New Zealand's swimmer of the year is primed for four Olympic events, but not so long ago this talent was almost lost to the sport. Lauren Boyle talks to Simon Plumb about London, loneliness, and most of all, having fun again.
Lauren Boyle is smiling. And she's got every right to.
Qualified for four freestyle events at the London Olympics, carrying a degree from a top American university and recently crowned New Zealand swimmer of the year, the engaging 24-year-old humbly acknowledges her accomplishments.
But it's the story behind the success which is most impressive, and almost completely unknown.
"I spent four-and-a-half years at the University of California Berkeley and was part of the NCAA swim team, coached by the USA's head Olympic coach Teri McKeever," Boyle told the Sunday Star-Times.
"Before I went to Cal I was having a really hard time with swimming, I didn't know if I still loved it.
"The decision to go there is what's kept me in the sport.
"I was in my first year of university in New Zealand and I had to go to swimming early in the morning, drive to university, go to my lecture, run back to my car, go to swimming, and then get home at 8 o'clock and do the same thing all over again the next day.
"I had no time to see friends or do anything else but swim and study.
"It was just not fun. It was lonely and it's actually quite difficult to explain.
"Being in such a strong team environment in America has really helped me love the sport and care about other people's performances as much as my own.
"In America, because you compete as teams at the NCAA championships, you want everyone in your team to go as fast as they possibly can.
"It doesn't matter if team-mates beat you in that process, because your own result isn't the ultimate goal, it's about the team.
"Back here, and in other countries, you're competing against your team-mates for places on the national squad. If that team environment could be built here, it would make things so much more powerful."
The smile on Boyle's face, not to mention the national records and Olympic qualifying times in her locker, have been facilitated, primarily, by McKeever – one of world swimming's most renowned coaches.
But Boyle also acknowledges American Olympic champions Natalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer – with a dozen Olympic medals between them, who have helped guide her life, both in and out of the water.
"Learning from someone like Teri about swimming, and that it doesn't have to be based on how many kilometres you swim – it can be much more intangible – that's what's really helped me engage with the sport and love it.
"When I think back to Cal, even though we trained and studied so hard, it was just so fun because all your friends were around you doing the same thing too.
"It puts a shine on it.
"I also had some superstar team-mates in Natalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer. I definitely learned a lot about the sport of swimming and, I guess, life skills from those three people.
"They've been really helpful in my growth as an athlete and as a person."
Certainly, Boyle's athletic development has been very distinctive.
Four years after her Olympic debut in Beijing and two years after collecting silver at the Commonwealth Games with the 4x200m freestyle relay team, Boyle dominated March's national championships, where she repeated individual Olympic qualifying times for the 200, 400 and 800m freestyle – reducing her own 400m national record in the process and also trimmed the 1500m time.
She was also a three-times finalist at last year's world championships.
Boyle's London schedule is completed by a return in the 4x200m relay, but individually, she points to the 400 and 800m.
"My main events, the 400 and 800m, are well spaced. However, the 200m is the day following the 400m, which isn't ideal.
"It's always hard for me to talk about goals because when you state them to the public you get this expectation on you. If you don't fulfil that expectation, you get seen as a failure.
"My goal first and foremost is to prepare for the Olympics to the best of my ability and go into that competition feeling confident in my preparation.
"A product of that goal will hopefully be an Olympic final.
"If I don't achieve that I will still be happy. This journey has been amazing, I've learned a lot about myself, my team-mates and all the people who have helped me to where I am now. I feel like I'm in a win-win situation. The journey is as much a reward as the result itself.
"The whole experience of Beijing was absolutely thrilling, it was so fun. All I remember from it is being really excited and happy right before the race in the marshalling area and as we walked up to the blocks.
"I think the experience from the village there will help me into London because I know what to expect from that kind of environment – and what distractions could be lurking around the corner."
A timely return to Berkeley awaits next month, affording Boyle time to catchup with McKeever.
"I'm enjoying swimming again so I'm happy to start thinking about the future," she said. "I think it's fair to say London is a stepping stone in my career."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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