By Jason Marsteller
Most newcomers to the elite level of swimming tend to be on the younger side as evidenced by fresh-faced stars like 13-year-old Elizabeth Beisel and 14-year-old Chloe Sutton. For Leila Vaziri, this year’s 100 backstroke winner at the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships, that rise took place a bit later as she made her first major mark in the swimming world at the age of 21.
The senior at Indiana University, who also swims for Coral Springs Swim Club, began her recent rise within the ranks of the swimming community this summer at the Eric Namesnik Memorial in Ann Arbor, Mich., on May 20. During the 100 back, Vaziri made some noise by touching out world-record holder and Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin by .08 seconds.
“Natalie is incredible,” Vaziri said about the person she beat for her milestone victory. “Racing against her was an honor, then I met her at Pan Pacs and she lived up to what you would hope an Olympic superstar would be. She is so cool, positive and motivated. To be around her was awesome.”
Vaziri went on to explain just how important of a win that Grand Prix triumph proved to be as it revealed the mental toughness she had developed over a turbulent junior year at IU.
“That race was really special for me,” Vaziri said. “For both Natalie and I, it was the beginning of the season. It wasn’t like we were posting great times. It was the first time in awhile I had a really good race that I was proud of. I was mentally strong and didn’t back down, because it can be easy to be intimidated when you are swimming against someone of her caliber.”
Vaziri continued her amazing journey at her next Grand Prix event in Charlotte, N.C. During the Charlotte UltraSwim, Vaziri defended her 100 back title against another superstar, this time in the form of Olympian Katie Hoff. That victory not only proved that the Namesnik win was not a fluke, but also provided Vaziri with a confidence boost heading into U.S. Nationals.
“That was the next incredible step,” Vaziri said of her second marquee win. “I remember before it feeling really hungry and driven. I remember feeling that this summer I really wanted to prove something to myself. I remember going into that race thinking that I had beaten Natalie, so I think that I can beat Katie. Katie swims many events, and the 100 back is not her forte. I thought this is my forte, the 100 back. I went into it with that attitude. That is the event I focused on, and I am going to swim really fast. If someone is going to beat me, they are going to have to swim really, really fast. It was fun. That was something I really remember from the summer looking back. I wasn’t stressed out. I was having fun and a really good time at that meet.”
Vaziri’s summer of 2006 odyssey came to its breakthrough moment at the ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships in August. With Coughlin sitting out the 100 backstroke to concentrate on the 200 freestyle and a subsequent spot on the Pan Pacs 800 freestyle relay, opportunity knocked for the Hoosier. Vaziri stepped right through that open door to the promise land of elite swimming with an exciting come-from-behind win to become Indiana’s first female swimmer to win a national championship of any kind.
After making the turn in fourth place, Vaziri used an incredible back half to touch out Lauren English and Margaret Hoelzer for a win that put her name on the lips of the sold-out Irvine crowd. In the end, she stopped the clock in 1:01.69 to not only win the national crow, but also give her a berth on the Pan Pacs roster. Remember that time, as it will become a key to her continually impressive journey from a good collegiate swimmer to an elite-level meter swimmer.
“Even though I have swum the 100 backstroke probably 200 times in my life, I still feel like I swim it like an amateur,” Vaziri said. “I do like to back-half my races; however, I did not realize that I was turning fourth. In retrospect, it was a good learning experience. Now, I know for me to improve my times to where I hope they could be, I need to learn how to go out faster and still maintain my back half.”
Vaziri spoke about her emotions before the race and after she completed her outstanding comeback triumph.
“It was one of the most nervous pre-races that I have ever had,” Vaziri said. “It wasn’t a feeling that I had to do something that was a stretch for me. It was a nervousness of knowing I could do it and I just needed to let myself do it. Don’t get in my own way or psyche myself out. Afterwards was a whirlwind. It was immediate attention from everyone. USA Swimming wanted to know who I was and why they had never heard of me. I remember walking past people on deck and them asking who I was. It was an incredible feeling. It was definitely the highlight of my swimming career to this point. Even now, I still feel like I haven’t come down from it. I still wake up thinking I dreamed it happened.”
After that dramatic win, Vaziri completely put her name on the map and proclaimed to the swimming community that she was proud of both her name and her heritage. Vaziri recounted a conversation with her brother, Ramin, which happened prior to her big race in the 100 back.
“I am 21 years old, so this success came to me much later in life than some people,” Vaziri said. “I was so nervous going into nationals with the possibility that if I win, I am not a well-known name to people. My brother, Ramin, had good advice prior to the race. ‘It doesn’t matter if they know you right now. They will get to know you afterwards. They will get to know your name. Don’t be afraid to go out there and race against the top people, because you too can get your name to be known.’”
