By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
The image of Garrett Weber-Gale is iconic; his bicep flaring as he fist pumps his way into celebration for helping Michael Phelps win relay gold, one of two gold medals Weber-Gale brought home from Beijing. Trials did not land Weber-Gale a spot on the Olympic team this year, but rather than focus on that, he is headed to London to be an ambassador for USA Swimming, and on the career front his Athletic Foodie business has taken him to the world’s best kitchens. He talks about that, and his own plans to start cooking up his own place, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How are you doing?
Garrett: To be honest, I am feeling great. It’s kind of frightening (laughs) because I am still as happy, or happier now, than I have been the past four or five years. As I have matured, I feel like I am living the dream more and more, and nothing can stop me.
2. A lot of people were shocked – though the field of sprinters is stacked for the U.S. – that you didn’t make the team, how have you dealt with that?
Garrett: Ultimately, I am disappointed I did not make the Olympic team. It stings. I worked hard. At the end of the day, it’s a small bump in the road. It didn’t break me. I am still an Olympian with two gold medals. I have never been defined by being in an Olympics. The Olympics and World Championships are all amazing train stops in the happy path of my life.
3. You have been working as a chef and building up your healthy foods and nutrition company Athletic Foodie since 2008 – how smart was that, looking back, to always have an eye on the future?
Garrett: I broke American records, world records, and while I was doing that I built myself a great brand with Athletic Foodie and in the business world. Now I can pursue Athletic Foodie with a clear purpose that I was never able to have before, since I was focused on swimming. I had a wonderful time swimming, and I am still living the dream. I have the best girlfriend in the world, my family is unbelievable, and my sister lives in Austin and I see her all the time. I am thankful.
4. At the University of Texas and on the 2008 Olympic team, you had some of the most remarkable teammates in the history of sport – how unique is that?
Garrett: You’re exactly right, I did have awesome teammates. They helped me earn the most proud moments of my life. I will always have that; no one can take that feather in my cap away from me. And look at Brendan Hansen and what he is still doing this year; he knows how to get the work done, what it takes and he’s a great motivator – he will do a lot for this team in London, because he did it in 2008, and for us at UT.
5. Will you swim again and comeback with a run toward 2016?
Garrett: Who knows if I will ever swim again? I have really enjoyed it the last few years. It has taught me a lot about working hard, about the importance of an education, and working on the little things – that last one is something that you really learn from swimming, and it helps you at whatever you do in life, because the details are the keys to so many things.
6. So you go to London tomorrow (July 25), excited?
Garrett: I am. I will be in London to support Team USA. I will also bring my girlfriend over for three days, go to Paris, Italy to visit some friends, and then Spain for the first few weeks of September to see a friend who has a restaurant. There’s nothing for me to be sad about – I have everything to be thankful for. I’m blown away by the awesome opportunities I have going on. I will be in London in a supporting role, doing some appearances, including one with First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Embassy.
7. You apprenticed in France and Italy at these world-class restaurants – what a great way to not only have balance in your life, but to set up your life for the future. How smart was that looking back?
Garrett: The only way I know how to do it is grind on it and get it done. I don’t know what to do other than work, work and work. And if something doesn’t work, you work harder and smarter. You build character from those lessons, and you take that on with you into the rest of your life when you are doing something else.
8. How have you been able to stay in such great shape?
Garrett: I consistently take care of my body. I really believe in a healthy diet. It’s about moderation. It is about nutrition and eating smart not just for your health but also for how you feel throughout the day. And it really helps when you are a competitive swimmer. I got into swimming at a neighborhood pool around the corner from our house, and I was reminded of that the other day when I got back in the pool, swam for 30 minutes, and just felt great. I have too much respect for my body to let it go.
9. You are not the prototypical tall sprinter and you are in great shape but you can still look like the man on the street in regular clothes – is that accurate?
Garrett: I have been very fortunate there is no question about it, but I know I have worked harder than anyone in the world for it. I am not as big or as strong or as talented as most of these incredible people, but I was always willing to work harder and longer than anyone else, and that was my bread and butter.
10. Did you have to monitor that so you didn’t over train?
Garrett: This year it was an evil for me in that I worked so hard I dug myself into a hole, and didn’t have time to recover – that’s the reason I am not in the Olympics. The time that Nathan (Adrian) won the 100 in (at Trials), I went that same time last year. I knew I had a huge opportunity this year, so I worked hard in the weight room. But I didn’t allow enough time to recover, and that’s my fault.
11. Eddie Reese is coaching as an assistant Olympic coach this year – how much did he shape you at Texas, and what makes him such a great coach?
Garrett: Eddie Reese has always taught us that our purpose in life is to take care of one another. And he always took care of us as people and as students, putting that before athletics. He does that with a sincerity no one else I know has. Kris (Kubik) and Eddie care about their student-athletes as people and all the success and tradition comes from that. Yes, Eddie writes great sets and thinks things out, but his greatest genius is he’s able to get us to accomplish greater things than we ever thought we could. He taught us the human body is only limited by our minds.
