While the decision to postpone this year’s Olympics may have put a damper on most competitive swimmers’ hopes and dreams, it has revitalized Mike Alexandrov’s.
The delay has given him more time to continue to train for a seat on the team next year in Omaha – more than three years after he retired from competitive swimming following the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Suffice it to say that Alexandrov, who chronicled his experience of missing the 2016 Olympic team and how he wrestled with retirement over the next couple of years in a new documentary called Afterlife, is excited about his opportunity to compete for his third (but first for the United States) Olympic Team.
And as sad as it is that the Olympics were delayed, he said he thinks it gives athletes an opportunity to redefine their goals and purpose as well as get in another year’s worth of training.
“The Olympic motto is translated as ‘faster, higher, stronger,’ and I believe that transposing that motto into real life is one of the most challenging realities in an Olympian's journey,” said Alexandrov, who was a member of Bulgaria’s 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams before becoming a U.S. citizen and competing for his adopted country starting in 2009.
“I've talked to several swimmers and other athletes about what they're going through right now, and it's been a very challenging time for all, needless to say. As sad as it is that the Olympics are postponed, I think it's important to remember that we are all in this together, and the Olympic spirit is just that. So just because the Olympics have been delayed, doesn't mean that we should give up.”
Since his retirement from competition in 2017, along with making the documentary, Alexandrov has been continuing his education to pursue a career in Physical Therapy.
He’s also committed time to working with swimmers (prior to the recent COVID-19 pandemic) and said the experience gives him “plenty of time” to be around the pool and work with some of his favorite athletes.
He was supposed to marry fiancée, Brae, this month, but due to social distancing and everything else associated with the pandemic, the wedding has been postponed.
Still, Alexandrov said he’s been dealing with the pandemic by practicing the suggestions that have been laid out by California and the government. He’s been busy with academics, which has kept him from being bored.
And then there’s the great outdoors.
“I'm lucky to live in Southern California, so being able to be outside on some days has been really rewarding,” he said.
He said the first thing he wants to do post-social distancing is get back in the pool with the swimmers he coaches as well as the swimmers he trains with.
He’s been giving himself haircuts for decades, so his “fade” is OK for the time being – but he’s also excited to see his friends.
“I think many people have been spending more time with their families, which is awesome, but I think we're social creatures and our lifestyles depend on our interactions with others,” he said. “Maybe spending time with family and friends is something we've taken for granted in the past.”
As far as his swimming career is concerned, following Olympic Trials in 2016 he saw it coming to a close after swimming poorly in Omaha – making him believe the he was surely on the road to retirement.
The choices he made at that time in both training and competing were conflicting with his goals of being on the U.S. National Team and led to his official retirement.
While filming a commercial for a health and wellness supplement company, he struck up a conversation with cinematographer Alex Pollini, who believe Alexandrov had a unique story to tell.
Pollini collected him with producer and director Ryan Rundle, and from there, Afterlife was conceived.
“The documentary originated in the midst of a difficult decision: permanently step away from competitive swimming or redefine my purpose and finish what I had always longed to do,” Alexandrov said. “With absolutely no regrets, I chose the latter.
“Retirement is such a heavy word to me. I used to think retirement (from one’s career in their 60’s) was something people looked forward to – and it may be. But to me, the thought of retirement from sport was something I dreaded. It had a very negative connotation for me.”
Alexandrov said his relationship with the sport is different than the one he has with competing. He said he would never give up swimming or his love for the water, but the thought of never going to a competition again was a dark one.
“The thought of never having my Dad there as my coach and therapist was one of the heaviest emotions I have ever felt,” he said. “The thought of never facing the risk of failure (as much as I actually disliked the emotion) haunted me for some reason.
“Retirement to me from the sport was something I regarded with great fear, and it caused a lot of sadness. Even though competing, training and living the Olympic dream was very challenging, it was also something I couldn't foresee living without.”
Alexandrov said most of this comes forth in Afterlife, which he describes as a story that “follows a pro athlete’s struggle to reconcile the inevitability of retirement while training for a seat on the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo.”
He adds that the short documentary explores the ups, downs and in-betweens of life in sport and the challenges of transitioning out of it.
“Diving into my memories was a powerful and humbling experience that helped solidify my purpose throughout my swimming career,” he said “It brought back each success and failure along the way and made me realize that each of those experiences helped me grow into the person I am today.
“It portrayed some of my most candid emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, frustration. The story communicates many of the conflicts and pressures that an athlete is faced with and the realization that the joy of the sport is not in a medal or a time, but in the doing. The final product is perfect in my eyes. It portrays a relatable truth and a commonly shared story of an Olympian's – my – journey.”
Alexandrov revealed that the experience of telling his story and sharing his journey isn’t just about or for him but is something he is eager to share with the world.
Just like swimming itself, he’s learned the journey is often the most important part of the whole – how the commitment and fight toward a purpose defines the soul.
“I believe knowing why we do what we do, enables us to justify our creed towards the sport,” he said. “The accolades that may follow are nice, but the moments that I remember most are the blood, sweat and tears that made that accolade happen. Of course, I remember all the times that I set American records, World championship records, becoming a world champion with Team USA, swimming into Olympics, and many other events that were the result of hard work that I, my parents and coaches put in.
“I don't want to take anything away from that and the immense gratitude that I have for those experiences. I'm not done telling my story and as a coach, as well as an athlete, I want to be able to help athletes make good decisions – and only good decisions – in the future, and I think I'm finally in a place to be able to do that.”