|Maya DiRado competes in the 400-meter individual medley at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming at CenturyLink Center on June 26, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.
“It was the most fun last 100 I’ve ever had in a 400 IM,” she said. “Thoughts crossed my mind like, ‘This is not real life, I’m imaging this, I’m still in my nap.’”
But she was very much awake and leading one of her idols, Elizabeth Beisel, a two-time Olympian and silver medalist in the 400 IM at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
DiRado won in 4:33.73, over three seconds faster than Beisel (4:36.81).
“I was here in the stands watching (Elizabeth) in 2008 when she made her first Olympic team,” said DiRado. “So to be able to make it together is like, I don’t know what life I’m living, but it’s amazing.”
A 2014 Stanford graduate, DiRado, 23, hadn’t planned on competing at any Olympic Games. She raced in the 2008 Olympic Trials but finished far off the leaders. Then in 2012, she finished fourth in both the 200 and 400 IMs.
Then she went back to college and finished her degree in management science and engineering. A job beckoned.
Except she just kept swimming. In January 2015, she asked her future employer, McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, if she could postpone employment to try for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. They said sure.
With her focus solely in the pool last year, DiRado won a silver medal at the 2015 world championships in the 400 IM. Then she trained even harder.
But the one-track (lane?) focus that DiRado has had toward swimming in the past two years has not been easy for the Stanford grad.
“So bored!” she said when asked if she found ways to stay intellectually stimulated. “That was honestly one of the hardest parts of this.”
She read books. And her husband Rob Andrews, a software engineer, would give her coding exercises. She also did some training skills for her future employer.
But knowing that life would go on after the Olympic Trials — and now Rio — has helped DiRado fuel her exceptional year.
“Part of the reason why I’m swimming so well is knowing that I have a hard stop date, so it’s so much easier to be excited about all of this and give it everything I have when I know that this is my last go-through,” she said.
In late August, after Rio, DiRado and her husband have planned a vacation in London and Paris. Then she starts work in McKinsey’s Atlanta office on Sept. 9. While she is at a training camp in July, Rob will continue house hunting.
Although DiRado was a favorite to win the 400 IM, she was not a heavy favorite. She qualified fourth fastest, and between prelims and the evening final, she and her coach, Greg Meehan, worked on her breaststroke — the weakest of her four strokes in the medley.
DiRado also knew that Beisel, also 23, could beat her. At the Atlanta Classic in May, Beisel won the 400 IM, leaving DiRado almost three seconds back in her wake.
That win was the confidence boost that Beisel needed after pulling her groin and tearing her vastus lateralis (the largest of the quadriceps muscles) swimming a 400 IM in January 2015. Her lowest of lows was swimming 4:52 at a meet last spring — over 20 seconds slower than the time that she swam in London when she won the Olympic silver medal. At the 2015 world championships, Beisel did not even make the final in the 400 IM.
The Olympic silver medalist used the poor results as motivation. Beisel’s time in the 400 IM at the Atlanta Classic was 4:33.55 — the third-fastest time in the world this year.
For now, only the winner of each race (barring a few freestyle races) at Olympic Trials qualifies for Rio, but the second-place finishers will likely be added to the team later in the week.
“It means so much [to make my third Olympic team],” she said after the race. “I can’t tell you how emotional today was for me, so many nerves and doubts over the past year. It’s hard to block it out. It’s such a relief.”
As for getting beaten by DiRado, who led the entire race, Beisel wasn’t fazed.
“I knew it was going to be a really close race,” she said. “It’s awesome that Maya made it, and also awesome that I made it. We’ll be a good duo in Rio.”
The first night of U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming was also punctuated by others qualifying for their first Olympic Games. In the men’s 400 IM, Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland finished 1-2, both passing an injured Ryan Lochte, the reigning Olympic champion in the event. And Connor Jaeger pulled by 2012 Olympian Conor Dwyer at the end of the 400 freestyle to win and make his first U.S. Olympic Team.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.