Wisconsin has been known to produce an Olympic athlete or two in it’s days as an athletic program and 2012 is sure to be no different. Before we look ahead to those competing at the 2012 games we were honored to look back with one of the greatest Badgers of all-time, Carly Piper. She was a 2011 Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, an 18 time collegiate all-American, a 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist, and a former World Record Holder. She sat down and shared some of her Badger and Olympic memories with us.
The question for anyone attending college whether and athlete or not is always, why?
“I knew right when I stepped foot [on campus] I wanted to go there,” Carly said about her fist visit to campus.
“Walking around the campus, seeing all the facilities, seeing everything around. It feels big but it’s very small too.”
While at Wisconsin she served as the team captain and was twice named the Big Ten Conference Swimmer of the year in addition to the 18 all-American honors she received, but those aren’t the only memories she takes away from her time at Wisconsin.
“Being a part of a team – it was kind of like a family atmosphere.” Piper said. “Just know that you had that built in support system, trying to reach that same goal.”
She competed in the 200, 500, and 1650 for the Badgers and was one of the lucky athletes able to compete at both the distance and mid-sprint levels.
In 2004 Carly made it out of the United State Olympic trials as a member of the 4×200 freestyle relay team while still being a member of the Badgers. It turns out that her versatility as both a distance and sprint swimmer paid off.
With the London games being less than two months away we asked her what this time of her Olympic journey was like?
“It was pretty much let’s get competing. There really wasn’t too much of nervousness,” she said. “It was a lot of let’s show everyone as a team what we can do and as an individual can do in your own specific races. I just remember being ready to get there.”
Once in Athens she described the atmosphere and experience as something that’s unforgettable, both in and out of the pool as it turns out. “It was amazing. I mean just being somewhere where you’re with all different countries [from] all over the world in one specific spot,” she said. “You’re all competing in different sports and you’re smack in the middle of it.”
What about the action in the pool, it had to be nerve wracking, right?
“I just remember it goes by so fast – seven minutes and change and it feels like two seconds,” Piper said. “There’s no time to be nervous. We knew we had the team behind us, yelling for us. It felt good to be there and compete, especially when you have other people next to you.”
Those emotions and all the training came down the final race – one that had her teaming up with Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, and Kaitlin Sandeno. The United States raced one for the ages as they not only won the event, but their time of 7:53.44 was a new world record, smashing the old record held by West Germany (1987) by just over 2 seconds.
Of course that moment meant a gold medal, but also the playing of the national athem. It’s a moment most kids in Olympic sports grow up dreaming about.
“It was one of those moments you dream about since you were a kid. You’re trying not to mess up the words to the national athem because everyone is watching,” she said.
“It was kind of surreal,” said Piper. “That night the United States had seats right behind the blocks. If you look foward you saw the US team. My parents were lucky enough to be in Athens and so to my left were my parents with the video camera to their face, and my coaches – Geoff Hanson and Eric Hanson were in Athens and I looked to my right and saw them.”
Credit also goes to Lindsey Benko, Rhi Jeffrey, and Rachel Komisarz who competed in the heats and helped get the United States to the finals – all three received medals for their efforts as well.
Of course, it was time to know the answer to the age old question: What did you do with the medal?
“I do take it out from time to time, it’s hidden very well but kept kind of close in case I need to take it with me,” she said.
Once you’re an Olympic gold medalist, you’re one for life. For some it opens up doors, for others they can push themselves away for fear of being known just by that. However, for Piper, it’s about memories and not hanging on to just her past glory.
“I do have a ton of good memories. I don’t usually throw it (being an Olympic gold medalist) out there when I first meet somebody,” she said. “My friends and co-workers kind of poke fun of me (and) embarrass me a little bit.”
After the triumph of Athens things changed a bit, but for Piper she returned to Wisconsin to graduate and finish off her last year of swimming eligibility. But since then what has she been up to?
“I did do a lot of camps and clinics directly after [the Olympics]. Right now I’m just kind of swimming for fun, not too much competitively anymore.” Piper told me. “Whenever I go home and visit my old club the coach will have me sometimes meet the kids and hang out and talk to them.”
After reflecting on her victory and having time and space from it, what advice would she give to kids wanting to chase their own Olympic dream?
“There are going to be lots and lots of ups and downs, but just keep fighting.” Piper said. “If you have a dream and you want to do something, if you try hard enough it’s going to happen. Train hard, you might have to miss some social events here and there, you might not have a good race here and there… Just keep dreaming.”