The most recent step in Vaziri’s surprising rise to the top echelon of the sprint backstroke came in a nail-biting performance at Pan Pacs. During her first international meet representing the U.S., Vaziri had another gut check along the path to a World Championships berth. Since USA Swimming decided to take into consideration finals times at Nationals, and both prelim and finals times at Pan Pacs, Vaziri’s 1:01.69 during her national-title swim in the 100 back remained in jeopardy at Pan Pacs.
During the preliminary session, Coughlin did what she typically does and clocked an eye-popping time of 1:00.06 that bumped Vaziri down to second. Unfortunately for Vaziri, English also stepped up her game during Pan Pacs prelims with a 1:01.68 to edge Vaziri’s time by the slimmest of margins, .01 seconds.
“I was a little bit nervous going into finals,” Vaziri said about her Pan Pacs swim. “I race the best when I have someone to race with. I knew going into finals that I would have to take it out fast. During our team meetings, Mark Schubert [USA Swimming’s National Team Head Coach and General Manager] continually reminded us that to be an American athlete means stepping up when you have to. I tried to run with that and thought ‘It doesn’t matter what heat I am in, I am capable of making the team that I want.’ I was very motivated going into finals and refused to let myself get psyched out.”
With her spot on the World Championships squad in serious doubt along with the peculiar two-per-country championship final rule at Pan Pacs, Vaziri had to answer the challenge from the consolation heat at Pan Pacs. Luckily for Vaziri, the meet held the A final before B finals. During the championship heat, English did not up the ante with a 1:02.27 to open the door again for Vaziri. The IU swimmer took full advantage of that opportunity and ripped off a personal-best time of 1:01.53 to secure her spot on the World Championships team.
“[Pan Pacs] were a really good experience for me in how top level international meets work,” Vaziri said of the lessons learned from her time at Pan Pacs. “You need to learn to get it done in the morning. I had a decent morning swim, but it was not enough to make it into the A final. In the end, it was the perfect educational set up for me. The experience taught me to go fast in the morning. Then, to step it up at night no matter what circumstance I am in. At the time, I was terrified, but looking back it was a good experience.”
The story could easily end right here and many readers would be happy to know that USA Swimming had another bright new star to gaze upon in the upcoming trail to Beijing. However, there is a much deeper story for Vaziri already hinted at that can provide profound inspiration to anyone facing uphill battles and shocking obstacles in life. Up to this point, Vaziri has never made public the drastic change that occurred during her life in the summer of 2005. Sadly, Vaziri’s father, Mansour, a former collegiate athlete in soccer, passed away to throw Vaziri’s life into disarray. Those of us that have experienced death in our families could not fathom having to go back to the intensity of training as an elite-level swimmer. On top of that stress, Vaziri had to deal with the vast loads of class work being a student-athlete entails. Working through the difficult grieving process threw Vaziri off for quite a while.
After a sensational sophomore season in which Vaziri won the 100 back at the Big Ten Championships and a spot in the championship heat at the NCAA Championships, Vaziri witnessed a drop in success as a junior when she took runner-up in the 100 back at Big Tens and placed 10th in the event at NCAAs.
“I think that year, I didn’t intentionally go into it thinking I was going to have an off year,” Vaziri said of her tumultuous junior season. “It was necessary for me to regain focus and motivation. That was my time to prioritize things in my life and it allowed me to refocus when that period had ended. That time of my life didn’t feel that good. Being older now, I don’t have many more seasons to just experiment. It really got me to refocus and find my desire and passion for training and racing again.”
One of the silver linings around the dark cloud of Vaziri’s junior year proved to be that she brought a much more mature outlook on life to her father’s death. While some of the other younger newly-minted swimming stars come to their successes at a very early age, Vaziri’s twentysomething viewpoint helped her work through the incredibly tough times following such a personal loss.
“I felt coming back into last year that it was going through the motions,” Vaziri said of her emotions during her junior year. “My heart wasn’t in it. I was totally distracted from setting goals and being motivated. I didn’t have that capability in me to do it. It was a year of going through the motions and focusing on other things for me. That was really hard for me. It was the hardest time in my swimming career that I ever had. Coming through the other side, it made me stronger and a better athlete. Even though I didn’t post great times and win Big Tens and do things I had done before, I was just proud for showing up and being there. Being at practice and being at a meet were hard for me, and I was really proud of that season, because I learned a lot and experienced a lot during that season. It was an important season to me.”
Vaziri also took time out to speak about the importance of her father in not only her swimming success, but her own mental outlook on life.
