By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Although at the time she felt disappointment and pain, in retrospect, Hayley McGregory-Mortimer is glad she didn’t make the 2008 Olympic Team.
Hard to believe, no doubt, especially when you consider she set a world record during preliminaries of the 100 backstroke and came within tenths of a second of making the team.
But because of her third-place finishes in both backstroke events that year in Omaha – as close as you can come without making the team – McGregory found the time to cultivate a new post-swimming interest that today gives her great satisfaction.
“To be honest, I never thought I would be a coach when I was competing,” said McGregory, head coach of the Circle C Swim Team in Austin, Texas, since 2011 – the team she competed for as a youngster. “And if I had made the Olympic team, I am not sure I would have become a coach, which I feel would have been a huge loss for me.
“It seems like I was made to do it. I love being a part of so many young people's swimming journeys and hope they think back and remember me as fondly as I do my coaches.”
Directing and expanding her own team (up to 200 members from 39 when she took over the program) isn’t the only new beginning McGregory is currently enjoying.
After retiring in February/March 2010, she married former National Team swimmer Justin Mortimer in October of that same year. This past February, the couple welcomed new daughter, Scarlett Finn, to the family, and she said she feels like her life is progressing just as it’s supposed to.
The summer after missing the 2008 Olympic Team, McGregory came back strong, earning a spot on the 2009 World Championship team competing in Rome. And even though she tied her own American record in the 50 backstroke and was the fastest American in the 100 back, she left without a medal – including missing out on one as a favorite in the 400 medley relay when the United States failed to make it to the championship final.
She took some reflective time over the next few months, so when she walked away from the sport, McGregory said she knew it was the right time because she left on her terms.
“For me, I just didn't feel the passion or dedication required to be at the top of the sport anymore,” McGregory said. “I swam for a while after feeling this way but decided that swimming for other people wasn't going to keep me at the top, so I retired. I swam longer than I should have but I felt I was going to let so many people down. It (retiring) was the healthiest decision I could have made and I haven't regretted it once.
“Although the ultimate dream is obviously making the Olympic Team, I consider myself to be a part of an even more exclusive group as a world record holder. I am a true believer that things happen for a reason and feel I did everything possible to make the 2008 team. It just wasn't meant to be, so having no regrets or ‘what-ifs’ made it easier to get over.”
McGregory has come a long way since she started swimming in her neighborhood pool as an 8-year-old in summer league. She said she joined really only knowing how to swim under water and freestyle (“sort of”).
By the end of the summer, she had learned all four strokes, and several neighborhood families encourage her parents to enroll in year-round swimming.
“After figuring out what year-round was, I joined a local Houston team and never looked back,” McGregory said. “I didn't choose only swimming until high school when I made the ultimate decision and moved to Austin to swim for Randy Reese.”
Now in her current role, McGregory said she often relies upon nuggets of wisdom she learned from the influential coaches she had along her path to becoming one of the world’s best backstrokers.
Her experiences guiding the members of her team along have awakened dreams she has of owning and operating her own club one day – a high-quality program combining a wide range of coaching styles.
It’s those opportunities to pass along her own words of wisdom she learned from her competitive experiences that continue to make coaching – along with marriage and motherhood – one of the great joys of her life.
“I tell my own students to make sure they live every day so that they have no regrets,” McGregory said. “I also tell them that while goal-setting is very important, if you reach EVERY goal, maybe you weren't aiming high enough. If at the end of any journey, swimming or otherwise, you know you did your best you will look back on that journey with a big smile on your face.
“I tell people all the time when I look back at my career, all I really see is the journey and the awesome people I met along the way. I don't really think of past performances and meets or even world records. I remember the laughter, and even sometimes the tears but always my friends. I would trade any award I ever earned to keep my friends.”