Rebecca Soni and Caroline Burckle Making a Difference Through RISE Athletes Mentorship Program

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Caroline Burckle and Rebecca Soni, the founders of RISE Athletes -- Photo Courtesy: RISE Athletes

Rebecca Soni and Caroline Burckle Making a Difference Through RISE Athletes Mentorship Program

Rebecca Soni remembers standing on the Olympic medal podium in London and freaking out. She had just successfully defended her Olympic gold medal in the 200 breaststroke, and in that race, she became the first woman to ever break 2:20 in the event. She would have one more race left, as the breaststroke leg of the American women’s 400 medley relay, and that would be it for her swimming career. She had achieved her ultimate goal and accomplished everything she ever wanted to in the pool, and all the sudden, Soni realized she felt a void.

“I had this moment standing on the podium after completing her amazing career, getting a gold medal around my neck, where I felt panicked,” Soni recalled. “‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I do now?’ On the podium, freaking out. I knew I was done, and I was kind of missing the joy that I expected. There was a relief, but there was definitely this sense of, ‘Now what?’ The joy lasted certainly for a little bit, but it’s quickly became panic.”

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Rebecca Soni after winning gold in the women’s 200 breast at the 2012 Olympics

When Soni came home from London, she could not figure out what she wanted to do next in life. She dabbled here and there, and during that period, she connected with Caroline Burckle, a teammate on the 2008 Olympic team. Burckle had retired shortly before the 2012 Trials, and she also wasn’t quite sure about her long-term plan while worked on a masters in sports psychology.

Their discussions mostly came in the form of a “years-long (stretch) of voice-memoing each other back and forth,” and through those conversations, the two went deep into the positive and negative emotions associated with high-level sports. They realized elite swimming had not adequately prepared them for the life after and the real-world necessity of being grounded when swimming is no longer there.

“We would just have these deep conversations about our worth as athletes and what it meant to feel solid as a human outside of sport,” Burckle said. “Being able to know that worth as a human being is incredibly important and instrumental in owning your successes and in becoming a successful athlete.”

It’s not that having success in swimming is a negative—quite the opposite, actually. But Soni remembers in the aftermath of London being worn down by hearing, “You just did the greatest thing you will ever do in your life.” That may sound like a complement, but to Soni, it stung as she sought to find purpose in her post-competitive life.”

“I was like, ‘Well, what about you with your kids? Having kids, is that not the greatest thing you’ve ever done?’” She said. “We put the Olympics on such a high pedestal, and that’s a really beautiful thing, when you’re grappling with what that means for you, I really struggled having my best be in the past. It takes a long time, and I’m still having to remind myself almost a decade later that there are other very meaningful, purposeful things that are a part of my life, that are coming in my life.”

Soni and Burckle spent months and years discussing how they could impact the sport and help young swimmers develop a healthier perspective, so in 2015, the began RISE Athletes, a mentorship program for young athletes to help improve mental wellness. They brought in 2000 Olympian Kristy Kowal right away and sought to impart lessons that they wish they knew during their careers. Maybe some of these tips would have helped Soni and Burckle be better swimmers, but they believe they certainly would have been more well-rounded and more confident and better-prepared for the challenges they would face when swimming was not there.

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RISE has since expanded to more than 35 mentors, a list that includes 2021 U.S. Olympic swimmers Natalie Hinds and Zach Harting along with previous U.S. Olympians Katie Hoff, Kate Ziegler and Katie Meili and other top-level swimmers. But plenty of the mentors are not former swimmers. Different mentors work with athletes in each of their respective sports. The goal, according to Burckle? “To support them through the ups and downs, owning their worth, understanding their self-talk, their ways to overcome their obstacles and better their communication and leadership styles and skills and all these things.”

While coaches can design their athletes’ training and provide feedback on technique and parents provide love and nurturing, Soni and Burckle believe mentors can provide a third critical element of support. “They’re not there to step on anyone’s toes,” Soni said. “How often in this busy world, between social media and the million things of these kids are trying to do, do you get to just sit down, talk to somebody, kind of be guided through your feelings and learn about yourself and be heard and be seen? It’s just a really beautiful connection to help the coach’s work be better and the parent’s work as far as raising their kid and loving their kids be better. It really does fulfilled this separate but necessary aspect of these young kids’ lives.”

That mentoring and listening role might be especially critical with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and swimming creating more stress for swimmers at all levels. Since March 2020, swimmers have had to deal with meets being cancelled and training being interrupted for long periods. “Swimming is no longer that comfortable I-know-what-to-expect place,” Soni said. So the mentors can work with their athletes by talking them through disappointments and helping them reset and keep a healthy perspective.

But when a swimmer or any athlete is permanently finished in a sport, they will still likely feel a letdown and even possibly an identity crisis as something so stable and constant in their lives is gone. The mentors cannot fully prevent that, but they can prepare their mentee with the best possible tools for how to handle those situations.

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Caroline Burckle — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“The question that everyone always wants answered is, ‘How do you prevent this? How do you prevent this whole non-identity thing, where people don’t know who they are when they’re done?’” Burckle said. “The answer is you can’t prevent it. You can’t prevent someone from having an experience. But what you can do is equip then with the tools at a young age so they’re more equipped to have those experiences with a different perspective and be able to calm themselves and regulate their nervous systems and understand who they are. They can grapple at the same time that they have the tools to do it.

RISE offers mentorship in several different formats: the bread-and-butter one-on-one session between a RISE mentor athlete and a younger athlete, once a week on a video call for 30 minutes, for as long as the athlete wishes to continue. The athlete also has access to a dashboard where they can chat with their mentor and ask questions whenever they wish. RISE also offers customizable team partnerships where a mentor athlete meets with a team for six sessions (and recurring, if the team wishes), and those can be customized to fit team needs. RISE has also debuted a partnership with the Middle Atlantic LSC that offers parent talks and scholarships for swimmers to receive individual mentoring.

While Soni and Burckle are proud of all of their offerings, they believe the one-on-one offers the most value to the athletes. Rather than a single motivational speech, the mentors can work for the athletes and help them provide sustainable change and hold the athletes accountable. On a more personal level, Soni has that experience of working with individual athletes to be incredibly rewarding as she has watched her mentees grow up, regardless of their actual swimming times.

“How often is it you can tell you can talk to an Olympian or an elite athlete just like that?” Soni said. “Honestly, with these one-on-one, we’ve been working with some kids from the very beginning, Caroline and I have, and now I’m watching them go off to college. I feel like I’m part of the family, like I genuinely care so deeply about these people as humans, not necessarily trying to get them to the top of their stage.”

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