By Jeff Commings, SwimmingWorld.TV associate producer
PHOENIX, Arizona, May 1.EIGHT days ago, I drove from Phoenix to Flagstaff to do an interview with Alexander Dale Oen. Though the interview was to come at the end of a very long work day, I was beyond excited to meet one of the fastest breaststrokers in history — and as it turned out, one of the nicest people I've ever encountered in this sport.
Not five minutes after walking into the Douglas Wall Aquatic Center, I was greeted with a big smile and a wave from Dale Oen as he rested on the wall between repeats during a set. I've done a few of these interviews in my career, and usually athletes aren't extremely thrilled about having the media filming their every stroke during training. Alexander Dale Oen was not one of those people.
It still hurts to the very depths of me that the world will no longer see that smile. When I sat down to interview him — I found it very cool that I could call him “Alex,” instead of “Alexander” — I wasn't just talking to a fellow breaststroker. I was talking to someone who was excited about the promise of a future that reached well beyond the London Olympics. He talked about swimming at the Rio Games. He was half-serious about still competing in the Olympics in 2024, when he would have been 38.
Before we did the actual interview, he mentioned that he heard I was going to swim at the Olympic Trials, and he asked what my lifetime best in the 100 breast was. I was a little embarrassed to say “1:02.46″ to a guy who had gone 58.71 just eight months ago, but he seemed quite impressed. And when I told him I grew up in St. Louis, he said without missing a beat: “That's near that really big river … the Miss-something, right?” I can point out Norway on a map, but if you asked me anything else about his homeland, I would fail miserably. I've met some elite athletes that just want to get through the interview and go on with their lives. Alex was not one of those people.
Even before I heard of his death, I could remember every word of Alex's interview. He had immense respect for his rivals, and a genuine love for the sport. Now that he's gone, many of his words — spoken in near-perfect English — will resonate with me forever. I even remember how he had joked that he wanted to sign off his interview with a riff on the classic line from the movie Anchorman: “You stay classy, Swimming World.”
I was told of Alex's death this morning just after workout at Phoenix Swim Club. I had just gotten out of the shower, and after I shook the notion that this was a prank, my mind went to the news that Alex had his cardiac arrest in the shower. As an athlete, I can attest that we all feel invincible. Alex's death will forever soften that mindset for me. None of us is Superman.
Though a shadow will likely be cast over the final of the 100 breast in London, I know Alex will be looking down on all of us that day. His big smile will shed a little more light on the world and lift our spirits.
I am honored to have met Alex before he left us. I'll never forget him.
Editor's note: Alexander Dale Oen's final interview with Swimming World had been scheduled to run tomorrow. We have posted the video today: Alexander Dale Oen's Final Swimming World Interview. Our condolences go out to Dale Oen's family and friends as they mourn his passing.