By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Beijing Olympic medalist Caroline Burckle likes this part of the quadrennial. The master’s in sports psychology student at the University of Tennessee won gold at Pan Ams in Rio in 2007 in the 800 free, and gold at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal. She talks about what she saw from the U.S. at Pan Pacs in Australia this time around, what she thinks we might see in Rio, and what her life in academia is really like in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. First of all, as someone who was on that Beijing team with him, what’s your reaction to seeing Michael Phelps back – and winning the 100 fly at Pan Pacifics?
Caroline: I am not surprised at all – that’s his brand, his gift in life. When you have a gift like that in life, you take it and you go after it. I think it’s great that he’s back. He needs to follow his passion, and if that’s what he wants to do, he should do it as long as he wants. I think it’s that way for any comeback – it’s hard for me to see people questioning these swimmers who decide to continue, because it’s normal in any sport to do what you love. At the end of the day, Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever, and he is great for the sport. He has been such a positive force in swimming, and he’s set the bar at a height no one could have ever imagined. He’s also put swimming on the map for a lot of people.
2. And yet we had some cool new faces on this Pan Pacs team, didn’t we?
Caroline: These swimmers are great in their own right, absolutely, but what made it even cooler is to see someone like Maya DiRado be on the same page with Michael Phelps in the news because she also won a gold medal (in the 200 IM) – Michael being there brought more attention to Pan Pacs, and that’s good for all of our swimmers, and all of swimming. Only now are people starting to fully realize how far swimming has come.
3. I find Pan Pacs and Worlds as exciting as the Olympics because it gives you a context for each swimmer’s development and career arc – this year, it seems like we saw more new faces than ever, or is that correct?
Caroline: There are a lot of breakout swimmers. So while people might say it’s not a year that gets a lot of attention, it’s important because it’s a new generation and a lot of new swimmers are coming up, getting that very important experience at Nationals and even more if they make an international team.
4. People are surprised Michael came back and was so fast – but he never looked out of shape, did he?
Caroline: He may have been cross-training and doing other things that are beneficial. And keep in mind, recovery is really important in life. If you don’t recover, you can’t come back like you’d want to do. That is both physical, and mental. That’s something I have learned doing my sports psychology master’s here (at the University of Tennessee). Michael took a step back, and if anything, that made what he’s doing now possible. Recovery is a key part of training.
5. Now that you have all of this schooling to contextualize things, is there anything you “wish you would have known then” that you do now?
Caroline: You know, I wish I would have known everything then! But then if I had, it might not have molded my career into what it was. I might have overthought things and not lived in the moment – not been as “in the flow” of things. It’s interesting to make more sense of it now. But the journey is where all the growth occurred, gave me great memories, opportunities and friends, so I’d certainly not change a thing about it. At this point in my life, studying and learning more about things is where I am supposed to be, and I want to make the most of it.
6. Was swimming good prep for grad school?
Caroline: Everything we did prepares you for something like this. Swimming, and being part of a family that instilled the right values in us – to slow down and see the big picture – has been beneficial for me this year.
7. What are you doing in school now?
Caroline: As a graduate assistant, in addition to the academics, we help with student-athlete development – life skills. A lot of it is personal development in general. Working with student athletes in the Thorton Center is amazing. We work to develop the entire person – the holistic student athlete. We pick, in the program, a framework, and mine is the mind-body connection. I might get into the performance consulting at some point, but my general interest is in helping people.
8. What do you plan to do with that?
Caroline: I don’t know where it will take me, I am just learning a lot and really finding it fulfilling. I have great passion to help people reach their goals. If I can make a difference in one student-athlete’s day, it means a lot to me. That might be listening to them, helping them find their way on something, but you can make a difference in a lot of ways.
9. What have you noticed about Missy Franklin?
Caroline: I love Missy. She has been absolutely outstanding. We took one of our younger swimmers here, Larsen Gilbert, to Nationals in Knoxville last year. I presented some medals. Afterward I said, “Missy, this little girl wants to meet you.” Missy smiled and came over and talked to her and gave Larsen the medal Missy had just won! What a class act. She is so good for the sport. She’s happy at Cal, has great resources and a great training group.
10. That’s a pretty cool story – and you still remember it that clearly, don’t you?
Caroline: I do. What a moment. It just goes to show how classy Missy is. She’s a very important part of USA Swimming – and for swimming internationally as well. The fact that she’s one of the world’s best swimmers is pretty cool, but that she’s one of the best people is even more awesome.
