoyed – setting her first age group record at 12 and ranking among the world’s best sprinters for more than a decade.
When she thinks back to her first Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, she remembers being scared but excited as a young teenager.
Four years later in Long Beach, Calif., she said swimming outdoors was her favorite venue, and it became a Trials she will never forget.
“I remember the deck being so crowded and just searching for a little corner to hide away in until it was race time (in Indy in 2000),” she said. “I wish I could say that’s different, but Trials are always scary… maybe even more than ever with all of the production that goes into it.
“It is the most pressure-packed meet in the world and coming out the other end of it successfully is the most emotionally strenuous thing I’ve ever done. It feels like you’ve lived 10 lives in the 8 days of Trials.”
And what about Omaha – the location of the past three Trials and the site where she made two of her three Olympic teams?
“Omaha is almost indescribable to swimmers who haven’t seen it before,” she said. “It’s so big, and the energy is electric.
“Somehow it feels like the pool is the center of the universe for that period of time – it sucks you in! Watching people make the team never gets old. Period.”
Among her most special memories from her Olympic experiences include when she and Kara Lynn Joyce were locked in their room at the Olympic Village in Athens (2004) and missed the first team workout.
She also fondly recounts watching Simone Manuel tie for gold in Rio (2016) and finally break Weir’s record that stood for many years.
And finally, she remembers the electric moment of watching the 2016 U.S. men’s 400 freestyle relay and witnessing how much that race meant to the guys.
“That really hit home for me and made me very grateful for what has been the bulk of my international career: relays,” said Weir, who earned all four of her Olympic medals in relays. “It’s very special, and I cherish those opportunities more and more as the years go on.
“It seems like it takes a certain degree of separation to fully appreciate how special it is to be a part of the best team in the world. I would say the more I am able to share these experiences with the kids I interact with on a daily basis, the more I fully appreciate them.”
Part of what continues to motivate Weir in the water is her current coaching situation.
Following her first coach (and current father-in-law) Chris Davis, whom she swam under for 15-plus years, she swam with Doug Gjertsen, who put her on the 2016 Olympic team with “some of the hardest work of my life.”
When Doug moved to San Antonio in August of 2019, Swim Atlanta was put in the hands of then-Age Group coach Caleb Weir, who just happens to be Weir’s younger brother.
He’s been coaching her all year, and she said she’s enjoyed getting to know him on a different level.
“He’s doing an outstanding job coaching the kids, and his workouts are so engaging thanks to his experience swimming at Indian River, Texas and then N.C. State along with our constant baseline of Swim Atlanta’s core values,” she said. “I would imagine it’s been harder on him than me; he is 5 years younger, and it probably feels weird to be the one calling all the shots.
“I’m so thankful to him for his willingness to be on this learning curve with me trying to navigate uncharted territory in swimming with a neck full of titanium. I have missed being able to share swimming with him since he retired after 2016 Trials, and this has been like a fun extension of that.”
And no matter what happens at the next Olympic Trials, Weir said she doubts she will ever make an official retirement announcement when she knows it’s time.
Her love for the sport is just too strong, and she may just swim forever.
“My goals and priorities may change in the coming years, but if I happen to be swimming enough to race, then maybe you’ll continue to see me pop up here and there,” she said. “Swimming has been such a huge part of my life, for better or worse, and I am so grateful for it. I think the longest I’ve ever been out of the water has been three months, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve traveled all over the world, met so many amazing people, made some lifelong friends and had the opportunity to impart some knowledge to swimmers of all ages from my experiences.”