12. What do you see UT product Jimmy Feigen, on the Olympic team as a sprinter, doing in the sport?
Garrett: Jimmy is one of the most talented freestylers in the world. The only thing that can limit Jimmy is Jimmy himself. He has learned how to do the little things correct now. It took him a long time to realize what you eat makes a difference, and when you go to sleep makes a difference. Also, injuries along the way set him back. But this year especially he has matured as a person. What he did this year at Olympic Trials is just a hint of what he’s capable of doing – he has so much talent.
13. What about the career Ricky Berens has put together?
Garrett: Ricky really is a good leader. Ricky wants everyone to swim fast. He’s a big time Longhorn and part of the great tradition here. I think he’s going to have a great Olympics. He’s been a wonderful addition to the University of Texas tradition.
14. Where did your Athletic Foodie start?
Garrett: In 2008, my dad came up with the name Athletic Foodie. It fits in perfectly with what we are trying to do. To get that snowball rolling takes a lot of time of doing things right. We are still in the early stages of the Athletic Foodie. We want to help people lead a better quality of life based on what they eat; what we put in our body is the most important thing we do to take care of it. You can exercise all day long but if you are putting bad things in it you are not helping yourself. If you boost your nutrition, it will boost how you feel at work, in the pool, in the weight room – anywhere.
15. I think it’s awesome you know what’s next – I see so many athletes face retirement and have no idea what to do – isn’t it awesome you have a plan already rolling?
Garrett: Thank you, I appreciate that. I did know from a long time ago when I was a freshman or sophomore in college that I never wanted to be one of the athletes – and a large percentage fall into it – where when you are done competing you have no idea what comes next. I was raised to live in the moment but keep an eye on tomorrow. You have to be mindful about your future, and ideally connect what you are doing in the present to what is next, especially because no matter how good you are, things just are not always going to go your way. I was very calculated planning my life after sports because I knew I wanted to have a career in the cooking world. I had developed a cookbook and some people – you were one of them – told me I had to develop my contacts and work my tail off to build a network. So I went around and worked with these amazing people, learned a lot, and that helped push my career forward.
16. Hasn’t it helped your swimming career – having this other career that is based on nutrition and smart eating?
Garrett: No question about it, I learned how to make food that was delicious but healthy and easy to make. I realized over the years what an incredible difference food makes on how we feel and how we perform. Nothing I could have done career wise or passion wise would have been benefitted me more than getting involved with food and cooking. I credit a lot of my success in swimming to my diet. When you are going head to head with the best – and I’ve already mentioned I am not the biggest or the strongest – you have to have all the other things right on a consistent basis.
17. I remember you telling me how you were planning to go after a Grand Prix or Worlds to work in these world-famous restaurants – how did you set this up?
Garrett: It is simple: I am passionate about what they have dedicated their life to doing. Most people in life want something from someone and I didn’t want anything other than to work for them and learn. That’s a simple equation for success. They dedicated their lives to doing something at a high level and becoming the best. I know what it takes to do that. On top of that, once they saw my passion for what they do, they were very nice and kind and let me come there and learn from them., They could see how much it meant to me and how passionate I was for it – no one goes to Copenhagen (laughs) to work 14 hours hard manual labor in a restaurant for their vacation! But these were the opportunities of a lifetime, and it helped me so much. I am thankful.
18. Olympics are up next – what do you expect from Michael Phelps?
Garrett: It’s almost frustrating in a sense because there is no way to help people who are not in the swimming world understand how difficult of an accomplishment that was in Beijing for Michael. He is the greatest swimmer in the world, and always will be. Watching him was a great delight. That was a privilege for me. And I mean it’s a frustration in a good way for me that no one can fathom or comprehend what he did. It would be like Lebron James not only being a great basketball player and winning the NBA title, but also being the best tight end in the NFL and the best first baseman in Major League Baseball. What Michael did won’t be equaled, in swimming or any sport.
19. What do you think of the Lochte-Phelps battle, and are you also excited to watch Missy Franklin?
Garrett: I think the Locthe-Phelps battle is going to be one of the greatest things we have ever seen. Both guys worked hard. Some people say that Phelps hasn’t worked hard. Dude, Phelps has worked hard. He’s not some idiot – he knows what he has to do. Both of those guys have extremely motivated minds. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be a very close race in everything they do. As far as the women’s team, I think they are much better this time; they were good last time, but not nearly as good as they are now. Missy Franklin is incredible. But every sports writer and media person needs to be very careful not to tout her as the female Michael Phelps. That’s what they did with Katie Hoff in 2008 and it was not fair. Missy is going to have an incredible Olympics, and she is going to make her name as Missy Franklin – she is not anyone else. Respect her, cheer her on, and cherish her for what she is going to do – this is her dream, support her in that and respect her for who she is.
20. Can the U.S. men really have a shot at winning all three relays again?
Garrett: Frankly I never for a single moment believed we would not win in Beijing. I never understood why people favored the French – that was absurd to me even though I think the French have a great 400 free relay. But never in my wildest dreams would I count out the American Olympic team. They won’t go into it – and we didn’t go into it – thinking that we would win by a lot or anything like that. We went in to battle for a win, to win on the last stroke, by that hundredth of a second. The Russians, French, and Australians, and other countries, will all be good, there is no question about that, and it is exciting. But we’re the United States, and we will go in like we always do, doing what it takes to win at the wall when the pressure and the stakes are at their highest. That’s who we are.