Matt Grevers: Age Not Slowing Down Olympic Champion

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Matt Grevers: Age Not Slowing Down Olympic Champion (From September issue of Swimming World Magazine)

One day, Matt Grevers will stand in front of a ballroom filled with the biggest names in the history of the sport. His family and friends will look on, too, as he delivers a speech accepting induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Afterward, a permanent exhibit honoring his career will be displayed in the Hall of Fame’s state-of-the-art complex.

When that day will be is uncertain. See, here’s the catch to that impending celebration: Grevers is still competing at a world-class level, chasing excellence in the same way he did more than a decade ago. No, the Northwestern University graduate and Team USA stalwart does not need to achieve anything more to stamp himself as an all-time great. But, even at 35 years old, there is a desire to accomplish more, and there is no reason to doubt Grevers can come through.

Initially, this past summer was supposed to mark Grevers’ latest pursuit of Olympic success. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic altered those plans, postponing the 2020 Tokyo Games and delaying Grevers’ chase – and the dreams of thousands of other athletes across a multitude of sports. Consequently, 2021 has become the target, the United States Olympic Trials in Omaha where Grevers will get the chance to earn a third Olympic invitation.

A Rich Resume

The sport is certainly different than it was 20 years ago, particularly 30, 40 and 50 years in the past. Athletes remain active for longer periods and will span multiple Olympiads. Still, Grevers’ longevity stands out, his presence as one of the world’s premier backstrokers stretching for 15 years.

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

A multi-time NCAA champion at Northwestern, Grevers made his presence known on the international stage at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. While Aaron Peirsol repeated as the gold medalist in the 100 backstroke, Grevers provided the United States with a sweep of the top-two positions, the silver medal draped around his neck on the podium.

Four years later, Grevers played the role of an alchemist, as he turned silver into gold by besting the competition in the 100 backstroke at the 2012 Olympics in London. The event once again produced a U.S. sweep, with Nick Thoman claiming silver behind Grevers, and marked the fifth straight Games in which an American won the event. That streak was extended to six consecutive Games when Ryan Murphy prevailed in 2016.

Along the way, Grevers has collected four Olympic medals for his relay contributions and has won 13 medals at the World Championships, including an individual title in his signature event in 2013. As important, he is one of the most well-liked athletes on the deck, and one of the most respected, having served as a Team USA captain at multiple international competitions.

“I’m one of the fortunate ones to have stayed on top for so long,” Grevers said. “I love working out for a living and being a professional swimmer is an excuse to live a healthy and clean life. It gives me a reason to focus on my body and my performance. Some people view what we do as a sacrifice. I view it as the lifestyle I want. I love what I do.”

Perseverance

As successful as Grevers has been throughout his career, he has not been free of speed bumps along the way. There have been injuries to overcome and moments of doubt, but he has always bounced back in admirable fashion, allowing his faith and personal belief to power him through the rough patches. No singular event serves as greater proof than how Grevers reacted to what unfolded at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

greversDespite entering Omaha as the reigning Olympic champion, Grevers knew nothing was a given, especially with the stacked field that lined up for the 100 backstroke. With only two berths to Rio available, several Olympic-medal contenders were going to be left home. Grevers turned out to be one, as he finished third to Murphy and David Plummer.

It’s not that Grevers didn’t produce a strong performance at Trials. His time of 52.76 ranked among the fastest in the world but happened to be beaten by two foes. It’s a scenario that unfolds several times at each Trials, such is the depth in the United States. For some, the experience can be devastating and deliver a blow so significant, there is no recovery. For Grevers, the hurt of just missing a third Olympic bid was true, but he did not allow it to keep him down.

“I used what happened as a lesson,” Grevers said. “It’s how swimming is. There is no victim and it was painful for me, but only two guys can go. There’s no anger from it, but I learned a lesson. I put so much pressure on myself and saw it as a job, and that usually works for me. But it might have been a little too much and I learned I have to enjoy it a little more.”

If some followers of the sport thought Grevers’ Olympic miss would mark the end of his career, they were certainly mistaken. Exhibiting perseverance, he rebounded by qualifying for the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, where Grevers won silver in the 100 backstroke and bronze in the 50 backstroke. He also represented the United States at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships and 2019 World Championships, and the fact that Grevers has remained a steady presence in international waters is the reason he remains a top contender to compete in Tokyo.

