Rebecca Soni cools down
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- The best female breaststroker in the world practices in the Pacific Ocean.
A couple times a week leading up to the 2012 Olympics, American swimmer Rebecca Soni would leave the small condo she shares here with boyfriend Ricky Berens, walk the eight blocks toward The Strand and set off on her own into the salt water.
Soni, a gold medalist in Beijing four years ago, did it on the advice of her coach of six years, Dave Salo. The U.S. Olympic assistant and USC head coach doesn't often recommend the practice for world-class swimmers, but he prescribed it for her in May as a way to relax and taper off from her more intense two-a-day swim sessions as London approached.
Soni would get up at 5:30 each morning for grueling morning training at USC with Berens, a fellow Olympian, eating breakfast along the way. Then she'd come home, eat a second breakfast, do an hour of Pilates or yoga nearby, eat lunch and go into the ocean.
Sometimes, she went pretty hard and tested herself in the open sea; other times she took it easy and spent an hour bodysurfing.
"Whatever it feels like that day, I'll do," said Soni, 25, a quiet, unassuming New Jersey native and USC alum. "It's more about being in the water, having fun and not pushing myself too hard."
That sounds easier than it is, especially for Soni, who's notorious in swim circles for her remarkably high drive to be the best -- which pretty much means her drive to practice harder than anyone else.
That's how she upset Australian Leisel Jones to win gold in the 200-meter breaststroke in Beijing as a 21-year-old, when everyone had her pegged as the sure silver medalist.
Now, Soni's challenge is entirely new. She is considered the favorite to win gold in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke in London, which would make her only the second swimmer ever to take home both in the same Olympiad. She'll also swim as member of the 4x100 medley relay.
For an admitted perfectionist, the pressure to meet expectations can be overwhelming. Soni said there have been plenty of times since Beijing during which she has been less than stellar in practice, losing by several seconds to competitors Jessica Hardy or Yuliya Efimova, the latter of whom she's going to go head-to-head against in London.
She used to let those little daily losses affect her outside the pool and at the next day's practice sessions.
"I haven't found anything good that comes from that," Soni said in a June interview. "I've learned that even when I'm having that bad practice, I have to make it the best it can be, so that when I leave the pool, I'm not thinking about it.
"Really, I've just learned how to let it go."
That's where the ocean comes in.
It gives Soni a sense of security, a sense of everything-is-probably-going-to-be-all-right. And it takes her back to what she has always loved about swimming since she started at age 10 -- being in the water.
This close to London, that's key.
"If all goes wrong this summer, I'm still an Olympian and I still have a gold medal," Soni said. "Nothing can take that away."
The unusual upset
Nobody expected Soni to have a gold medal.
In 2008 in Beijing, Jones was the clear-cut favorite to win both the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. Soni was the 21-year-old American who had to rely on a team technicality to qualify.
"In my mind, I was racing for the silver medal," Soni said. "Maybe a gold crossed my mind, but Leisel Jones was the best in the world, and to me and to everybody else, she was going to win both events."
Jones did comfortably win the 100, but she didn't win the 200. Soni and Jones were mostly neck-and-neck for the first 150 meters before Soni dominated the final leg to set a world record and beat the Australian by nearly two seconds.
The race stands out among myriad others Soni has swum in her life for two reasons: She won an Olympic gold medal, and she actually employed a specific strategy to beat another swimmer.
Soni is unique. Her breaststroke, with an abbreviated kick but an accentuated, fine-tuned shoulder jerk, is unprecedented in world-class swimming and impossible to copy. She hardly rises out of the water to keep her smallish 5-foot-8 frame aerodynamic.
"My goal of my stroke is not strength, but smoothness and rhythm," Soni said. "It's what's best suited for my body."
Her approach to races also is considered undesirable by most, as she doesn't normally focus on jumping out to a lead, choosing instead to overtake opponents later with a pretty fast-and-steady pace. Her last leg almost always is her best.
That's why she's so good at the 200 -- there's plenty of time for her to stake out a lead as her opponents tire toward the end.
But in 2008, Jones was so much a favorite that Soni and Salo devised a plan for Soni to get out of the gates quicker than normal to get inside Jones' head. The Australian hadn't been seriously challenged in more than a year, and if someone could touch the final wall alongside her, "she won't know what do," Salo told Soni beforehand. His thinking proved correct.
For her part, Soni always knows what to do in the pool -- swim full-speed ahead. There are no variations.
"She's got one gear," Salo said. "She can't play around and say 'let me stretch things out' or 'do this nice and smooth and then come on.' Her stroke is so unique that she's gotta keep it revved up pretty high, otherwise it becomes inefficient.
"She's a real simple engine."
An 'easy fix'
There was a point where Soni's engine had a serious spark plug issue.
Since she was 16, she would experience heartbeat irregularities once or twice a month, always during training. While she was getting sets in, her heart would start to beat rapidly, often more than 300 times a minute. She was diagnosed with a condition known as supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
Soni scheduled a procedure to correct the problem as a high school senior, but backed out when her mother, a nurse, talked to more doctors and found out that the issue could be left untreated. Soni went on to run cross country at USC. She also swam her freshman season.
She managed to be successful, but the irregularities became more and more regular, and being in the pool became less and less fun. Soni now describes that spring as "a constant state of blah."
"It was just a nuisance," said Salo, who took over as the USC coach as Soni's condition was nearing its worst. "It was a distraction from her swimming, and she doesn't like distractions from her swimming."
Then, in a May 2006 meet in Mission Viejo, Calif., Soni suffered the ultimate distraction. She noticed her heart speeding up during a race for the first time. She cruised the rest of the way and bowed out of the meet.
