How the Olympic Experience Shaped Jacob Pebley

jacob pebley
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

As soon as Jacob Pebley touched the wall, a look of disbelief spanned his face. He covered his face as tears poured out from his eyes. He grabbed his yellow cap and smashed it into the water.

Cal teammate and first-place finisher Ryan Murphy eventually got Pebley’s attention and pulled him into an embrace, but Pebley could not take his eyes of the scoreboard. He had finished second at Olympic Trials in the 200 back, and he would join Murphy in the event in Rio.

jacob pebley

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

The achievement was something Pebley had dreamed of and visualized over and over in his head, but he had known that making the Olympics would take a monumental effort: He would have to finish ahead of defending Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary. And Pebley did just that—he touched in 1:54.77, while Clary finished in 1:55.33.

“You have to assume the defending Olympic champion is going to give a good fight, so it was kind of a barrier I had to hurdle over,” Pebley said. “When I saw that I’d done it, it kind of felt like a dream because I’d seen it so many times in my head. When I saw it, it was like I was closing my eyes in my room or something. It wasn’t quite real.”

Pebley never expected the emotions to hit quite so hard, even if his teammates had insisted Pebley would cry if he made the Olympic team. But in the 24 hours he had to sit and wait between the semi-final and the final, Pebley had realized why making the Olympic team would mean so much to him.

He had thought of his mother, Cathy Worth Pebley, who had died of cancer ten years earlier. He thought of her while lying in bed during the night and the hours before his race, and he thought of her as soon as he realized he was an Olympian.

“Swimming has always been a journey that I brought along my mom with. She was always so passionate about the sport with me. That’s never gone away,” Pebley said.

“When you’re just kind of talking to yourself at night before one of the biggest swims of your life, you kind of think back through your whole career and why it’s so important to you to be in this moment, and that was it for me. It hit me, like, that was why I wanted to be there, was for her.”

The Games Begin

The moment he made the Olympic team was incredibly special for Pebley, but with the Games just five weeks away, it was up to Cal coaches Dave Durden and Yuri Suguiyama to make sure that Pebley wasn’t dwelling on his accomplishment for too long.

“I think Yuri gave me a hug and Dave gave me a hug, and after that, it was back to work,” Pebley said.

But after achieving the biggest goal he had for his swimming career, Pebley had trouble coming back down to earth. As he made his way through the Team USA training camps in San Antonio and Atlanta, he became too distracted by his new status as an Olympian and lost some focus on the day-to-day routine that had gotten him to that point in the first place.

“You go a whole year thinking, ‘Can I be an Olympian or not?’ And then all the sudden you are, and nothing has actually changed. I did a 200 back in a certain time and got a certain place, and all the sudden you have a lot more confidence,” Pebley said. “An outcome shouldn’t define who I am or how I treat every day.”

Pebley made the Olympic final in the 200 back and had his sights set on a medal, but he faded to fifth place. His final time of 1:55.52 was more than seven tenths slower than he swam at Olympic Trials.

Whatever pressure Pebley felt in the month before the Olympics, something wasn’t clicking for him on the day of his first Olympic final. For the better part of his post-Olympics break, Pebley “kind of beat myself up,” and he was back training after less than three weeks off.

Of utmost importance was keeping his emotions in check—not letting himself get too high or too low on any day—and focusing on constant improvement within every race and practice, even in taper.

“I realized how much my life changed in such a short time,” he said. “I was so set on process up until the Olympic Trials, then I started becoming more focused on the end result. It’s really important that from now on I’m just enjoying each day, and what happens the next day is the next day’s worry.”

Taking on the (Short Course) World

The Olympic season behind him “just like nothing happened, basically,” Pebley had a fresh set of goals for the new season, with Short Course Worlds, scheduled for December in Windsor, Canada, and U.S. World Championship Trials, to be held in Indianapolis in late June, both circled on his calendar

“My goal at Short Course Worlds was a little bit of redemption, just get on the podium, get that feeling out of the way so it’s not on top of my head when I hopefully get to World Championships this summer,” Pebley said.

