By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Just when life seems to be in a rhythm, things tend to change, sometimes bigtime. For 2000 gold medalist B.J. Bedford-Miller, finding out how amazing her daughter is, and why – coupled with B.J.’s own career change – got this Olympian headed into a new, exciting direction in life, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Where are you and what are you doing career-wise now?
B.J: I am working at Sprint now as a Solutions Engineer. What that means is I go out as sales support for our business accounts team to customers. My job is to learn what technology challenges they are facing and research, design and implement wireless and cloud solutions for them. Telecom isn’t really just phones, it’s cloud computing, vehicle tracking, wireless work orders, that kind of thing. I support a team of five sales reps in the Denver and Northern Colorado area and I adore my job. I have a great boss, work with outstanding people and I get to learn every day.
2. Are you still living in Fort Collins and how has that town come to mean so much to you?
B.J: I do still live in Fort Collins, Colorado. We moved here in 2002, thinking we would be in this house for maybe a few years, and we’ve grown to love our community so much, we can’t imagine anywhere else we would live and be this happy. We have two kids who are both now in school at the Lab School for Creative Learning, an experiential, multi-age elementary school. When the sun is out, which is most of the time; we have a neighborhood barbeque every Sunday. In our neighborhood, you get yelled at if you knock on doors – you’re expected to just walk in. Our nanny lives two doors down, and our community here supports us so much. We ride our bikes to go out to dinner or get ice cream, and we don’t lock our doors because it’s so safe. Getting involved with the school, the people and the businesses here has made Fort Collins our home in every way.
3. You worked with CSU's program back in the day, how important are college programs like that which are not top ranked but nonetheless provide a great opportunity and have exciting meets?
B.J: CSU Swimming has a lot of history! Amy Van Dyken swam here and John Mattos (her coach at the time) was a member of the World Championship staff in 1994, I believe. The current coach, Chris Woodard (Woody) is a phenomenal coach; he brought Erin Popovich to great Paralympic achievements. There is no shortage of accolades due this great team. There are swimming powerhouses: Georgia, Cal, Auburn, Texas, Stanford, Florida...but programs like CSU are places where if you might not have been in the top 10 recruits in the country, you still have a chance to shine and become great. Rivalries within the conferences still provide a space for swimmers to be a part of a college team – which is one of the most incredible experiences you can have, regardless of level. And you never know who tomorrow’s champions will be. There’s always a surprise or two at Conference, NCAAs and even the Olympic Trials! Teams like CSU are a big part of that.
4. What stood out in your mind from London?
B.J: I think what stood out most for me in watching the London games was the swing in opinion on Michael Phelps. When he was 4th in the 400 IM, it seemed the world had nothing positive to say. He was “washed up” and “over.” By the second day, when he, as he inevitably does, started winning medals again, he was catapulted again to hero status – well-deserved, I must say. It does go to show how fickle media can be. As a culture, it does seem like we love to build up heroes, and we also love to see them fall. I was glad that Michael showed that he’s human, real and that life as a swimmer – the same as it is for all others – has ups, downs, wins, losses and the best we can do is handle what we are handed with grace.
5. What stood out from Barcelona?
B.J: You know me: I love the backstrokers. I definitely feel like Missy Franklin was a star stand out with nothing but upside to come. With her move to Cal upcoming and the ability Teri McKeever has to groom the talent that’s already there and keep her, and Elizabeth Pelton – another awesome backstroker – getting better and growing and developing her talent, her mind and her technique.
6. How has the men's team changed since Michael retired?
B.J: I think the men’s team has diversified without Michael dominating so many events. Michael could show up in almost any event and win it, so I imagine it was tough to feel like you ever were safe in your best events. I think there are a lot of people now coming up who have high hopes and can really let it all hang out now!
7. Is there another male superstar on the way, or here already?
B.J: You can always count on Lochte to keep it entertaining and swim fast. But on the way – I look to Conor Dwyer to really start leading the men’s challenge in the upcoming years. He’s young, versatile and fast. Keep your eyes on him.
