By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Margaret Hoelzer said she knew it was time to hang it up before the final run to 2012 began, but she went out with her head held high and her career speaks for itself. Now, she focuses on speaking to and for victims of abuse and she is scheduled to speak at Penn State’s first conference on Child Sex Abuse October 29-30 at the Penn State Conference Center Hotel in State College, Pa. Hoelzer plans to talk about her career and the incredible 2012 Olympic team, as well as her passion for making a difference in others’ lives now that she has finished her swimming career.
1. How did the 2012 Olympic women’s swim team represent the U.S.?
Margaret: I thought they did a great job! I was lucky enough to go to London and I got to watch swimming three different nights. It was great to have that perspective as a fan and get caught up in the excitement of being a spectator. I thought the team did a great job of stepping up to the plate.
2. What about the dignity and class Michael Phelps showed going out as, still, the best swimmer in the world, and with a smile on his face?
Margaret: You know, I was very, very proud of Michael. I definitely think there were times when he didn’t handle himself the best – we have all been there, and it’s part of growing up – but this time he was extremely classy, especially in the 200 butterfly when he won the silver medal. His interviews were very well done and I thought, “He has come a long way. He’s really grown up.” He genuinely seemed like he was okay with himself. I think that takes a lot time to get to that point, to realize that winning isn’t everything and you can be okay with yourself as a person. He is the best swimmer in the world, and he can be very proud of that. You can allow yourself to pat yourself on the back for that.
3. How big of a deal was it for you to be in London?
Margaret: It was a big deal. Unfortunately, it was a little expensive, which was a down side! But it did mean a lot to me to be there. It was important for me to close out my own swimming story and to close that door when everyone was asking questions during all the comebacks – was that something I saw for myself? And for me, the answer was no. As happy as I was to be there, I was happy to not be swimming. I was happy to close that door, but I was happy to be supportive of the people I knew there. I didn’t know that many of the new people, but about half of that (men’s and women’s U.S. team) team was on the 2008 team with me.
4. Have you celebrated your career yet?
Margaret: I think that kind of goes into what I was talking about with Michael. There is a certain acceptance you always want to have. I had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror and patting myself on the back to acknowledge I was a good swimmer. I don’t know if that’s a self-confidence issue or being comfortable with myself or not, but I didn’t know if I was being cocky if I took pride in my accomplishments. But you can be proud of yourself and that doesn’t necessarily make you arrogant.
5. That run of women from 2000 to 2008 you were a part of – some good memories?
Margaret: We were a good group. There were a lot of good people with a lot of good personalities. I have a lot of friends from my swimming career. I don’t really have any friends from that time of my life (laughs) that are not swimmers! There are definitely a lot of special people from that time, male and female, because I was good friends with people on the men’s team at that time, too.
6. So are your Auburn Tigers breaking your heart on the gridiron again this fall?
Margaret: I’m not a typical Alabama fan. I like Auburn, but Alabama is my backup team. I am from the state of Alabama, so I take pride in cheering for the other teams in the state. My mom and sister went to Alabama. Obviously, I am going to cheer first and foremost for Auburn, but support Alabama. It is good for the rivalry when both teams are playing well.
7. What’s a highlight that sticks in your mind from your career?
Margaret: There are always going to be highlights in your career. Making the Olympic team in the 100 backstroke is always going to be a highlight for me, because I was the only person (laughs) who thought I could do that! There was no one on the pool deck other than my coach maybe who thought I could do that. It was fun playing the underdog.
8. And maybe something else, like a broken record?
Margaret: Yes, you can’t forget to throw breaking the world record in there. Well, you (laughs) can’t forget that unless you are Michael Phelps and broke them so often. But there are a lot of fun races I remember. And honestly, some of my best memories are oddball ones – races that probably no one else would remember or even think about.
9. What do you think about Missy Franklin?
Margaret: I don’t know her very well personally; I was only on one team with her before I retired. Obviously, from what I have seen of her racing, she handles herself under pressure, at a very early age, in a way that most people can’t do at that age. I believe that is going to be the thing that carries her to the next level, her ability to stay focused when everything around her is falling apart. I know a lot of people compare her to Michael Phelps, and certainly one could make a case for that in some areas, but I honestly think of her more as Tracy Caulkins, who really was the most dominant swimmer in the sport in so many different events.
10. So the sky is the limit for Missy?
Margaret: It really is. I really wish she could have swum the 200 IM at this last Olympics – I think she would have medaled if she would have done that. I genuinely think that. I think Missy can do anything she wants to. She’ll be under the same constraints Michael has been under, where there are only so many hours in the day, and she and her coach will have to plan out the program for Trials and the Olympics depending on the schedule. Certainly, she’s capable of making the Olympics in as many events as Michael did.