Two months later, she underwent a procedure called cardiac ablation to fix the SVT, with doctors inserting electrical energy through a catheter to eliminate extraneous tissue in her heart that had been the root of the problem.
"It was an 'easy' fix," Soni said.
Soni emphasizes it was not surgery, but a fairly commonplace procedure. And it indeed is -- now. Several high-level athletes have had similar procedures to solve tachycardia over the past few years, including American Olympic cyclist Bobby Julich.
But the condition used to require open-heart surgery as recently as the early 1990s. At Salo's last job with the Irvine Novaquatics swim club, one of his assistants, Ken LaMont, chose to deal with the condition for decades rather than risk the surgery.
Thinking too much
Salo was hired out of Irvine by USC when Mark Schubert moved on to become the USA Swimming director.
Soni remembers being very upset. She was recruited to L.A. by Schubert and came specifically to work with him. Salo had a reputation as an unorthodox breaststroke coach, and she was worried he'd change her training and try to adjust her stroke.
The situation didn't get any better as time went on. It came to a head at some point midway through Soni's sophomore season. Swimmer and coach differ on exactly when their decisive argument occurred, but both have very similar accounts on what happened on the pool deck at an unspecified meet.
Disappointed in her lackluster finish, Soni uncharacteristically called out Salo in front of her teammates.
"I hate your sets," she told him. "I hate your drills. I just hate this."
Salo was, predictably, taken aback. He was in his first year as a major-college head coach, and his best swimmer was undermining him in front of the whole team. So he shot back.
"You're too mental about it," Salo said to Soni. "You're thinking too much, and you don't even need to. Just let it go."
Now it was Soni who was shaken up.
"I've never been yelled at before, not like that," she said. "I'm not a rule-breaker. I like to do what people say. But it was really that point that changed it to me being a lot more laid-back about what I do."
Progress was indeed made that day. More progress was made in April, when Soni won a silver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke in the U.S.-Australia Duel in the Pool in Sydney and a bronze in the 100.
When she came back from that, Salo noticed a newfound source of confidence in his top swimmer.
"It sort of said, 'OK, you didn't screw me up too bad, Coach,' " Salo recounted.
Three months later, she won gold in the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the U.S. summer nationals in Indianapolis. She hasn't stopped winning since.
"I don't think I could've gotten to where I am," Soni said, "if I didn't first learn all that mental stuff -- learning how and when to take it easy and come home and enjoy your life outside of the pool."
Swimming was scarred long-term by the swimsuit controversy of 2008 and 2009, when polyurethane full-body suits were introduced, leveling the long-uneven playing field with America and Australia and the rest of the world.
Times went down faster than ever before, creating unrest in the swim world and questions about sustainability. An example: Canadian Annamay Pierse still owns the 200-meter breaststroke world record she set at the 2009 world championships while wearing the special suit. She hasn't come within three seconds of that time since, as the suits were banned in 2010. But Soni has come within half a second of matching it.
Tom Speedling, Soni's coach during her teenage years at Scarlet Aquatic Club in New Jersey, said that's one of the main reasons he considers her the best breaststroker ever.
"They took the suits off of her, and she was basically just as good," Speedling said. "So she's good because she's good, not because of technology."
Soni hated the suits. They made her feel out of control in the pool.
At the 2009 world championships in Rome, at the height of suit madness, she finished fourth in the 200 breast after starting out way faster than normal and fading badly in the final 100.
"I went and saw her afterward and wasn't sure what her reaction would be," Salo said. "I kinda creeped up on her and she just has this big smile on, laughing about how fast her first 100 was.
"She learned from that experience that she could lose a race and still be OK. And she needed to learn that."
That lesson has paid recent dividends. Last month in Omaha at the U.S. Olympic trials, Soni was upset in the 100-meter breast by an unheralded collegiate swimmer named Breeja Larson. She still qualified to race in London as the second-place finisher, but it raised questions about how she would respond three days later in her signature 200 breast.
Soni proceeded to win by almost two full seconds, posting the fastest time in the world in 2012.
A fresh approach
Speedling, for one, said he is surprised -- pleasantly -- that Soni has taken to the ocean this summer.
He started coaching her when she was 13. Back then, she was as dedicated to swimming as anybody he had ever coached, and the thought of not doing doubles was a thought she refused to entertain.
"If she's learning to do that, that's great, because that's the next step in her development," Speedling said in a telephone interview. "I think she's able to do that now because she's done enough base work in her life for so many years that she can afford to keep it fresh now."
It still took a while for Soni to agree to do it. Basically, Salo wanted her to drop two-a-days entirely, and she wasn't quite ready, so he thought up a compromise.
"'OK,'" Salo said, "'I'll keep you doing doubles, but just go to the ocean and play around with the water.'
"And 'play around' is probably as appropriate a term as anything. It's just something different. But it's still water. It'll do the same thing, no matter what kind of water it is."
In a way, Soni's willingness to try out the Pacific is representative of her changed approach to her sport -- less rigidity, more openness. Less frustration, more fun. Less losing, more winning.
But even if she doesn't win in London, Salo said she believes Soni will be all right.
"'Maybe this Olympic Games is your final salvo in this whole thing, and that's OK,'" Salo told Soni. "'But everything that has come your way -- the sponsorships and the deals and all of that -- they aren't reflective of this. They're reflective of 2008 and what you've done since then.'
"'Enjoy that, and take advantage of that. If things don't pan out in 2012, then so what? You're still the Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni.'"
The message has been received.
"I've already gotten my gold medal and the world record," Soni said. "I don't think I can top that race. I'm not expecting to top to it."
But can she do it? Can she sweep the 100 and 200? Can she solidify herself as the best female breaststroker ever?
"Maybe. If I don't worry about it."
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