I sat down with my friend Julia Galan from Swimspire to talk Olympics, life post-swimming and what I’m up to now. Swimspire is a coaching and swim news site that Julia founded in 2013. The news section showcases inspirational swimmers, teams and events around the world. Check out the Swimspire website here!
Life Outside the Pool:
A Conversation with Olympian Rebecca Soni
Olympic breaststroker Rebecca Soni is a household name in the global swimming community. With six Olympic medals under her belt – including three golds – as well as numerous world record-breaking performances, Rebecca is an inspiring example of determination and commitment to the sport of swimming. But there is more to this talented athlete than her swimming-related achievements. Since Rebecca’s retirement from the sport over a year ago, she has been on an exciting journey of self-discovery. Despite transitioning to life outside of the pool, she has remained active within the swimming world, dedicating herself to giving back to the community that has given her so much.
We recently chatted with Rebecca about life after Olympic glory, overcoming obstacles, and some of her proudest moments outside of swimming. Read on!
Julia Galan: Even Olympic swimmers have to start somewhere! When did you first start swimming and what made you decide to dedicate yourself to the sport? How did you feel about being in the water before you started to compete?
Rebecca Soni: I first began swimming when I was 10 years old…and all because of my older sister. She loved the water and I had to join in! Before I started competing, I was really only splashing around in summer pools, and although I loved playing in the water, I also had other interests. It took me awhile to transition to competing and I didn’t necessarily have an immediate love for the sport. However, after a couple of years, I began to fall in love with the sport and to understand the hard work and dedication that it took to succeed. My passion for swimming continued to bloom and develop as I progressed.
JG: Your parents immigrated to the United States from Hungary and Romania before you were born. How has your family background and experience shaped your life, both in terms of your success in swimming and generally?
RS: My family and heritage is a huge part of my life and of my swimming. Hungarian was how we were raised – it was everything from the food we ate, to the language we spoke at home. When I started college, I had a few teammates from Hungary. Although my knowledge of the language had faded a bit, it always made me feel happy and proud to hear these teammates of mine speaking in Hungarian! At the larger international meets, I always checked to see how the Hungarians were doing in their events. Having a connection to others across the world, while at the same time representing Team USA, was an amazing experience for me.
JG: On a related note, how have your family and your friends supported you on your journey to success?
RS: My family and my friends, both in the United States and abroad, have always been there for me and stood by me. What I appreciate most of all is that my friends and family care about me because of who I am, not because of my swimming accomplishments. They are thrilled and proud of my achievements, of course, but beyond that, they love me unconditionally and I am grateful to them for this!
JG: From heart surgery to a back injury, you’ve experienced a few setbacks. How did you overcome these obstacles and what advice would you give to swimmers who are experiencing challenges in their swimming training or career?
RS: We all have our own challenges. You can choose to focus on the obstacle and the struggle, or focus on getting better and overcoming it. I have never allowed myself to be defined by any physical ailments. Instead, I chose to focus on my goals and be the swimmer that I believed I was or could be.
JG: From Olympic gold medals to world records, you’ve accomplished quite a lot and experienced many incredible achievements. But beyond these feats in the pool, what are some of your proudest moments?
RS: I love this question! There is so much to be proud of beyond just the medals. I’m delighted with the life I have created for myself outside of the swimming pool. Some of my proudest moments include…
- Mentoring the kids I work with, and watching them achieve their goals and work through their struggles. I mentor a handful of athletes from around the world at the moment. We focus on the things that I believe to be game-changers for athletes – and, really, for anyone! From mental training (a particular fascination for me) to nutrition, even to the mind-body connection, I love working with these athletes and helping teach them how to succeed – not necessarily in the pool, but also in life, happiness, and service! As we progress, you will hear more about this program of mine! But for now, if you’re curious to get more information, you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Building a house in Mexico with a group called Hope Sports, created by pro cyclist Guy East. I was joined by Kim Vandenberg and several other Olympians and pro athletes from around the world. In a way, the trip sparked an overload of emotions! It was thrilling to work alongside such great athletes, and to connect with them, chat and exchange stories. And what a meaningful experience it was to have the opportunity to build a house for a family in need, to get to know that family, and to see their dream come true in one weekend. Based on our experience, Kim (Vandenberg) and I launched a campaign to raise money in support of this family’s financial needs. From school tuition fees, to English lessons that the boys wanted to take, to helping pay for their land, it was great to see the swimming community come together to support this family through Kim and I. The campaign is actually still running and you can check it out, share and donate here. I can’t wait to return to Mexico with Hope Sports again soon.
