By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
When Jessica Hardy won a gold and bronze in London, it meant more than words can say. When she won the Golden Goggle award for perseverance in New York City, her speech was about how she had been humbled, and thanked everyone who believed in her. She explains what she has been through, and how it has made her a better person, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What did it mean to win the award at Golden Goggles – were you as overwhelmed and emotional as you appeared?
Jessica: I guess that’s a pretty loaded question! Reflecting back, to be kind of cheesy, going from the breakout award to the perseverance award shows you the amount of trauma (laughs) I went through to earn it! I did not expect to be rewarded like that – it was touching, and surprising.
2. What was the process of getting through what happened in 2008 with the drug test and suspension (which was later reduced when it was found it was caused by a tainted supplement)?
Jessica: I don’t know how I got through 2008. That was such a challenging part of my life. That negativity was the lowest low I could ever imagine. The isolation was incredible. But I am a happy person now and I am a better person for it.
3. So you are one of the best breaststrokers in the world, and you win medals in the freestyle in London – who would have thought it, right?
Jessica: No, I wouldn’t have ever imagined that. I didn’t become a sprint freestylist until I left college. It’s really a new thing for me. It’s awesome to see how stacked (100) breaststroke is in the U.S. I got third at Olympic Trials, but I would have beaten the girl who got third at the Olympics!
4. But you enjoy the free, right?
Jessica: It’s a lot of fun to swim freestyle. There’s not as much pressure for me. That came out in my racing, and I enjoyed it. In breaststroke, I feel like I have to do well every time – much more pressure on myself.
5. What did it mean to make the London team?
Jessica: It’s so hard to put that kind of emotion into words. Relief is the right word. It was a lot of emotion and years to put into a 53 second race. When it finally happened I was so shocked and ecstatic. I just sat on the wall and tried to take in all the emotion. My parents screaming, and all the girls in the pool, who are all close friends of mine. It’s one of those moments I wish I could have lived in forever.
6. You seem to have this wise perspective now, did that come from the challenges?
Jessica: That’s really nice of you! I can’t even tell you thank you enough for that. There are definitely some silver linings to what I went through, and I never would have thought that. I have become a more humble, gracious and sincere person – a more real person. It put life into perspective. I had to be even more patient – I was such an impatient person before.
7. To see Dana Vollmer from Cal – where you went to school originally – come back after just missing the team in 2008, did that warm your heart as well?
Jessica: Oh yeah, we used to be very close, and swam together my last year at Berkeley – we were even best friends at one point, I would say. I am so proud of how she handled herself. Going through the adversity of missing an Olympic team makes you stronger. I do see similar approaches between us in swimming. I am proud of her and happy for her.
8. Swimming for Coach Dave Salo, why is that such a good fit?
Jessica: I trained with Dave Salo in high school. That was just by chance because I grew up in southern California. My Mom thought I should train there since he had a good breaststroker, and I also liked his sprint training. It worked right away. His training has clicked for me. It’s an environment I love.
9. What about going to Cal and then going pro, and being on the post-grad at USC – that worked for you, didn’t it?
Jessica: I am glad I went to college and gave it a chance. This whole process has given me a great chance to be successful. I love being around so many post-grads now at USC who have the same goal, and it’s nice going to the beach!
10. You just seem so much more peaceful now – is that accurate?
Jessica: I am definitely more relaxed. I definitely needed to be more relaxed, and patient – I was a sprinter in every sense of the word. I was like a thoroughbred, just jumping at everything. I have been lucky with my career. I have had my share of obstacles, but I have a support system around me that has helped me through it. I have learned to overcome things that come my way, and be appreciative of everything that comes my way.
11. What is your fiancé, Dominik Meichtry, an Olympian from Switzerland, like?
Jessica: Dom is amazing. He is the total calming factor in my life. He’s been there through all the hard stuff, and he’s been there for more than my fair share of amazing experiences. He’s lived all over the world, and he’s very smart. I feel like he makes me a better person, and I feel lucky to have him in my life.
12. Your sister Amanda, a junior national water polo player – has a big part of your bond been in the water?
Jessica: Oh yeah, my sister and I actually have matching tattoos with water drops on our backs because it’s been such a big part of our life. She was very successful in water polo. It’s a common bond, and we learned a lot pushing each other in the pool.
13. Southern California really is your home in every sense of the word, isn’t it?
Jessica: I love southern California – just the lifestyle, and the beach. Most people are active outside riding bikes, swimming and surfing. You don’t just sit at home out there. L.A. is a pretty cool city. It’s kind of a Mecca of entertainment, but there’s also good shopping. It’s also multicultural, which helps you learn and develop as a person. I like to learn about different cultures.
14. You get a lot of that in the post-grad program at USC as well, correct?
Jessica: It’s really interesting, hearing 15 different languages going on at practice, and picking up the words. Every time I leave the country and travel for swimming or fun, I literally have friends everywhere I go, and I can meet up with someone in Croatia, France or South America – it’s amazing the connections swimming gives you.
15. What made the 2012 U.S. Women’s Olympic team so unique?
Jessica: It was a really interesting team. I have been on the National Team since 2005. This was definitely the closest group of women. Everyone was happy and smiling all the time. I don’t know if that had to do with Missy, and the “Call me Maybe” video from Kathleen (Hersey), but we were relaxed. It was genuinely a good, happy time. Everyone genuinely got along, which was awesome. Having Rebecca Soni as a teammate was also meaningful. I have had the privilege of training with her for six years now. We held each other accountable in the pool. We are very different personalities – she is very quiet and reserved, and I’m a little outspoken and in your face, sometimes too much. But we left that in the pool and we are good friends out of it. Watching her in the 200 breaststroke at the Olympics was something that touched me so much – that was such an emotional moment for me to experience after seeing her push herself, and appreciate how much she deserved that.
16. What about having your former Cal teammate Natalie Coughlin as a U.S. team captain?
Jessica: I have learned so much from being her teammates and watching her. She really likes giving guidance to swimmers. She finished swimming after the first session (in London), so she was there for us, selfless, giving of herself to help everyone. She wanted to help us all out, and we were so lucky for it – we will appreciate forever having her as a team captain and leader.
17. How about your former college coach, Teri McKeever, being the head Olympic coach – and in another irony, her assistant was Dave Salo, your USC post-grad coach – ironic?
Jessica: I am happy for Teri breaking that barrier to be the first women’s head Olympic coach. She has worked so hard and has earned everything she has. It was also great she had Dave as an assistant – I am so grateful he was able to come, and I am glad he chose to be a part of it. It was an interesting experience because the only ones who really coached me after age group were Dave and Teri.
18. You looked so happy every time I saw you in London, was that the case?
Jessica: I kept pinching myself the whole, entire time. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Even on the podium (getting medals) I probably annoyed the other girls, because I couldn’t stop smiling. I was getting a medal around my neck and I was hitting them on the shoulders like, “Guys, do you realize where we are!” I took the time to appreciate every single moment. It was surreal.
19. What do you see when you look at that Olympic medal?
Jessica: I see gratitude, mostly. I was thinking about this on my flight today. It was a lot more difficult surviving my suspension than it was to compete at the Olympics. It wasn’t that hard to be ready at the Olympics – it wasn’t (laughs) that hard! The medals represent more than the Olympics to me, they represent what I have been through.
20. So can we count on seeing you in 2016?
Jessica: I would love to be there in Rio. I didn’t get to swim breaststroke in these Olympics, and I would love the opportunity to do that. I have goals I have not reached and I’d like to give myself the opportunity to get them. As long as I am still competitive – and I love to race and love the sport – I am hoping to do this a little bit longer!