Following the 2016 Olympics – despite leaving Rio with gold and silver medals – Abbey Weitzeil returned home discouraged and disheartened.
Her confidence had taken a hit when – after delaying the start of her freshman year and season at the University of California-Berkeley to focus on making the Olympic team – she failed to medal in either of her individual Olympic events despite winning both at Olympic Trials.
It took her a full NCAA season and last summer’s Phillips 66 Nationals and World Championships to restore her confidence almost to pre-Trials levels.
And with this year’s Phillips 66 Nationals and spots on international teams over the next two summers in the balance – her confidence rejuvenation couldn’t be happening at a better time.
“After the past couple of years, I’m still learning to gain my confidence back,” Weitzeil said. “It’s taken me a while, but I’m feeling better about my swimming and everything associated with it.”
One area where Weitzeil said she struggled the most was adapting to college life and swimming once she joined her recruiting class and teammates in the fall of 2016.
Because she had basically isolated herself for most of the previous year to focus on training and preparing for Olympic Trials, when she arrived in Berkeley, she found it difficult to balance athletics, classes and college life.
She also had to be patient and give herself time to get used to a change in coaching styles and cycles and a different approach to practice and training.
For her, it was a trust issue – not in Coach Teri McKeever but just in accepting a different way of doing things.
Once she did, she found her footing again, but it took her a full season to make that adjustment.
“Everything hit me coming into school, and I was exposed to freshmen activities and other social events and it got a little crazy for me because I wanted to enjoy everything,” she said. “I missed out on so many fun things that year I was training, that I wanted to take part in everything I could.
“When you do that, something else takes a backseat, and that made adjusting to collegiate swimming tough for me.”
By the beginning of her second NCAA season – and after making the 2017 World Championship team in the 50 freestyle despite missing the team in her signature 100 free – Weitzeil said she was feeling back in her swimming and life groove.
Since the end of her sophomore season in March – where she finished third in the 100 free and fourth in the 50 free at NCAAs, improving from eighth and fifth the previous season – Weitzeil has been putting up some fast times in practice and meets and said she’s feeling more in control and focused with Phillips 66 Nationals just a couple of weeks away.
“I have a much better mindset now, and I’ve been enjoying going to practice and trying different things to get faster,” she said. “I’ve been holding and hitting my paces better than I was before, and everything feels like it’s coming together for me, especially since Santa Clara.
“It’s been a rough couple of years, but I feel like things are definitely on the right track, and I’m excited to swim in Irvine – where I love swimming because it’s not far from my hometown and my family and friends can come and cheer me on. Plus, I love swimming outside, so I’m really looking forward to competing and enjoying the experience and seeing what comes out of the progress that I’ve been making.”
Once Phillips 66 Nationals starts in less than three weeks, Weitzeil said she has a point of reference from last year’s meet that she can use as inspiration and confidence whatever happens this year in Irvine.
A year removed from being the 100 free Olympic Trials champion, she failed to make the final of the event at Phillips 66 Nationals and didn’t think she was going to make the team despite still having the 50 free at the end of the meet.
But things came together for Weitzeil in the last event when she finished second and earned a spot on the World team – erasing a lot of the doubt she had early in the meet.
She said that not only “saved” the meet for her, but it also started the boost to her confidence that she’s continued to see increase ever since.
“I just remember thinking to myself that everyone I was with on the Olympic team was going to Worlds but I wasn’t,” Weitzeil said. “But I pulled through on that last day and made the team. I think I put extra pressure on myself – having won both events at Trials – to duplicate that at Nationals. I got past that to make the team.
“I did the same at NCAAs my freshman season, but I’ve learned to leave that pressure off of myself, and without that burden, my confidence has increased. Now, I just go for it.”
And having started swimming late in her life (compared to most swimmers), Weitzeil said she didn’t grow up dreaming of being an Olympian. That possibility didn’t creep into her thoughts until a couple of years before 2016 Trials.
But the reality of competing on the world’s biggest sports stage – which she called surreal – left a lasting impression on Weitzeil that she definitely wants to duplicate in Tokyo in two years.
“The Olympics really were an amazing experience – from the event itself to just getting to know my teammates really well and creating some great memories,” Weitzeil said. “It was also great to have my family there – mom, dad, my two sisters and one of their boyfriends.
“Even before I made the team, my parents started change jars on their dressers and table and counters at home – dropping change and loose bills in whenever they could to save up for the trip to Rio. With Tokyo still two years away, I’m hoping they have a reason to use those jars again over the next couple of years.”