Katie McLaughlin Finds New Perspective Heading into Olympic Trials — From Coaching

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Katie McLaughlin was starting to struggle as a professional swimmer.

After being a key member of Cal’s team, things were different as a professional.

Sure, she was training in the same pool as the current Bears, but as a graduate, the situation is different. While some of the Bears were her former teammates, they simply aren’t anymore after graduation — at least not in the same way.

McLaughlin, like most pros, found the situation difficult to adjust to at first. Swimming for the team is the focus of most college athletes, and the vibe just changes after graduating.

Then the pandemic hit, which didn’t help either, but McLaughlin found some new perspective from what seemed like an unlikely source. She started to coach.

“A big thing I feel like has really helped my swimming in general is starting to coach. That honestly got me through the pandemic. I was going to only do it over the summer, but I am still doing it now. I go 6-7 hours a week,” Katie McLaughlin told Swimming World. “It got me through my pro life struggles. Just having a different perspective on swimming. It has given me so much more gratitude and better appreciation for what I get to do and more of a purpose.”

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Katie McLaughlin. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

She hadn’t felt the same purpose since being on Cal’s team, contending for NCAA championships.

“I struggled not having a team and being on my own. It is just different when you are not on the college team. I was trying to find my purpose. I felt kind of selfish swimming on my own to go best times. I asked myself why I was doing it. Having the coaching the senior group at North Bay Aquatics gives me such a purpose. That really got me through the double Olympic year,” she said. “What would I want the kids to take away from a bad race and it helps me have perspective on what to take away myself.”

There have been plenty of transitions for McLaughlin, who had shoulder surgery last year, which changed her training and recovery. She also competed in the International Swimming League (ISL) season shortly after, which went well considering the injury, though McLaughlin was nowhere near the times she envisioned for herself pre-surgery.

It was a big step in the road to recovery as she prepares for the Olympic Trials with hopes of making the team.

“I feel pretty good. I have been training well and racing well. If I were to give myself a little test, I am where I want to be,” she said. “The past year, I have really focused on taking care of myself and finding things that bring me joy.”

That includes coaching. But also doesn’t include the 200 butterfly.

McLaughlin was a swimmer with a shot at making the team in the 200 fly, but she decided to focus on other races like the 100 butterfly, 200 free and 100 free.

“It really got hard to perform in that race and stepping away has transformed me,” she said. “I did it in 2016 and it was fine, but I would rather focus on having one swim per session. It is really hard to train for that and something else. When I swim the 200 fly, I focus only on that.”

Now, she can spread her focus out.

“It has been nice. I feel like I can just train a little bit more what I like to do. I like more aerobic freestyle training. I don’t have to worry about energy conservation,” she said. “Having my fly focused on the 100 is a different way of training. My endurance helps be be ready for the end of the 100 fly and 200 free. Teri (McKeever) is really creative and finds ways to get us to train at our race speeds.”

Being on her own as a pro, McLaughlin has taken the time to relearn and reiterate lessons she learned as a college swimmer, especially on the mental side of things.

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Katie McLaughlin. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“I think that something we do a good job of in the college season is not riding the highs or the lows. You are at NCAAs at a business trip. For me that would be after a race and I do well, or not, giving myself 15 minutes to mull over whatever feelings I have, then move on to the next thing,” she said. “We have all been there where we have a horrible practice or race, then turn it around and have a great practice or race the next day. Little tools like that to manage emotions are really important. The same thing can happen with a good swim. You can relax too much and check out after a good race. I am trying to have fun and enjoy, but knowing that if I want to achieve more, I have to roll with it. I have the perspective of it just being a swim meet. If it doesn’t go how I hope it goes, there are still so many things I am grateful for.”

McLaughlin kept that mentality at the 2016 trials as she struggled to recover from a serious neck injury and did not make the team.

“I didn’t make the 100 fly, I didn’t make the 200 free, not make the 200 fly. Not making the 100 fly, I didn’t even make the final, but I had to focus on what was next,” she said. “I didn’t want it to crush my dreams before the next race. I wanted to wait until the end before feeling that. It wasn’t that fun. I remember after trials, and just knew that I took some time off with my neck, I really wasn’t in the best shape to race. I needed to train a little more to get into swimming shape. I didn’t want to start back at Cal out of shape.”

It wasn’t easy.

“I took a couple days after being crushed. I took the rest of the summer and trained backstroke and IM and ended up going to futures that summer. Then my career kind of took off,” she said. “I would have loved to have made it in 2016. I do think it gave me a little extra push to force myself to want it a little bit more. I was definitely upset, but I bounced back … but I really don’t know how.”

Now, McLaughlin is a veteran on the national team looking to put together her best race at the right time.

“I can really only control myself and put myself in the best position. I can’t control how other people are going to swim so I have to make sure I can do my best. That is where I have to live,” Katie McLaughlin said. “The U.S. is just so deep, which is why it is so cool to swim for the U.S. If you made it, you really made it.”