8. Is it fair to even hope for "another Phelps" or put that pressure on someone?
B.J: We are a country of hopers, I think right now, what we have is Missy Franklin. I don’t know that she’ll be able to equal Michael’s feats, but I think she’s the closest thing we have right now to a superstar – if she’s not already, which I say she is! I think for now, though, we let Michael’s legacy stay where it is, and let him move into his next world of golf, perhaps? And think someday that, like Michael did with Mark Spitz, perhaps we’ll have another phenom who comes along and gets nine gold medals in one Olympics. I hope I live to see that.
9. The U.S. men are a unique blend of young and veteran talent, who else are you watching and why?
B.J: That’s a really great statement. With men with the grace and leadership of a Matt Grevers leading the youth, I think that the men’s team is in great hands. The people you have who have been on the team for a long time like Grevers, Nathan Adrian, Ricky Berens are incredible people and phenomenal leaders. The example they set of how you bounce back, of how you handle pressure, of what you can bring to the table and teach what it means to be a National team athlete – the leaders of today will no doubt shepherd in the stars of tomorrow. As for who – I can’t even really say yet. I just know they’re in good hands.
10. Your University of Texas women's team hired Carol Capitani, the standout Georgia assistant -- how neat is it your alma mater is a leader in promoting having women as head coaches?
B.J: Since Texas hired Jill Sterkel, who was my coach for two years, I have been proud to know that Texas is committed to women in our sport and in the world of coaching. Now that I’m an engineer in the world of telecom, I feel like I know what it is to be a woman in a man’s world. Texas has always been a leader as an institution in sports and academics. I’m a proud Lady Longhorn for sure to know that women have more opportunities to coach elite programs because of my University. Hook ‘em!!
11. Missy Franklin, what did you see from her in London and what stood out in your mind?
B.J: It was wonderful to watch Missy really launch onto the world stage – a move we in the swim world had so eagerly anticipated. Missy was about to become a household name and I think we all were excited for the world to recognize this effervescent teenager in the mainstream. The best part about Missy is that as she shines, others are coming up right alongside her – new, young, vibrant talent is showing up in places we hadn’t seen before. Everyone in the world seems like they’re under a minute in the 100 back – the 200 is super fast… these girls are just so amazing and I am so excited to see what’s next from them.
12. Same question, but for Barcelona, six golds and even a fourth-place in the 100?
B.J: So much about Missy stands out. She is as graceful in victory as she is when she is not on the podium. She congratulates those who race well and win, and she consoles those who don’t. As mind-blowing as she is as a swimmer, she is equally impressive as a person. I’m so proud to know she represents our country and those of us who came before her with such incredible aplomb and generosity.
13. What do you expect to see from both Missy and Cal in 2016?
B.J: Again, I’d say with Teri McKeever working with her, we are going to see precision, speed and a whole new world of short course swimming. Cal will be extraordinary. If I were Teri, I don’t know if I would ever sleep just thinking about how great it is to be at Cal, to be her coach and to have the road ahead. I can’t wait to watch NCAAs.
14. Katie Ledecky's performance at Worlds and the Olympics, how amazing, considering your own career, is it to see a young woman like that dominate the distance events so thoroughly?
B.J: It seems as though we’ve had a pretty amazing legacy of women’s distance swimming in the United States. Janet Evans was dominating as I started to join the ranks of the National Team. Brooke Bennett was the next in line. There have been many, but to dominate so completely does harken back to the days of Janet and Brooke – and hopefully beyond. Katie is as sweet and likable as Janet, too, which is hard to do. Probably harder (laughs) than all those laps!
15. What do Katie and Missy need to be aware of moving forward?
B.J: You know, as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have illustrated in this era, there can be a lot of demands put on the athlete to be ever-present and visible. With their talent and ability, they need to remember to focus on training and staying fast. We all know the culture loves to see that icon crash to the ground; don’t give them that satisfaction.
16. Your beautiful, amazing daughter recently had some significant life events, can you explain?
B.J: Yes! So, my daughter has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It’s been a really amazing journey. She is very smart, but her social awareness is not quite there. We’ve been working with the school to create an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for her to help her. The way I am learning about it, it really just means her brain is wired a little differently than mine (laughs) whose isn’t? Autism is a spectrum-thing, right? That means that you can be very functional, or very challenged, even non-verbal. Arden is on the high-functioning end, where really, in the coming years with the proper adjustment on our end, no one will really notice her ASD and she should be able to fit in easily.