11. Did you feel proud of Ryan Lochte for his great effort?
Margaret: I really did, yes, and I never expected him to do what Michael did – I assume that’s what the media was expecting. Lochte is a phenomenal swimmer but I never honestly thought anyone who understands the sport thought he was going to win all gold medals in London. Now, did it turn out differently than people expected? Maybe. Probably. But you can’t compare the two. Michael is in his own class. It’s not fair to compare Ryan to him. Ryan’s a phenomenal swimmer in his own right, and comparing him to Michael tarnishes what he has done.
12. The whole Penn State crisis, you can relate to the victims in a way not everyone can, can’t you?
Margaret: It really emotional, and for me, there’s definitely a part of me that is a little bit like a wound that never quite heals. It’s always a bit open. I do get a little upset every time I talk about it. And while it sounds contradictory, it is very healing to talk about it. It’s an emotional topic in and of itself. I do enjoy talking about it and that is very rewarding. I don’t work directly with kids because it’s such a closed-door topic and there are a lot of privacy rules, but I do speak at events. And at these fundraisers and conferences, there are usually are quite a few people who do disclose their abuse to me, but it is usually adults who come forward and tell me their story.
13. You have big event coming up at the end of the month, don’t you?
Margaret: Yes, the first-ever sexual abuse conference at Penn State. I am really excited about that because it’s huge that Penn State is getting involved – for obvious reasons. That should be a big conference and should be pretty good.
14. You always joke when I call that you thought I’d forget about you. Tom Malchow used to tell me, “Someday you will never remember me,” and of course I do – did you think for a second we could ever forget you, or are you just annoyed that your phone keeps ringing?
Margaret: Oh my gosh, I’m (laughs) not annoyed at all! I love it. I am just stunned because I just keep assuming that one day, like Tom Malchow told you, that I will wake up and no one will remember me. I am proud of accomplishments but I’m not Missy, Michael, Natalie or Ryan. I obviously love it when people do call and want to talk to me, and I am very flattered when someone asks for an interview and wants my opinion. That never gets old, and I still love going to clinics and signing autographs – that is absolutely my favorite thing to do. It’s such a cool thing, such an honor, when someone wants your autograph – it’s so surreal, and it never gets old.
15. Your grandfather, Helmut Hoelzer, invented the analog computer – sorry to switch gears here, but I am fascinated by that – did you inherit that tech gene?
Margaret: I did (laughs) get good genes! He died when I was 13, so I didn’t really fully understand what he had done at the time because I was really young. You could tell he was brilliant, no doubt about it. He was definitely one of those people who was just cerebral – that’s the only way to put it. He was the stereotype of people who you see who are really brainy. He was also (laughs) blind as a bat and I am blind as a bat, so I did get that from him, too!
16. Why did you actually choose the backstroke?
Margaret: It chose me. I actually started off as a flyer. My first “everything” was as a flyer – first junior cut, first national cut, and I actually made the Junior Team in the 200 butterfly. I did all that when I was 14. Then I went to our local LSC meet, which is called “Southeasterns,” and we had to swim seven events. I had two leftovers, and I hadn’t swum the 100 or 200 backstroke in a while. My coach had me do that as my other events. I got juniors in the 200, and in the 100 back I got juniors in prelims and nationals at finals. I had no idea at all that I was a backstroker. I completely surprised myself and my coach; I literally discovered I was good at backstroke at one swim meet.
17. Are you glad you swam in college or do you wish you would have gone pro instead?
Margaret: You know, I absolutely recommend college swimming for everyone, first and foremost. College swimming is such an amazing experience. My experience personally was so amazing and so overwhelming – I want everyone to have that experience.
18. So you think the trend where we see so many swimmers, particular female, go pro, is not going to continue?
Margaret: Swimming is not in a position right now where someone is going to go pro out of high school and not make enough to offset what four years of college will cost. There are one or two swimmers who can do that – literally, one or two. The state of swimming literally is not in a position to do that. You have to be very honest. Contracts are signed on a year to year basis, so you have to be pretty confident you will swim well all four years – unless you can get a contract that pays you a flat fee for the next four years. That’ a big risk to take as a kid for the next four years. School costs are expensive, and it goes up when you go out of state. Swimming gives you a great opportunity.
19. Is the team sport a big part of it?
Margaret: Swimming is a very individual sport, unlike football or basketball. A lot of times the swimmers who do not go to college miss out on a lot of normal social things that you need to experience to grow as a person, whether it’s having a roommate, car pooling to practice, or studying together – a lot of growth occurs especially during your freshman and sophomore years. And then your junior and senior years, you are developed and get prepared for the rest of your life. There are just a lot of social elements that you learn in college. I think first and foremost learning how to be a teammate is important, and I think the kids who go pro miss out on that. Going to college and experiencing all that also develops you as a thinker.
20. What do the next 10 years hold for you?
Margaret: In 10 years I want to have a foundation that raises money for Child Abuse Centers across the nation. Hopefully, in 10 years I will be married and have a few kids! I have no idea where I will be living; I am in Seattle now. I love Seattle, but I do see myself going back to the south to have a family. Having kids (laughs) without having my mom close by terrifies me!