More, it is beneficial to have a strong support system and a deep reliance on his Christian faith. After Grevers just missed out on the Rio Olympics, his wife, Annie, wrote an article for Swimming World that spoke volumes about the support her husband would receive, and about the pride she held for his efforts. As an Olympic Trials finalist and standout for the University of Arizona during her competitive days, Annie (nee Chandler) knows a thing or two about the dedication needed to reach the sport’s upper heights.

“Swimmers either spiral into a free fall or find a way to land with both feet on the ground,” Annie Grevers wrote in 2016. “My husband landed firmly. He faced pained expressions conveying genuine sympathy from coaches, fellow athletes and fans. He talked to the media, he smiled for photos with kids, he toasted and laughed with us at a family dinner. He remained Matt. He remained joyful. It’s not that he didn’t suffer, but he did so with grace that comes from a divine place.”

Heck of a support system, huh?

Biding Time

The COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy for anyone. The impact has been felt at varying levels, and Grevers is no different. With the shutdown of many facilities, including the University of Arizona’s pool, where he typically trains under coach Jesse Stipek, Grevers has been forced to scramble for pool time.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Grevers has utilized four pools during the pandemic and has been pinched by time limitations that do not allow for workouts to be as intense or complete as normal. But he’s made the best of the situation and did get in a two-week training stint at the University of Missouri, where his brother, Andrew, is the head coach. He has also turned to Peloton to get in different aerobic and anaerobic workouts. Notably, Grevers won Peloton’s All-Star Ride, televised on ESPN, in May. During that competition, he defeated a lineup of fellow athletes, including the Boston Celtics’ Gordon Hayward and PGA superstar Rory McIlroy. He has also received assurance from USA Swimming that if his difficulties with pool time continue, the organization will assist him with time at the Olympic training Center. In Grevers’ words, “USA Swimming has been such a help answering questions, providing things to focus on and assuring I will get the environment I need.”

In the meantime, he has enjoyed time with Annie and their daughters, three-year-old Skylar and Grace, who is approaching her first birthday. Grevers speaks highly of the naps that are part of his typical routine, and a lift in his voice was evident when he shared that Skylar has regularly joined him for those siestas during the pandemic.

“It’s great spending time with family,” Grevers said. “(Skylar) and I hang out all the time. We’re buddies and great friends. Being a father is amazing. I’ve really been enjoying this time.”

Looking Ahead

Because the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games have been delayed a year, athletes will be impacted in different ways. For up-and-comers, the opportunity to develop for another year might be an advantage. For someone like Grevers, the delay can be viewed as an impediment, since he is not getting any younger.

“During this year, as (former coach Rick DeMont) says, we’re going to work on landing the plane,” Grevers said. “I felt I was in a good spot and this is an opportunity to have some more time. I’m going to be a year older and being 36 is not going to help physiologically. My body doesn’t recover like it used to. But I’ve ignored injuries and emotional distractions in the past and I like thinking in the moment. I’m getting naturally stronger with age and maybe I can sharpen up a few things.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

With Grevers as one of the main protagonists, the 100 backstroke will be a can’t-miss event at Trials next summer. Murphy, the reigning Olympic champ, will be in the field, along with standouts like Jacob Pebley, Justin Ress, Coleman Stewart and Shaine Casas. All are capable of producing a time worthy of the Olympic final.

For Grevers, he has long known how to work through the years between Olympics, suggesting that he dials back the intensity to about 95%. By coasting slightly more than in an Olympic campaign, he has stayed fresh for the biggest moments.

If nothing else, Grevers has experience on his side. He has successfully navigated the land mine that is Trials, and he knows what it is like to deal with the disappointment of a third-place finish. By possessing that knowledge, he will undoubtedly be prepared for Omaha. Additionally, he has demonstrated the ability to retain his speed through the years.

“If you make the team, you’re in contention to medal,” Grevers said of Trials. “Making the team is getting over the first barrier and the stress goes down. It’s going to be fun. It’s a group of great people and it’s awesome to have so much pride as a country in that event.”

Matt Grevers is a major reason.