Photo Courtesy : Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
By David Rieder.
Elizabeth Beisel did not go to a swim meet for more than nine months. After the Olympics in Rio, she took a break from the sport, traveling the world with fellow three-time Olympian Allison Schmitt and moving back home to Rhode Island, where she did some reporting work with the NBC-affiliate TV station in Providence.
She was not training and wasn’t sure where she stood with the sport.
“I didn’t know if I was retired or not,” Beisel said. Then she clarified: “I don’t think I was ever retired. I was just on a very long break, and I needed that. I hadn’t taken a break from swimming since I was 11 years old.”
All along, even before she made her third Olympic team and finished sixth in the 400 IM in Rio, Beisel had planned on coming back to the sport in time to compete in the summer of 2017, but the question had been when.
“It could have been three months, or it could have been seven or eight months,” she said. “I was going to come back on my own terms when I felt comfortable coming back. I started to miss it, and that’s when I got in the water.”
Photo Courtesy: Singapore Swimming Federation
In March, she began training regularly at Bluefish Swim Club with Chuck Batchelor, the same coach who guided her onto her first Olympic team as a 15-year-old in 2008. In April, she accompanied Bluefish to an altitude training camp in Colorado Springs, and she returned for a camp with Bob Bowman shortly after that.
During that second training camp, Beisel trained with a group that included Olympians Conor Dwyer, Chase Kalisz, Jay Litherland, Gunnar Bentz and Cierra Runge, and even with her relative lack of training, she managed to keep up.
“Bob told me that I needed to be in shape when I came, and I did my best to be in shape,” she said. “I was pretty proud of myself. I was making the intervals. I gave my best effort every practice. As every camp goes, you get better as the camp goes on, and so by the end of the camp, it was time to fly here, and I was feeling pretty good in the water.”
But swimming well in practice is still a long way from a competitive 400 IM against an elite field, and Beisel knew she would have her work cut out for her when she made her return to racing at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Santa Clara, Calif.
“I hadn’t put on a racing suit in ten months,” she said. “I hadn’t been off the blocks in ten months.”
Given the layoff, it was unrealistic for Beisel or her coaches, Batchelor and Florida head coach Gregg Troy, to expect anything close to her best. Beisel insists that she had zero expectations for how she would perform, so she has no complaints about what’s she managed so far.
On the meet’s second day, she swam a time trial in the 200 back and finished in 2:13.67. In her signature 400 IM, she qualified second for the final in 4:44.77 and then an impressive 4:40.00 to finish second behind Madisyn Cox in the final.
So what do those performances mean?
“I think it means I have an incredible base thanks to Chuck and Gregg,” she said. “If you told me two months ago that I was going to go that fast, I would have literally laughed at you.”
Still, she faces a battle to get on her seventh straight World Championships team when USA Swimming selects its roster later this month in Indianapolis. Even though Katie Ledecky, the fastest American so far this year, is unlikely to swim the race at Trials, Beisel will face a talented field that will include Cox, two-time NCAA champion Ella Eastin and Trials third-place finisher Bethany Galat.
Going to Trials With an Open Mind
But Beisel is not letting any of what’s on paper bother her. For all the difficult objectives she’s aimed for in the past, her goal over the next month might actually be more challenging than an American record or Olympic gold in the 400 IM, both of which she barely missed in 2012.
She wants to go to World Championship Trials, the biggest meet on U.S. soil all year, with an open mind and no expectations.
“Every single summer I’ve had hard goals, I’ve had things I’ve wanted to do, and those expectations can weigh down on you,” she said. “I’m just working on having fun and enjoying the process right now rather than thinking about the outcome.”
That’s because Beisel knows that the end of her career “won’t be far from now.” She has no firm plans after Trials, so she wants to make sure to appreciate and enjoy her entire week in Indianapolis.
“I’m going to try to think of it as another meet and another chance for me to have fun and to soak in doing what I love. I don’t know what the rest of my career is going to look like,” she said.
“I could make the Worlds team, or I could not. But while I’m there, I’m going to make sure that I put in the best effort I could have, and whether that’s first place or eighth place or whatever it is, I’m going to be able to walk away from that meet knowing that in the two or three months I was in the water, I did everything I could to make sure I would be the best that I could be at Trials.”
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick
The knowledge that she may be going through her final swimming season is a feeling Beisel calls weird, exciting and sad, but she feels her long break helped her realize what else she has to offer the world in a life outside the pool.
“You hear it so many times—swimmers really identify themselves as one thing, and that’s as a swimmer and an athlete. But I think one thing that I learned on my break is that I’m so much more than just a swimmer,” she said. “I feel like sometimes we can get a little lost inside this swimming bubble and we don’t really give ourselves a chance to explore the world. I think I’m really excited for that opportunity.”
Also through her time off, Beisel gained some perspective. She finished up in Rio dissatisfied with her performance in her lone event, the 400 IM. She ended up sixth in 4:34.98, more than three seconds slower than her lifetime best and a second-and-a-half short of her season-best time of 4:33.55.
Beisel would sit in the stands as a cheerleader for Team USA over the next seven days, and she says it was her role as team captain that saved her from “going into a downward spiral, feeling bad for myself.”
Her journey to Rio had been far from smooth, as Beisel ended up in the hospital for several days just a week before Olympic Trials before breaking a finger in warm-ups during Trials. But that’s not the reason she learned to be okay with how the Olympics turned out.
“I look at myself and say, ‘I got sixth at the Olympics,’” she said. “Maybe people expected more from me, but in the grand scheme of life, I was still the sixth-best person in the world. I think as athletes we become numb to that.”
Nine years earlier in 2008, a 15-year-old Elizabeth Beisel competed in Santa Clara and won the women’s 400 IM in a lifetime-best time of 4:36.75. It was that effort that earned her the No. 2 seed in the event at U.S. Olympic Trials that year, where she would go on to earn her first Olympic berth.
Now, in 2017, Beisel has begun contemplating her next moves, her life when swimming will not be the focal point of her life, when she won’t come to meets like Santa Clara year in and year out.
“There’s so many things out there in the world, and I’ve given my life to swimming,” she said. “In the near future, it’s going to be time to give myself to something else, and I’m completely fine with that.”
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