Life After Beijing

April 14, 2010, 3:45 p.m. (ET)
In a backyard pool in Toledo, Ohio, Mildred Penner spent many summer afternoons gliding through the water with one foot pointed gracefully toward the sky. Her granddaughter, Jillian Penner, would look on from the deck in awe.

More than a decade later, the tables would be turned.

In 2008, it was Mildred who was awed as her granddaughter competed as a member of the U.S. Olympic synchronized swim team in Beijing. Jillian, then 19 and fresh out of high school, competed in the team event in which Team USA tied with a team from Japan for fifth place. Meanwhile Mildred, who learned synchronized swimming at a YMCA, would gather with several friends to watch her granddaughter represent the United States on TV.

A member of six U.S. National Teams and one Olympic team, Jillian has had a lot of coaches, but she remembers her grandmother as her first.

"She's the one who taught me how to go underwater without plugging my nose," Jillian said. "I thought she was so cool."

"She loved swimming,'' Mildred Penner once told "We couldn't keep her out of the water."

Penner has come a long way from those backyard lessons in Toledo.

Following the Olympic Games in Beijing, she competed for the Ohio State University, helping the Buckeyes to a first-place finish in the team event at Collegiate Nationals in 2009. She placed first in the duet event at the 2009 U.S. Championships, a title she hopes to defend when the 2010 U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Championships start Thursday in Huntersville, N.C.

At this year's national championships, Penner won't be competing for a spot on the National Team or a chance at a second trip to the Olympic Games. This time around, Penner, who is swimming with her longtime club team, the Walnut Creek (Calif.) Aquanuts, is competing just for fun.

"I just want to take a little bit of a step back and reevaluate things right now," Penner said. "I want to be more relaxed. I'm sort of doing a lot of soul searching right now."

Penner called her Olympic experience "surreal" and "awesome." The opportunity opened up doors for the Seattle native, including the doors at Ohio State. But life at a major university wasn't exactly what Penner had expected.

During her time as a Buckeye, Penner spent as many as six hours at synchro practice in addition to several more hours in classes each day. Nights were spent studying and doing homework with little time for sleep and even less time for friends and family.

After a year going full tilt, Penner was on the verge of burning out.

"I always thought going to a big-name university really mattered, but that life wasn't for me," Penner said.

She moved back to Walnut Creek, taking a break from college to start doing the aforementioned soul searching. It led her to her club synchro team, the Aquanuts. Penner helps coach the 13- to 15-year-old B team.

She believes her time spent coaching has made her a better swimmer.

"It's helped me to see both sides," she said. "I've had some amazing coaches, and I wouldn't have had all these opportunities if it weren't for them."

According to coach Penner, her swimmers are sometimes a little star-struck when they see an Olympian strolling their deck.

"It's like I'm some sort of celebrity, which I'm definitely not," she said.

Wide-eyed, teenage fans are just a part of what Penner has had to get used to since returning from Beijing. There were requests for interviews and articles and countless questions from friends and strangers alike.

And then there were the consequences Penner never could have fathomed, like how to word a job application. "They asked for prior experience, and mine was swimming in the Olympics," Penner said. "That's just weird."

But she's adjusting, and she's finally finding a balance between swimming and real life. Penner hopes to go back to college, but this time with a plan and more focus. She's torn between becoming a dental hygienist - the safe route - or pursuing a career in interior design, one of her passions. Or maybe the universe has another direction in place that Penner has yet to discern.

Whichever way she leans, college synchro isn't in her plans. Penner would rather dedicate herself to her studies 100 percent.

"They say when life throws you lemons, make lemonade,'' Penner said. "I just want to see what opportunities life throws at me, and then I'll make the most out of it.''

At the upcoming national championships, she's taking a similar approach. A national title would be nice, but it's not the be all, end all for the 22 year old.

Her goal is to have fun and enjoy the experience, kind of like she did during those days in her grandmother's pool back in Toledo. Mildred Penner, now a sprightly 90, still practices synchronized swimming with her girlfriends every chance she gets.

"I want to be the same way,'' Jillian Penner said. "I want to love the sport and stay involved in it for as long as I can.''

"At nationals, I just want to enjoy the journey, I guess. I'm not really looking into the results. I really just want to have fun and love the competition, love being in the water."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Annabelle Tometich is a freelance contributor for This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.