Gold medalist, 800 free relay, 2012 Olympics
Gold medalist and American record in 400 free relay, 2013 World Championships
Bronze medalist, 200 free, 2014 Pan-Pacific Championships
2014 SEC champion, 200 free
“I want kids to realize that there’s not any sort of path you have to follow to be good at swimming,” says freestyler Shannon Vreeland. “You don’t have to make your LSC All-Star meets or win Junior Nationals or even make juniors to have your big break later down the road. As long as you keep working hard and love the sport, there’s always a chance to reach your goals.”
The 2012 Olympic gold medalist’s own path began with the Kansas City Blazers, where she began swimming at age 8. Vreeland got everything she needed from that club — lessons, stroke mechanics, even her first role model. “(Blazer alumna) Catherine Fox came to talk to us when I was younger and brought her (1996) Olympic medal. I had never been that into swimming as my main sport but when she came in, I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Wow, if she did that, swimming for this same team, maybe someday I could do that too.’”
Vreeland, then 13, got inspired and began working her way up to the Blazers’ elite training group. Though she started out as a 200 backstroker, she gradually gravitated towards middle and distance free. By the time she was in the eighth grade, she focused on the 500 free and up as well as the individual medleys. “My coach used to say that if you could swim a mile you could swim anything,” she explains.
To her surprise, it also meant she could do well in shorter races, too. Frustrated after she continued narrowly missing her 2008 Olympic Trials cuts in the IMs and 800 free, Vreeland asked her coach to enter her in the 100 free at sectionals instead. With the pressure off, Vreeland finally had a breakthrough.
“That summer, I made finals in the 100, 200 and 400 IM at nationals, made the A-final at juniors in the 100 free, 200 back, 200 IM and 400 IM, and made the Junior National Team in the 200 back and 100 and 200 free.”
The takeaway lesson? “For older kids trying to make cuts and go to big meets and race at finals, it’s important to realize that you’ve done the work, you’ve put in the time,” she explains. “It is just another race, in another pool, something you’ve done a million times. If you question and worry and overthink, it becomes a different race, not one you’re used to swimming. That’s where things seem to typically go wrong.“
Vreeland’s performances at Junior Nationals got the attention of University of Georgia coach Harvey Humphries. “Coming out of high school I didn’t think I had the times to swim at Georgia,” she says, “but it’s hard to say no to Harvey.” And she didn’t.
“I felt like if I went to Georgia, I’d be competing against the best in the country every day,” Vreeland explains. “I love being the small fish in a big pond, so I figured I’d love the competition and it would fuel me to ultimately do my absolute best.”
Vreeland shocked herself in the 500 free at the SEC championships her freshman year. “When they called the names and credentials for the championship heat, I felt like everyone in it was an SEC or NCAA Champion or an Olympian. The heat was full of names like Elizabeth Beisel and Allison Schmitt.” But it was the unheralded freshman who won the day. “I ultimately dropped six seconds from my current best time and won my first-ever SEC race. I was so excited I could barely form full sentences in the post race interview.” At her final SECs in 2014, she claimed the 200 free title and meet record.
Vreeland entered the 2012 Olympic Trials without any big expectations — in fact, her goal meet was nationals, where she hoped to clinch a berth on the World University Games squad. She’d only been under the 2:00 barrier in the 200 free twice up to that point. To her shock, she placed fourth in prelims, second in prelims and fifth in the final to make the 800 free relay team. “There’s a picture of me that everyone thinks is the shot of me making the team, but it’s actually me just looking totally stunned after winning my semi final heat and going 1:57!” she laughs.
In London, she was beset with illness for the first half of the meet. “I’d been panicking, I didn’t want to have put in all of that work just to have to miss the meet.” But there was no reason to worry: she recovered well enough to turn in the fastest prelim time and with it, a slot in the final.
Now she was worried. “I was so nervous at finals you can see my leg shaking on the video footage,” she recalls. “I actually was so nervous I had a really fast reaction time (.08). There’s nothing quite like thinking you cut it too close in a finals relay race at the Olympics.” Her work done (with a personal best 1:56.85), she watched her Georgia teammate Allison Schmitt bring it home for a gold medal and Olympic record. Amazingly, she says “I didn’t cry on the podium, which was a surprise because I would even cry when I would watch from home, I think I was so happy and so overwhelmed and kind of in shock that I couldn’t cry.”
Though her life has revolved around water, Vreeland is finishing her law degree and foresees combining her two passions someday: “I always feel like I’ll be drawn back into using my law degree to work somewhere in the world of sports.”
Photos courtesy of SPEEDO and Carlos Serraro.