Peter Vanderkaay looks on after he competed in a preliminary of the 200m freestyle on Day 2 of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials
|Vanderkaay celebrates with his bronze medal during the medal ceremony for the 400m freestyle on Day 1 of the London 2012 Olympic Games|
After winning four medals over three Olympic Games, swimmer Peter Vanderkaay has learned that the medallions have almost a magical quality.
Since returning home to Michigan after the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he earned a bronze medal in the 400-meter freestyle, Vanderkaay has made several public speaking appearances.
Each time, he’s noticed his bronze medal has an almost mesmerizing effect on people.
“They have questions about it,” he said of the fans that come to hear him and approach afterward with questions. “They want to know all this stuff and what it was like. (The medal) almost has this strange effect on people, like they see it but can’t believe that they’re seeing it, you know? I was talking with a teammate about that. It’s just kind of funny the effect it has on people, I guess because they are so rare to see.”
Except, of course, in the Vanderkaay household, where Peter has not only the bronze from London but two gold medals (from the 2008 and 2004 800 freestyle relays) and another bronze (from the 200 freestyle in 2004).
At 28, Vanderkaay isn’t certain whether his future will include training for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games or the chance to add to his medal collection.
Since returning from London he has made it a point to swim and stay in shape to keep his options open, but primarily he’s been happy to “decompress” a bit. He’s relaxed, spent time with his family and friends and made some public appearances — including throwing out the first pitch before a recent game of his beloved Detroit Tigers.
He also hosted a live video chat with fans Tuesday night through the U.S. Olympic Team’s Facebook page (watch a replay here).
What comes next? He’s not certain.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said about training for a possible fourth Olympic Games. “I’m still thinking about it. We’ll see what happens.”
He knows, though, that having had the chance to compete in three Games has been a blessing.
“It feels like a significant chapter of my life to be able to have that experience,” he said. “I feel fortunate about it. I can kind of compare and contrast the Games, which a lot of people can’t do.”
Vanderkaay was just 20 when he competed in Athens and was part of the U.S. team (with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Klete Keller) that set an American record of 7:07.33 in winning the 800 freestyle relay.
Four years later in Beijing, Vanderkaay, Phelps and Lochte teamed with Ricky Berens to win the gold again in the event and set an Olympic and world record of 6:58.56. In addition, Vanderkaay earned his first individual medal, a bronze in the 200 freestyle with a time of 1:45.14.
His fourth Olympic medal came in the 400 free in London when he swam 3:44.69 to earn bronze and better his time of 3:47.67 set in June when he won the U.S. Olympic Trials at Omaha, Neb. Vanderkaay was one of the U.S. team captains in London.
Vanderkaay had hoped to qualify for more events than the one race, but felt confident going into the 400 free final in London.
“Just the way things went in the Trials, I didn’t do that, and I really wanted to capitalize on the one event I was swimming,” he said. “I had a pretty good shot and went out and did my best and finished third.”
On his blog for the Detroit Free Press that night after earning his bronze, Vanderkaay wrote that he was surprised he wasn’t nervous before the final.
“My strategy was to be out strong but controlled and really pound the second half of the race,” he wrote. “I’m glad I executed because if I had jumped out with the guys who beat me, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a medal. I was able to finish strong and secure the bronze.
“It felt like a huge relief to get a medal in the 400 because I’ve had more fourth-places in that event than I want to think about. Although it would have been perfect to win, I’m extremely happy with the bronze. I feel like it justifies all the work I’ve put in the past few years.”
Though he enjoyed Athens and Beijing, Vanderkaay says the London Games were his favorite. Their organization and venues were excellent, he said, and the people were warm and welcoming.
“The details, just from an athlete’s perspective, were really nice, nicely done,” he said. “And my family said the same thing. They had a wonderful experience.”
Plus, the U.S. team put on a fabulous show in London. American men and women won 31 medals in the pool. From Phelps’ six medals to the five each won by Lochte, Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt, Team USA put on a wonderful performance.
To be a part of it, Vanderkaay said, was perhaps the best thing about his third Olympic Games.
“It was great,” Vanderkaay said. “There were really a lot of emotions behind many of those swims and we even had some surprises, in a positive way, where people just stepped up, and that was very inspiring. To be a part of the team and see that firsthand, that’s something I’ll remember forever.”