By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Five years after retiring and nine since swimming for gold at the Athens Olympic Games, Carly Piper is as competitive as ever.
Still swimming – just not competitively – she now seeks alternative channels for that energy and excitement.
“I definitely miss the competitive side of swimming,” Piper said. “When coaching at meets and watching the 200 freestyles, I get nostalgic. I still love racing, I’ve just taken up some different ways to help my competitive nature.”
These days – in addition to serving as an assistant coach with her soon-to-be husband (they will be married next May) at Southwest Aquatic Team (SWAT) in Milwaukee, Wisc. – Piper lets loose on her competition by running half marathons, dabbling with triathlons (“just some sprints”) and taking TRX classes with one of her former coaches.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would ever do a marathon, I would have said ‘NO WAY!’” Piper said. “But I actually enjoy them. I love being active.”
It was the activity as a child that first got Piper involved with swimming. She rose through the ranks and put herself in position for a bright future when she qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 800 freestyle in 2000 as a 16-year-old.
Even though she finished next-to-last, Piper said she left Trials that year a smarter, more determined swimmer and competitor. Having dreamed of swimming in the Olympics since she was a youngster, she knew with hard work and focus, she would be in a much better position four years later.
In the meantime, she finished her high school career in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and signed on to swim for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was during her time there that she honed her talent, and during the summer after her junior year, she experienced her Olympic breakthrough.
“I went to the 2004 Trials knowing that it was going to be a tough field,” Piper said. “I wanted to make the team, no doubt! I was also thrilled because I was swimming in more than one event (in 2000, I only had the 800 free cut). I was around a great group of people – my teammates from the University of Wisconsin – and we were behind each other 100 percent. I was super excited after making it to semifinals and then to finals. Once there, I think that is where I thought ‘OK, you have a shot here! Just get top 6. That is all you need to make the team.’
Piper did just that, finishing fifth in the 200 freestyle and earned a spot on the 800 freestyle relay team. She had punched her ticket to Athens and was ecstatic to fulfill her Olympic dream.
And while some teammates decided to forego the Games’ Opening Ceremonies, Piper said she went in wanting to soak up as much of the atmosphere and experiences as possible – imbibing heavily on what she knew might be her only Olympics.
“I love to race, so that was the best part about swimming the 200 three times (at Trials) – another race, another opportunity!” Piper said. “I remember most going to the opening ceremonies. I am happy I didn't pass those up. Being in the same arena with athletes from all over the world was exceptional!”
Piper went on to win gold along with her fellow 800 free relay teammates – and established a world record in the process.
“Making the 2004 Olympic Team was a dream come true,” Piper said. “I was able to swim in both the prelims and finals of the race. I was the only one chosen from the morning to compete with the team in finals. I enjoyed every moment of it! Being able to represent the USA and then also winning gold and breaking a world record – sometimes I still have to pinch myself to make sure it wasn't a dream!”
Piper ended her career in Madison as a two-time Big Ten Swimmer of the Year recipient and finished as an 18-time All-American. While still in school, and after she had exhausted her athletic eligibility, she served as a volunteer assistant coach with the Wisconsin men’s and women’s swimming teams and continued to train for the 2008 Olympic Trials.
She went to Omaha excited but realistic – all the while knowing whatever happened, it would be her last hurrah – unless she made the team headed for Beijing.
“I retired after 2008 Olympic Trials,” Piper said. “I knew that would be my last meet, regardless if I made the team or not. I did not end up making the team, but I had another great experience that I can add to my list.
“I had a pretty solid meet – not my best, but I was proud that I stayed to train and compete for another 4 years. I was not close to making the team. If I had made it back to semis or finals, I am sure I would have broken two minutes again. But, I swam my heart out, am proud, and have no regrets!”
Having earned her degree in zoology, Piper imagined a post-college career working with animals, but after a few positions working in the health care industry, she found herself back in familiar territory – coaching.
And while she admits she may still take a different career path – she’s considering going back to school after her wedding next spring to become an X-ray technician – for now, she’s very happy guiding young swimmers toward their own Olympic dreams.
“I moved to Madison this past April and started coaching when I moved,” said Piper, who coaches the 13 and over age group. “I enjoy coaching very much! It reminds me of all the fun I had growing up in the sport. My favorite part is seeing the swimmers when they have a breakthrough – whether it’s a change in their stroke that I tell them every day to do and they finally get it or a time drop in an event that they have struggled with. I did always have coaching in the back of my mind as a possibility; it just took me a little while to come back to it.”
“I love swimming. It’s a great form of exercise and something you can do forever. I plan on swimming forever. I try to make sure the kids are having fun. You have to train, but you also have to enjoy training. It is a delicate balance and I try to let them know that.”