“My dad was a soccer player in college and could relate to me,” Vaziri said about her father. “He, as an Iranian, was so proud of me showing that Iranian women can be strong athletes. I was setting an example. He was also so proud of my opportunities. No matter what, he was always really supportive and proud of everything no matter how small of an accomplishment. Even without knowing anything about swimming, he was always so supportive. Both of my parents were typical, wonderful parents during my childhood. They didn’t push me in swimming, or try to set goals for me. They completely trusted my decisions on where I decided to go to school and where I decided to swim. They were more than just parents to me, they were my best friends.”
Thankfully for Vaziri, her mother Lise is still around to offer her the much-needed support of someone so relatively young in life. Vaziri spoke about her mother’s influence on her life.
“My mother is absolutely my best friend,” Vaziri said. “I try to take her attitude and emulate it. She is always a positive and optimistic person. She always said that if you are working hard for something and don’t think it is paying off, just wait – it will. Don’t get bitter and upset about things, and have a good peaceful mind about things. It probably happens for a reason. My mom has been everything to me as far as that goes.”
Vaziri had some words of advice for other swimmers that might be going through similarly difficult personal situation in life.
“It is really difficult when you are going through it,” Vaziri said of working through a hard time in life. “You think you will never recover from it and never be the same. I thought that maybe I forever lost my passion for swimming, and that maybe this made me realize that I need to move on. You can’t imagine how much time can impact and heal things. Just keep going and keep pushing, because tomorrow is another day. Eventually, you will heal. Afterwards, you are a stronger person. It is horrible and you can’t imagine anything good coming from it, but it makes you a stronger person inside. You can’t ever stop believing in your goals and your dreams. For me, I am old. I am 21 and made my first international team. If you really, really want it, keep aiming for it and keep going for it.”
With the painful lessons of her past still in mind but also behind her, Vaziri looks to her bright future. During her final year as a Hoosier and her first year training for a World Championship meet, Vaziri is excited for the upcoming season of competition.
“I am so excited and emotional about it being my last year at Indiana,” Vaziri said. “Being a college athlete has been one of the most fulfilling and enriching experiences ever. To represent IU has been awesome. This year, I have been trying to absorb every practice and being with the team. It has been great so far. I have had some of the best practices of my life so far this season. It will be my last Big Tens, my last NCAAs and my first world championships. It is very exciting and a little overwhelming right now.”
Vaziri has encountered some nerves regarding having two huge meets in one month in March with NCAAs scheduled for March 8-10 in Minneapolis, Minn., and World Championships slated for March 25-April 1 in Melbourne, Australia. The Hoosier senior, however, has altered her outlook on that schedule based on conversations with both Schubert and IU head coach Ray Looze. She has also worked on her preparation plan with the rest of the staff at Indiana.
“I did [feel nervous about having two big meets in one month] at first, then the coaches at USA Swimming said that, being a U.S. athlete, it shouldn’t be a concern,” Vaziri said of the momentous undertaking. “Mark Schubert and Ray Looze have both told me that world-class swimmers are ready to swim fast at any time. A lot of the girls on the World Championships team spoke with me and said that there is no reason to worry. We train all year our whole lives so you should be able to get yourself up twice. I only swim sprint events, so I am not concerned. I am going into it with the attitude that I will do wonderful at both meets. My coaches at IU and I have worked out a training program that will allow me to have a top performance at both meets. I do some middle distance training with Ray, one distance session with Michael Westphal and concentrate on sprint practices the rest of the time with Donny Brush. We looked at my lactate tests and have worked out a training program specifically for February and March. It will allow me to maintain my aerobic and strength bases while tapering.”
Vaziri also gave tips to SwimmingWorldMagazine.com readers about her training regimen.
“Being a backstroker, I do tons of underwater kicking,” Vaziri said of the types of sets she does during practice. “I do a lot of kick sets and a lot of technique. I am not really the most polished and powerful swimmer, but I have good technique. I continually refine my technique to make myself better. I also have worked on my power outside and in the water. I do a lot with weights, since dryland helps me a lot. We started doing pulleys at IU, which I really like to do. We do sets of loading the pulley with as heavy as you can go. Then, you do a one-lap sprint across the pool in 20 seconds. When it is 80 pounds, it can be hard. We’ll then do a set of 25 sprint with a weight tied to you. It helps transition your strength out of the water back into the water. We focus on high tempo and powerful strokes, but you have to focus on your technique with all of that weight or else you will stay in the same spot in the pool.”
Vaziri also has some basic advice on those parts of your body that matter the most in the backstroke.
“Core strength and leg strength are very important in the backstroke,” Vaziri said. “In backstroke, you always need to have a kick going. As far as your core, you want to get your abs and back strong in order to maintain high position in the water. Backstroke is all about your core and your legs.”
While Vaziri may have gone into this season as a relative unknown, her brother’s prescience proved true as her name is firmly on the map in the 100 backstroke for USA Swimming. We will all watch with undivided attention as Vaziri continues to train towards the future.