Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Piper takes gold

piper_fullWhile most college students were trying to take it easy over the summer — working mindless jobs, taking meandering road trips and sitting on the Terrace with friends — Badger swimmer Carly Piper had other things than relaxing on her agenda.

Piper, who is entering her senior year at Wisconsin, spent most of her summer training for the biggest swim meet of her life — one occurring halfway around the world with her entire country cheering her on.

And while most college students spent the past couple weeks trying to squeeze in every second of slacking possible before school inevitably reentered their lives, Carly Piper and three other young women — Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer and Kaitlin Sandeno — were shocking the world, swimming 800 meters faster than any four females had ever swum 800 meters before.


“It really hasn’t sunk in at all yet,” Piper said in an interview Saturday. “I sat next to Natalie after I swam, while Dana was in the water, and I grabbed Natalie’s arm and said to her, ‘This is going to sound really dorky, but I can’t believe I just swam at the Olympics.’ I don’t know if she thought I was weird; I don’t think she really understood what I was talking about. But it was just a feeling of, ‘Wow, I don’t believe I’m here.’ It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t.”

Piper’s path to gold began in July, when she placed fifth in the 200-meter freestyle at the Olympic trials in Long Beach, earning a spot on the 800-meter preliminary freestyle relay Aug. 18 and a shot at competing in the final race later that day.

“It’s a surprise,” Piper told the media after making the team. “I’ve always wanted to do it … to be able to actually make it a reality is just great.

Mere days after qualifying, Piper headed to Palo Alto for two weeks of training at Stanford University. Though she was slated for the relatively short 200-meter sprint, Piper began to stretch herself more and more in distance.

“I was practicing so hard. We were doing two practices a day — with probably two hours for each practice.” Piper said. “I started going back up in yardage right after trials, so practices were a little longer even though I was just training for the 200. I had my distance base, so I needed to keep up the yardage.”

The demanding training regimen paid off, as Piper rapidly gained confidence in her ability.

“I was swimming the best I had ever swam in practices,” Piper said. “So I was getting pretty excited to race. Training seemed like it took forever. We were there for about two weeks and I was thinking, ‘When are we going to leave?’ ‘When are we going to start racing?'”

Eventually, the day came. Boarding a plane for the longest flight of her life, Piper departed for Greece at the end of July. But training wasn’t quite over yet. After two days in Athens, the U.S. swimmers took a short flight to Mallorca, Spain, where they trained for one more week. Despite the exhausting travel schedule, Piper said that the whole experience invigorated her.

“The jet lag really wasn’t that big of an issue,” she said. “We were all pretty tired and the coaches knew that and expected it, so we had our time to rest and everybody knew that we had to use it to rest — that we couldn’t stay up late or anything like that. So it really wasn’t a big problem.”

“Training in Mallorca was really nice,” she added. “We trained at a nice outdoor pool. I loved being able to train outdoors — something you don’t do in Wisconsin. The air was so fresh.”

Though they trained together for less than a month, Piper and her teammates spent virtually all of their time together and team unity came quickly and naturally.

“Swimming with them was different at first, because it’s people from all over the country coming together,” she explained. “A lot of people knew each other or had met each other, but we didn’t really know each other like you do in college — where it’s like your teammates are your brothers and sisters. But we did a lot of the team bonding things and that helped.”

One of the bonding activities had all of the Olympic “rookies” performing a skit together, which Piper described as “one of the most fun and funniest things I’ve ever done.”

“It was like we said, ‘we’re going to like each other,'” Piper continued. “Eating lunch with people, playing cards and things like that brought us together a lot. It’s not going to feel the same as it does here, but I got to know everyone really well.”

Finally arriving in Greece, Piper was one of few swimmers who had enough of a break before her first race to attend the Opening Ceremonies.

“That was really nice,” she said. “I was kind of in awe. There were cameras flashing everywhere; it was so loud. But to be able to walk in it, to be able to see all the people walking out — Wow.”

When Aug. 18 finally came, Piper knew she would have to make an impression in the morning’s preliminary relay. Though all would receive medals, from the four-person prelim team only one or two swimmers were going to be chosen to compete in the final race.

“My main goal was to get onto the team for that final race, but I really just wanted to swim a good race,” Piper said. “It’s different to say it now — honestly, anything would have been great because the whole experience was a dream come true — but to be in the final race and to stand on the podium and have everyone see that you’re a part of the team, that feeling is indescribable.”

Piper swam well in the morning race and earned a spot on the final relay team. She was the only swimmer chosen from the preliminary to swim in the medal race.

“When (U.S. swimming coach) Mark Schubert told me that I was going to be in the final race I was a definitely a little bit surprised,” Piper said. “My first words were like ‘Are you serious? Thank you so much.'”

With time to spare before the evening’s race, Piper tried to get some rest before heading back to the pool. In spite of the enormity of the event’s scope, Piper said she didn’t let nerves become an issue.

“I don’t like to get nervous,” she said. “I think it’s a waste of time and energy and I just try not to think about it.”

It turned out there was no reason to be nervous. Cruising to victory by more than 2.5 seconds, the United States’ victory was never in doubt.

“You just dive in and everything goes quiet and you’re thinking ‘Go, swim, swim, swim,'” Piper explained. “It’s a two-minute race, but it feels like two-seconds.”

Two-seconds, it turns out, is how much faster the U.S. women swam than any women had ever swam before.

“Honestly, I didn’t think about any of that stuff until they told us afterward — it never even crossed my mind,” Piper said of the record. “I think we were all just going for a good swim. The feeling of breaking the record was amazing. I couldn’t believe it happened.”

Since the record-shattering swim, Piper’s life hasn’t become any less hectic. Between appearing on the “Today Show,” moving into a new Madison apartment and preparing for a year in which the women’s swimming team has a chance to excel, she hasn’t had time for it all to soak in.

“Seeing all of the people there that were cheering for us and seeing all of my teammates going crazy was a great feeling,” Piper said. “But just being there, in Greece, was amazing. Being around all the other athletes, in that setting — that was a dream come true.”

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