- Being an aunt! That is definitely a source of pride for me, and I love spending time with my family.
- Setting little personal challenges for myself, from fun races to business goals!
JG: Although you’re no longer swimming, you continue to stay active and fit. Many competitive swimmers have struggled with weight and diet issues after quitting the sport. What advice would you give to swimmers in terms of how to maintain fitness and health even after hanging up the swimsuit?
RS: I have two main tips for these swimmers. First of all, learn to love yourself for who you are, not just as a swimmer but as a person as well. Second, you need to change the way you think about food. Accept the fact that you simply cannot eat the way you used to as a full-time athlete. Once you let that go, it becomes much more rewarding. Don’t focus on what you can’t have, just tune in to what your body is actually asking for.
JG: Are you still involved with the UN Foundation Girl Up campaign? How did you become part of the campaign and why was it meaningful to you? What was your experience like with the campaign?
RS: Girl Up is a very meaningful campaign for me. I first became involved with the UN Foundation upon graduating from college in 2009. My role was to represent the campaign publicly as much as possible -everything from social media support to meeting annually with the campaign’s “Teen Advisors”, an incredible group of budding young thought leaders from around the country who represented the Girl Up name, and raised money for the campaign within their communities. Connecting with these girls was simply amazing! I also have spoken on behalf of Girl Up at large events, and even took a trip to Guatemala in 2011 to observe the program’s impact first-hand. The Girl Up campaign is beneficial to young girls everywhere, whether in the United States or around the world. So much of our life is based on the perspective through which we view the world and Girl Up helps build a worldly lens that can change girls’ lives.
JG: Do you think it is important for elite athletes to give back to their community (whether on the global or local scale) and why?
RS: In my opinion, it is absolutely critical for elite athletes to give back. From my own experience, the swimming community has given me so much that I have always felt a need to give something in return. I’m glad that I have found my own way to give back, in my own unique and true voice. When it comes down to it, being of service to others is really all there is! Someone inspired me when I was young, and I want to do the same for the next generation of athletes and of Olympians.
JG: In addition to your sports-related accomplishments, you have also made education an important part of your life, majoring in communication and now delving into the world of nutrition and psychology. The post-retirement transition has been difficult for some elite athletes. How have you managed this transition and what would you say is important for any aspiring athlete to keep in mind in terms of life after swimming?
RS: When I retired, I felt completely lost, as many athletes do. The most important lessons I learned along the way were the following:
- You’re supposed to feel lost;
- Talk to as many people that have been in your shoes as you possibly can. The more people you speak with who have shared your experience, the quicker you will learn to cope;
- There is no right or wrong… if you don’t love what you’re doing, move on!
- And most importantly: Give Yourself Time!
In my case, I was so passionate about swimming that I knew very little beyond the black line at the bottom of the pool. It takes time to open up your horizons and discover what it is that you are truly passionate about beyond the sport. Three years later, I’m still learning! And I actually hope to continue to do so. I dove into nutrition – taking classes, learning on my own and eventually experimenting and adopting a fully plant-based lifestyle. I also took courses in psychology because I was fascinated by the human mind, especially when it comes to achieving success. I became a Pilates instructor, a yoga fanatic, a travel junkie, and a bunch more, too. The day we stop exploring is the day we stop living.
JG: So, what are some of your short and long-term goals now?
RS: I’ve been working on a new project based on mentorship, as I mentioned earlier. I can’t say too much about it yet. But it has been a blast putting it all together, and I’m looking forward to sharing my initiative with the swimming community soon! In the long term, I hope to live a life I’m proud of, and to influence as many people as I can in a positive way.
JG: What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give to swimmers reaching for a goal, whether they are age groupers or Masters or triathletes?
RS: Don’t overlook yourself. It’s a simple statement, but it means a lot. You already have everything you need, you just need to learn how to use it. You are all you have, so make it your best!