Broke the 100m backstroke world record at the 2015 Duel in the Pool
Six-Time Olympic Medalist (4 gold, 2 silver)
Two-Time Olympian (2008, 2012)
27-Time NCAA All American
2012 Olympic Champion, 100 meter back, 4x100MR
2008 Olympic Silver and Gold Medalist
As a boy, Matt Grevers was drawn to the backstroke because “it was the only stroke where you could breathe as much as you wanted.”
He also remembers the sensation of being on the podium as a 10-year-old after breaking a National Age Group Record and realizing that a performance could bring an arena of people to their feet.
Eager to feel that again, he asked his mother, “Where’s the biggest stage where I could do this?” “The Olympics,” she answered. “That’s when I knew I wanted to win a gold medal,” he recalls.
That memory came rushing back to him 17 years later, as he stood atop the Olympic podium with that gold medal around his neck.
And that’s when the towering, 6-foot-8 swimmer known as the “Gentle Giant” shed a tear or two. Because he got to that podium by traveling the most crowded route for an American male: the backstroke. This is a stroke where U.S. supremacy in the discipline can be measured in decades.
There were easier ways to get there. As the son of two Dutch parents, the Chicago-bred Grevers could have accepted the Netherlands’ offer of citizenship and a guaranteed spot on their up-and-coming Olympic team. That would have allowed the 4-time NCAA champion from Northwestern University to bypass the pressure cooker of the U.S. Trials. Alternatively, he could have switched his focus to the 100 freestyle, tripling his chances of making the U.S. team. In the end, he turned down both options.
“I wanted it to mean something if I swam in the Olympics,” Grevers told the New York Times in 2008. “I didn’t want to just get handed a spot. A lot of people I’ve known will just try to represent a country they’re barely related to. I don’t think that’s the true spirit of what the Olympics are all about.”
Grevers represented the country of his birth admirably, helping to complete one of many American 1-2 finishes in the 100 backstroke. “Being able to get a silver and a couple of golds as a relay alternate was more than I thought I would accomplish.”
After Beijing, his perspective changed. Grevers recalls: “Now I expected those results. I wanted to better myself, which meant an Olympic gold medal.” But things would be different his second time around.
“I changed from being an amateur athlete trying to prove himself to being a professional athlete,” he says. Grevers describes the 2008-2012 quadrennial as “my second time through college, only without classes. I loved every part of it.” (Having extra time to take naps and eat properly were among the quality-of-life upgrades his professional status has afforded him.)
“I also did a lot of growing up,” Grevers adds. He achieved some big adult milestones, becoming a homeowner and getting engaged to wife Annie (famously popping the question from the podium at a 2012 Grand Prix meet).
Sadly, it wasn’t all smooth sailing on the career front during that quadrennial. He had a bad nationals performance in 2010, failing to make the teams for that year’s PanPacs squad or the following year’s World Championships. This meant he wouldn’t see meaningful international competition before the 2012 Olympic Trials.
There were surely some feelings of disappointment in that two-year span, and the easy option would have been just to walk away. But once again, taking the easy way was a no-go for Grevers. His failure to make the team was never truly a failure, because he insisted on learning from it and refused to quit. He stormed back at his next opportunity in 2012 to not only make the Olympic Team, but also to win that 100 backstroke gold medal he’d been chasing since he was 10.
Grevers just missed the chance to defend his 100 backstroke gold, finishing third at the 2016 Olympic Trials. His time of 52.76 would have made the Olympic final, which just goes to show you the tremendous depth of American backstroke talent.
He’s not ready to call it quits on a swim career, though. He does admits that this process of being a professional swimmer can be exhausting to maintain. “But it’s motivating. I’ve been swimming for so long that it’s cool to heighten my sense of what the highest level I can reach is.”
Here’s something Grevers has learned about goal-setting since he was that 10-old-boy dreaming about swimming his favorite stroke on the world’s biggest stage.
“At first, goals are dreams. They’re something you hope to achieve. And now my goals are destinations.”
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