2008 Olympic Silver medal 4×100 Medley relay
2008 individual Olympic finalist 200 butterfly
American record holder in the 200 butterfly SCY
4 time individual NCAA champion
24 time NCAA All-American
There are swimmers who excel at the 200 butterfly despite loathing each and every excruciating stroke.
2008 Olympian Elaine Breeden was never one of them.
“I loved it because everyone else hated it,” she laughs. “I loved the mind games and the strategy.”
While many young swimmers take years to really nail their butterfly timing, she picked it up right away, surprising her coaches and family.
She made her first Junior National Team at 13. “That was a pretty defining moment in my swimming career,” Breeden says. “I had the time of my life on that trip (to the World Youth Olympic Festival) to Sydney, Australia. We got to swim in the Olympic pool two years after the Games. Watching those Olympics was incredibly motivating for me, because I wanted to be the next Misty Hyman. Watching her 200 fly there was inspiring.”
In fact, Breeden tried to replicate Hyman’s race strategy in that same pool. “I failed miserably,” she says. “I went out hard and I died hard. I have never hurt more at the end of a race than in that 200 butterfly. In fact, that race kind of put the fear in me for the 200 fly. Throughout the rest of high school, I never went out hard again. In fact, I became known for negative splitting.”
A year later, she broke the Kentucky state record in the 100 fly, set by Madam Butterfly herself, Mary T. Meagher. “That’s when I started thinking I could follow in her footsteps,” Breeden recalls.
Since her high school didn’t field a swim team, she focused on her club team training with Wildcat Aquatics, winning multiple national titles and Grand Prix victories by 2006. “But I knew I was going to need more from my training environment to make the Olympic team,” she says. “I needed weight training and teammates who could push me.”
She found that at Stanford. “I now had 25 women pushing me in the pool instead of just a couple of high school guys.” she says. “But I loved it. It changed the sport for me, and I actually looked forward to going to practice.” The best part: for the first time in her career, she could really focus on fly technique and 200 pacing.
“The longer I did that kind of training, the more confident I became in my ability to maintain my pace. The 200 fly is really mental and you have to know you have it in the tank for that last 50 to have the confidence to take it out hard.”
Gradually, her 200 strategy evolved from holding everything back until the last 100 to “have a great start, pop up ahead of everyone and just stay ahead of them.”
During an initial goal setting session with coach Lea Maurer, Breeden announced she wanted to win the 200 fly at NCAAs as a freshman. “I came in as a 100 butterflier and 400 IMer. The 200 fly was just an OK event for me. I think she thought I was just being really optimistic. But I ended up doing it. I surprised a lot of people freshman year with that win.”
She got beaten in her pet event the next year, and it taught her a valuable lesson. “My head was completely in my opponent’s lane for the whole race,” she admits. “I was totally distracted by what she was doing. I was all over the place mentally. Getting out-touched taught me what I needed to learn going into Olympic Trials: I can’t waste a second of a race thinking about what’s going on in my competitor’s lane. I have to be completely focused on my race, my strategy, my stroke.”
That new mindset served her well at the 2008 Trials. The meet started with her making the team in the 100, which came as a surprise to at least Breeden. “When I turned around and saw I’d made the team in the 100, that was the most shocked I’ve ever been. There’s a video of it somewhere on YouTube with my jaw dropped. I looked really ridiculous, but it was a pretty awesome moment.”
That surprise Olympic berth in the 100 “took so much pressure off me for the 200,” she recalls. “I wasn’t afraid. I had nothing to lose. I just went out and had the swim of my life. Every stroke felt incredible, which happens very rarely in the 200 fly.”
Sadly, though, that feeling was fleeting. “During the training camp in Singapore, I noticed my taper was off. It’s hard to come off of a full taper and the most stressful meet of your life and build back up again for the next most stressful meet of your life. I kept trying to feel amazing again, like I did before Trials. But I was trying to manufacture something that wasn’t there.”
Once she got into Beijing, the media spotlight on the team intensified. And the fireworks at the Opening Ceremonies a few blocks away made it hard to sleep the night before her first race. “All these factors were throwing me off, and I wasn’t in the zone. I ended up having a fine meet and finished seventh. I was close to my best times. But it was a turning-point in my career. I finally realized you have to focus on the things you can control like not breathing off the wall or maintaining a certain pace. Just perfect those things and it will fall into place.”