17. How did that change you and Tom as parents?
B.J: Hmmm. I don’t know if it changed us. We are pretty much the same, but we have to adjust the way we do things. For me, it was honestly really hard at first. We used to just have our funny little girl – she was our “N of 1”. She was a little odd, like she really gets caught into certain subjects and can’t let go. Mostly science, so Star Wars, Dr. Who, biology, aerospace stuff. Thank goodness (laughs) I’m married to an engineer, because he can answer all her questions. I think perhaps we’re more patient with her. She can be rather apathetic and look at things without emotionally connecting. So we work with her on what it would feel like to be in the shoes of the recipient, and we really explore things with her that are intuitive to others. In a practical sense, we probably dedicate a bit more time to her personal education and development.
I will say, though, that there was a distinct process for me. Initially, I was quiet about it. For me, any time I am quiet, it’s very strange! When something is “wrong” as a parent, action mode can show up. Reading, working with a doctor, meeting with the school – all the things you’re supposed to do. But in the evenings when there’s nothing to do, I’m left with my thoughts. And please know I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with my daughter. Her brain is just wired differently, and we, along with the school, have to tweak the normal process to support that and set her up for success. But there was a sadness that I had to move through to be her champion. I was not sure how to deal with an Autism diagnosis. What did it mean? Would she be able to be “normal?” What IS normal anyway? I had to let that move through me or everything I was doing for her was empty and inauthentic. So I mourned a little for the “normal” life she may not be able to access. But I did that to get to supporting the “abnormal” and amazing, incredible, high-achieving life she has access to now that we are working with the educational system and creating opportunities for her she would not have had before. I never knew as a parent how much you have to look at YOURSELF and be really true to what’s there to raise your children. I’m so grateful for her every day.
18. How does the dynamic of a family adapt to that and what is the most important thing or things moving forward?
B.J: It doesn’t change much. Bronson has always had his big sister, and he’s just always had to play her way. And he does it fabulously. Tom and I are still involved, love her and hug her and tell both of them how much we love them. They continue to be the most joyous part of our lives.
One thing that we’ve gotten from her visits to Dr. Jennifer Gray here in Fort Collins – who is awesome – is that the bad thoughts that can derail your day are like ants. And in your head, you can pick up those ants and squish them! So, when Arden starts to get caught in the drama of a bad thought, like that there might be a tornado, we will ask her if that thought might be an ant and if she might be able to squish it. And she does – it’s cool!! What that means to us is that it all works, and she is going to do great as we continue to work with her through her life.
19. I know and enjoy Arden so much, what does this diagnosis mean for your adorable daughter, and your push for resources and understanding has been so beautiful -- what has that been like, and what have you learned?
B.J: I learned you have to be vulnerable and reach out to create a successful environment. I created a FaceBook page – Arden’s Friends. It has around 200 likes. And that’s just from inviting my friends to learn about her and what we’ve been doing. Through that page, I have been in contact with friends from grade school, high school, college and even national team compatriots who have kids who are on the spectrum, who are ADHD or who are deaf. At times, I’ve felt so very alone in this, and have been greeted with open arms by so many other parents walking this path. It has been so amazing to have the world support me if I just reach out, which can be really hard for me, because I really want everyone to think I have it all together.
20. Swimming has meant so much to you, and now more than ever it seems so great in your life with Arden -- where is swimming in your life at this point, and how much joy does it give you to watch Arden swim?
B.J: Oh, man. Swimming keeps turning up. I try to leave, but then, it draws me back – like the tide. I love the water, and so do my kids. Arden and Bronson got to swim on a summer team this year (Collindale Swim Team) with Janie Wagstaff’s kids, Luke and Claire. We live in Fort Collins together, but we rarely see each other, so I decided we’d drive across town to hang out with them – and it has been so great. Arden loved the summer team, and it was so fun to see Janie and her family every day. The joy that I have in watching Arden swim is just in how much she adores it. She beams at me from the water, racing up and down the pool with exuberance. The water never judges, it just provides a space of silence in the noise of the water flowing by your ears. I think she finds peace there like I did. It’s really given me back the love of the water and the gift of being able to share it with my kids.