11. Missy is also a veteran but also has a lot left, doesn’t she?
Caroline: You can tell I am a (laughs) a big Missy Franklin fan! I think she has the potential to change this sport even more in coming years.
12. We’re also pretty fortunate to have another grounded, classy star in Katie Ledecky – have you talked to her much?
Caroline: I know Katie a little bit – I met her Mom in London and hung out a little there. Katie is the hardest worker around, and such a truly sweet girl. I think she deserves all the success in the world, and I think she will continue to have success. She has a good head on her shoulders, and processes everything in a very mature manner.
13. Ryan Lochte, your ol’ Gator buddy, comes back from injury and really brings it at Phillips 66 Nationals and then Pan Pacs – surprised to see him bounce back so fast?
Caroline: Not at all, and I think being able to have a fresh start at SwimMAC has been good for him. I know he missed Coach Troy because Gregg got him so far, but they still have that great relationship. I think getting a fresh perspective and working with Dave Marsh has provided him with some additional options on how he can continue to improve.
14 And your fellow Gator, a few years removed from your class of course, two-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel who at the grand ol’ age of 22 is seeking her third Olympic team berth – how is that even possible?
Caroline: I love Beisel. You know what’s great about Beisel? Her perspective. And her outlook. If she were done tomorrow, she’d still be the happiest person ever. She’s always happy, and that’s why she is so successful. That’s what’s amazing about her, she’ll find whatever she’s in the midst of, and be happy with it. What a great character trait.
15. And yet she does the hardest swim in the 400 IM (and won it at Pan Pacs) as a veteran, albeit a young one – and she’s added the back again, and freestyle – did that surprise you?
Caroline: Beisel, she’s so versatile; you can throw her into anything and she’ll do it well. We were on the Beijing team together, so we go back a ways.
16. You still remember your time at Florida fondly?
Caroline: Especially after you leave, you miss Coach Troy. And let me tell you, I do miss him. Florida was a great place to go to school, and swim.
17. Yet we have that great group including Coach Troy, and a lot of younger coaches, too – how good is that for the sport?
Caroline: I think it is great that we have up-and-coming coaches who have a fresh take on things. But keep in mind they continue to learn from the greats – the Urbancheks, Reeses, Troys, McKeevers, all of those great coaches. You can learn from these people because they want to pass along what they have learned. The thing about the younger coaches is there is a great wave of creativity in the sport, and one of the challenges this new generation of coaches faces is keeping the kids on their toes. They think of new sets, and new techniques, and being aware of how the sport is evolving – and being out front with it – is a key reason USA Swimming is able to stay the world’s leader.
18. Who is someone you are rooting for right now?
Caroline: I talk to Katie Hoff a lot, and I know she was sick at Nationals, and I was so proud of her just being at that meet under those conditions where she was so ill, but still gave it her all. As far as comebacks – and I don’t like that word because what this really is, is her continuing with her passion – I am rooting for Katie Hoff. She’s one of my best friends in the world. You know, these younger swimmers, especially on the female side, are so exciting. But what’s also fun to watch is the veterans; Natalie Coughlin is still fast, and who wants to declare right now that Dara Torres wouldn’t be a contender to make the team if she came back? I know I think she could do it. It’s just a great mix of veterans and new faces, and that is good for swimming – having all of these age ranges, and all of them having so much respect for each other.
19. I know you were a positive person all the time, do you appreciate how well this group of men and women on Team USA seem to truly care for each other?
Caroline: That’s where the term “good sport” comes from – being a good teammate, the camaraderie, having dignity when you lose and class when you win – we have a bunch of good sports in addition to being great swimmers. That positive attitude carries a team, just like a negative attitude can bring a group down, or hold it back. At the end of it. All they will remember is being around each other, and this group really gets that, and really enjoys that. And it’s so fun to watch and cheer for a group of people who respects each other and the sport like they do.
20. So you see these young faces, these veterans, and this core group who is relatively young but leading the world – how tough are U.S. Olympic Trials going to be this time around especially?
Caroline: I know – Trials will be really exciting to watch. It’s hard because on that day whoever is on, makes it, and others come so close, but do not. That’s why this year – and last year and next year – are so important. These teams matter. These are the best swimmers in the world. If you make Pan Ams, Pan Pacs, Worlds, WUGs, that is amazing in itself. USA Swimming has the fastest trials in the world. If you make any one of these teams you are one of the greatest swimmers around. People have to stop and take a breath and realize what an incredible accomplishment they had this year making this Pan Pacs team. Because you are representing our great country, and in the end, what we are grateful for is repping this country, meeting these amazing people, and having all of these great memories for the rest of our lives.