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What Has Made Maya DiRado So Fast In The Pool?

By Peggy Shinn | June 02, 2016, 2:11 p.m. (ET)

Maya DiRado poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 8, 2016 in Los Angeles.

Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin are the headline names in women’s swimming this Olympic year.

But chances are another name will soon be added to the list: Maya DiRado.

The 2014 Stanford University graduate is hot coming into the final Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Santa Clara, California, this weekend.

Maya DiRado competes in the women's 200-meter butterfly at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Skyline Aquatic Center on April 15, 2016 in Mesa, Ariz.

DiRado dominated the individual medleys in Arena Pro Swim Series races this spring. In Mesa, Arizona, in April, she beat reigning world champion Katinka Hosszu of Hungary in the 200-meter IM. DiRado also won the 100 and 200 backstroke, beating Franklin and Olympic backstroke gold medalist Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe at that meet.

At U.S. Olympic Team Trials later this month in Omaha, Nebraska, DiRado will compete in the 200 and 400 IMs. And she will take on Franklin in the 200 backstroke. Franklin is the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder in the 200 back.

DiRado’s goal is to qualify for the Rio Games in all three events — “If everything goes according to plan,” she said by phone from her home in Santa Rosa, California, in early May.

For the 23-year-old levelheaded swimmer with a big smile, the Olympic Games only recently came into the picture. She competed at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials but had no expectations of making it to either Beijing or London.

At the 2008 Olympic Trials, she was only 15. Her best result was 23rd (of 106) in the 200 IM. Four years later, she entered Olympic Trials after a successful sophomore season at Stanford. At 2012 NCAA Champions, she had finished second in the 200-yard backstroke, third in the 200 IM and fourth in the 400 IM, where her time of 3:59.88 broke the 17-18 age-group record and made her one of only five female swimmers to have ever broken the four-minute mark in the 400-yard IM.

At 2012 Olympic Trials, she finished fourth in both the 200 and 400 IMs. In the 200, she was less than one second from qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Games.

“That made me realize I don’t want to go to another trials and not be as prepared as I could possibly be,” she said. “I want to give myself the best possible chance to make the team because I think it’s doable.”

Still, she had no plans to aim for Rio — or even swim after graduating from Stanford. With a degree in management science and engineering, she planned to find a job.

Then, as DiRado explained it, “one thing led to another.” She walked with her class at graduation in June 2014. But she still had one quarter of classes before she was actually finished with college. And she couldn’t find a job until she had finished her coursework.

On campus in the fall of 2014, DiRado just kept swimming. She landed a job as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company, a global management consultant firm. But it wouldn’t start until fall 2015.

So she kept swimming through the winter.

In January 2015, with Rio about 18 months away, she decided to go for it. She emailed McKinsey & Company, and they supported her decision.

Her strength is the individual medleys, with all four strokes to keep training interesting, she said.

Stanford coach Greg Meehan sees more than that.

“Maya has a great natural feel for the water,” Meehan wrote via email. “Most elite swimmers do, but they don’t always have this skill in multiple strokes.”

DiRado credits her feel for the water to synchronized swimming, a sport she tried at age 5. She sometimes challenges her teammates to sculling races (the hand motion synchronized swimmers use to stay afloat and gently move through the water).

Of the IM’s four strokes, DiRado is best at butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, and she has worked to improve her breaststroke.

“But ultimately, I think her core strength and stability (along with her incredible work ethic) is what allows her to move so well in each stroke,” wrote Meehan.

At the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, DiRado was one of four female swimmers from the U.S. not named Ledecky to win a medal. She took silver in the 400 IM behind Hosszu.

Possibly challenging DiRado in the IMs is freestyle wunderkind Ledecky. The two women met in the 200 and 400 IM finals at the Orlando Arena Pro Swim Series meet. DiRado won both races, with Ledecky around four seconds back (in fifth and fourth, respectively).

“Oh please no,” DiRado tweeted in jest last August after USA Swimming Stats tweeted a suggestion that Ledecky add the 100 free and 400 IM to her schedule at Olympic Trials.

“Don’t teach @katieledecky breaststroke,” continued DiRado’s tweet. “I’d need an 8 second lead at the 300.”

“A slight exaggeration, but not that that big of an exaggeration!” DiRado said with a laugh when asked about the tweet. “I don’t even want to know what she could come home in (swimming freestyle) when she’s really gunning for it.”

But DiRado does not get too worked up and keeps swimming in perspective.

“I feel like it’s such a key to stay calm about this whole thing,” she said. “If your whole life gets wrapped up in it, I can’t even imagine the stress that you would feel every day. It’s already stressful enough.”

While her goal is to qualify for Rio, then win an Olympic medal (or three), she will not continue competing after the Games. Her job at McKinsey starts in September, so Rio will be her final competition. She is married as well — to former Stanford swimmer Rob Andrews.

“When she made the decision to continue training to make the U.S. Olympic Team, she knew her career had an end point,” said Meehan. “We all hope that end point is in Rio, but either way it has allowed her to go to another level in training for the past 12 months. It’s been really fun to watch.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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Maya DiRado