Indeed, Pebley did get to stand on the podium in Windsor—three times, actually. He won silvers in the 200 back, 200 medley relay and 800 free relay, and he could have had a fourth medal if not for the disqualification of the U.S. 400 medley relay.

Radoslaw Kawecki Arena

Radoslaw Kawecki — Photo Courtesy: Gian Mattia Dalberto/Lapresse

Still, it was a bummer for Pebley to not touch first in the 200 back, even if he turned the tables from the Olympic final and finished ahead of Mitch Larkin and Xu Jiayu. But he could not catch Radoslaw Kawecki, who won the race in 1:47.63, to Pebley’s 1:48.98.

“I kind of took it on my shoulders to win that race since Ryan (Murphy) wasn’t there,” he said. “I was thinking about it the whole meet—I really wanted to win that, but Kawecki got the better of me that last 50.”

What’s Next in Life and in the Pool

He hasn’t been to any other major meets since Windsor, but it has not exactly been a quiet winter and spring for Pebley. In March, he proposed to longtime girlfriend Nikki Owens, and the two have been busy planning a wedding scheduled for late August.

At the end of May, Pebley graduated from Cal-Berkeley and then moved into a house with fellow Cal pros Murphy, Josh Prenot and Missy Franklin. Pebley says that swimming the same events as Murphy has no effect on their relationship outside the pool.

“We’re not evil towards each other or whatever,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t want to lose to Ryan, and Ryan doesn’t want to lose to me—we have goals, and they’re probably pretty similar—but when we leave the pool, we have similar interests, we hang out, and it’s like, ‘whatever.’ Swimming and life don’t have to mesh too much.”


Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

When Murphy struck gold in Rio in both the 100 and 200 back as well as on the 400 medley relay, Pebley was pumped for his friend and pleased to see Murphy carry on a tradition of excellence—one that Pebley, too, hopes to be a part of in 2020.

“I’m a numbers guy, so the fact that he was able to keep that streak alive for the backstroke races and the medley relay, as a fan of swimming and of USA Swimming especially, it was obviously really cool that he kept that streak going, and it doesn’t have to be started up again come 2020,” Pebley said. “Now it’s up to whoever makes the team in 2020 to keep that alive.”

Pebley’s next chance to make his impact on an international level comes this summer, when he’s hoping to be on the U.S. team bound for Budapest and the FINA World Championships—a meet that Pebley has not yet qualified for in his career.

Just like last year, he has to go through a Trials meet before he can earn his spot at the big one, and the pressures of an upcoming qualification meet feel familiar.

“Knowing I’ve gone through that stress of wanting to be on a team and making the team, it gives me that confidence to know that I’ve done it before, and I can do it again,” Pebley said. “But it’s very different—we have basically half the time between the trials and (Worlds) this year—it’s only three weeks after.”

Pebley says that change in timing has brought about a completely different preparation for Nationals and then the World Championships. The focus, Pebley explained, has been far more on the Worlds themselves rather than the Trials.

“It’s been weird, but you’ve got to trust the coach and trust the body of work from the whole year,” he said. “(The training) is all there, regardless of how many weeks or days of rest you have.”

Pebley the Professional

Nine months after he finished up his college career at Cal and officially joined the professional ranks, Pebley signed his first apparel sponsorship with TYR Sport.

No longer part of the Golden Bears’ NCAA roster, Pebley felt wholeheartedly reassured when a company with so much prestige in the sport embraced him.

“To have the support of an entire company is ridiculous. It’s just crazy that a company would want to back me and say that, ‘We are behind you and your progress towards Tokyo,’” he said. “To have that team behind me and doing whatever it takes to get me to Tokyo, it’s really cool. They’re committed to me wholeheartedly, and I’m committed to them.”

It’s not just Jacob Pebley the swimmer that TYR and his other sponsors have signed up for. They each want to see him make a positive impact in the world and become an inspiration for more than just what he does in the pool.

As for that new role, that new phase of his life, Pebley has embraced it.

“I think it actually takes off the pressure (in racing) because even if I don’t perform well, there’s a bunch of people who know who I am and why I do this,” Pebley said. “I can still inspire people to do their best every day if you have that mentality regardless of an outcome.”

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