In Second Act of Career, Natalie Hinds Stitching Together a Successful Run

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In Second Act of Career, Natalie Hinds Stitching Together a Successful Run

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Natalie Hinds, a 20-time All-American at Florida from 2012-16, took a break from swimming after finishing no higher than 40th at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. After returning two years later to train at Georgia, the 28-year-old now has an Olympic medal from Tokyo and a brand new outlook on the sport and her future.

Natalie Hinds moved to the University of Georgia in 2018 determined to be a better version of herself. That meant as a swimmer, after a two-year hiatus, one she didn’t feel notable enough to announce publicly beyond slipping into coaching and a job in digital media. It meant in all the ancillary aspects of swimming, in her approach to nutrition and sleep, in her mindset around the pool.

And, as she browsed an Athens Barnes & Noble looking for a hobby to spark her curiosity and balance her time in the water, it meant broadening who she wanted to be as a young adult.

“I vowed that I wouldn’t be the same person,” Hinds says. “So I was like, I think I need to try something new.”

In the checkout-aisle display, Hinds had her choice: a painting set, a weaving kit, an intro to macramé. She opted to give weaving a whirl, with no idea how the strands of her new hobby would intertwine with the swimming journey she aspired to.

Three years later, Hinds hasn’t just achieved the most tangible goal of her comeback, earning a bronze medal with the U.S. women’s 400 freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics. She’s also attained the more ineffable aim of her career’s second phase: a greater sense of peace with the sport and of reaching her potential.

“I’m still the same Natalie,” she says, “but the way I approach swimming and life, I do it very differently now. I’m more grateful than anything. I’m always looking for what’s positive about the situation, whereas in 2016, I took a lot of stuff for granted and was pretty negative all around.”

The Warp and Weft of a Comeback

By the time the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials had wrapped, Hinds was as much done with swimming as she felt it was done with her.

She’d compiled a tremendous career at the University of Florida (where she is back training), twice the SEC champion in the 100 free and once in the 100 butterfly as the conference’s Women’s Freshman of the Year in 2013. A 20-time All-American, the Midland, Texas, native owns a place in history, joining Simone Manuel and Lia Neal on the podium in the 100 free at NCAAs in 2015, the first all-Black podium in an NCAA event.

But Hinds never felt able to translate short-pool success to long course meters. At Trials in 2016, she finished no higher than 40th (in the 100 free) in three events, then returned to Gainesville to finish a degree in telecommunications, and walked away from the pool.

She went to Atlanta to work for Bleacher Report, exploring an interest in creative digital spaces. But the itch to return to swimming returned. The nagging sensation she describes was, above all, about reaching her potential in a way she felt she hadn’t yet.

So in the fall of 2018, she joined the postgrad group at Athens Bulldog Swim Club. Alongside pros like Olivia Smoliga and Melanie Margalis, Hinds was reinvigorated, finding new ways to learn, grow and enjoy the journey.

“I feel as though a lot of my growth happened in my first year in Athens,” she said. “I was rusty in terms of training…and it was very overwhelming to go back to that, especially at such a yardage-heavy program. It took a lot to get used to. I think after a year of doing that and being with teammates like Olivia and Mel and being able to see how other people train, I was able to adapt a style that helped me.”

Stitching a New Story

The first major meet of Hinds comeback came at nationals in 2019. As she prepped, she found a strange thing happening.

The more time she spent working on fiber art, the less anxious she felt. Hours would melt away as she experimented with textures and colors. She was still “really bad at it,” she says, imitating other textile artists and honing her style. That process, unexpectedly, helped her in the water.

“It was just a lot of emotions were coming through,” she says. “Weaving, I learned, really helped me block out my brain from grinding on stuff that I wasn’t going to fix sitting in my living room. It’s a nice outlet for me, and I wasn’t good at it, so I naturally became obsessed.”

The same applied during the COVID-19 pandemic. She spent three months back home in Texas, her mom offering half of her quilting room as a workspace. With time to do nothing but “ride the Peloton and eat and weave,” Hinds dove deeper. She turned to the medium in the summer of 2020 to express the anger and sadness of a summer of racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd.

During that spring, she launched Loominary Design, an online showcase for her work in weaving and punch needle. What started as noodling around became a place for commissions for her “homey, textured pieces.” “People were like, ‘I’ll pay you for that,’” Hinds says. “And I was like, yeah, who am I to turn down free money?”

Equanimity at the loom translated to the pool. Nationals in 2019 were a resounding success, Hinds finishing fifth in the 50 free and 100 free. She was an inaugural member of the Cali Condors in ISL, the admitted homebody getting out of her comfort zone in an environment that stoked her competitive fires and intrigued her culturally by getting to visit different countries and cultures.

By the delayed Trials in 2021, Hinds arrived in Omaha knowing two outcomes were possible. She would either qualify for Tokyo and have six weeks to devote to that, or she would do her best and come up short. Either way, the work she’d put in gave her a sense of peace to accept whatever came.

“Both of those options, I was OK with by the time I got to Trials because I was at that time OK with my career,” she said. “…I knew I had done everything. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind, so that’s why I was so at peace with whatever was going to happen because I honestly gave it my best shot.”

The Veteran Rookie

Hinds had to wait until the end of the Trials program for her events. She finished 11th in the 100 fly, an early indication of form, and felt strong in tying Smoliga for first in the 100 free semis.

When she touched fourth in the final in 53.48, 36-hundredths behind Abbey Weitzeil but secure in a relay spot, she held her emotions until after her interviews were done, knowing how profound the upwelling would be.

“I felt like I had experienced five years in a matter of point-two seconds of emotions, and so it was very, very overwhelming,” she said. “I feel like I carried that feeling with me all the way into the (Olympic) Village. There are times when I was in camp and I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m at camp to go to the Olympics.’ It was such a weird feeling, and it’s a feeling I had to put on the backburner when we went into prelims and went into finals because obviously it’s a swim meet like any other meet, and we had a job to do.”

Hinds left Omaha feeling “like someone took a sumo wrestler off my shoulders.” It meant she could enjoy the Tokyo experience, focused and in the moment. Representing the American team, Hinds was both among a plethora of Olympic rookies, but, at 27, one of the oldest members. It allowed her to see Tokyo with the joy of a rookie but the savvied filter of a veteran.

With her Olympic legacy sealed, Hinds is living the swimming life she hoped for. That confidence allows her to plot her post-athletic future. She wants to be her own boss, to share what textile art has done for her and to continue to create. And she can see the path toward that once she’s done with a swimming journey that she’ll keep at as long as it’s enjoyable.

“I find joy in making stuff, and I find joy in helping people,” she says, “so any time I can marry the two is a very rewarding feeling.”

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Seth
1 month ago

Very inspiring!

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