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Backstroker Matt Grevers Returns To Competition After Surprising Olympic Trials Miss

By Karen Rosen | Jan. 12, 2017, 6:17 p.m. (ET)

Matt Grevers reacts after breaking the world record in the men's 100-meter backstroke at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool at Indiana University Natatorium on Dec. 12, 2015 in Indianapolis.

The last time most people saw Matt Grevers, he was down — but not out.

Grevers was the unhappiest man in the pool after placing third at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming in the 100-meter backstroke, the event in which he was defending Olympic champion.

Only Ryan Murphy, whose winning time was 52.26 seconds, and David Plummer (52.28) advanced to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Grevers was about a half-second short (52.76) in his bid to become a three-time Olympian.

He was consoled by his family and — perhaps to an even greater extent — his fans. Instead of sneaking out a side door at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Grevers was determined to sign autographs for the folks waiting near the exit. He thought they might cheer him up, and they did.

“I was gloomy and a little disappointed in how I raced,” said Grevers, who won four gold and two silver medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, “but just having such positive feedback at that moment at that time was probably the most uplifting thing that could have happened.”

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After all, Grevers knew he wasn’t finished. Contrary to media reports saying he’d retired, Grevers had no intention of leaving the pool for good. He even posted on Twitter with a “notretired” hashtag.

At age 31, three months older than the recently retired Michael Phelps, Grevers is back for at least one more year of competition. He’ll kick off the season with the 2017 Arena Pro Swim Series in Austin, Texas, this weekend. Grevers is one of six Olympians in the meet, joining 4x100-meter freestyle gold medalist Ryan Held, 200 breaststroke silver medalist Josh Prenot, Hali Flickinger, Jacob Pebley and three-time Olympic medalist Amanda Weir.

Grevers, who has the Olympic rings tattooed on his right biceps, will swim the 100 backstroke and the 50 freestyle in Austin. His top rival in the 100 back will be Pebley, who finished just behind him at the trials in fourth place.

Grevers said he always knew he would swim through 2017 because he has contracts through this year, which includes the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary in July. He won a silver in the 50 back and bronze in the 100 back at the 2015 world championships.

“I think to abruptly stop (after the trials), it just didn’t feel right to me,” Grevers said. “I still am making some money swimming, so I wanted to finish it through 2017, and then kind of reassess from there.

“I really do love it. I can’t picture myself being happier doing anything else than professional swimming, but I understand that it isn’t a very secure profession. I’m not going to be young forever, and there are up-and-coming swimmers that can take spots.”

Grevers has a good reason to be thinking about job security. He and his wife Annie, a writer for Swimming World magazine, just added a new member to their family: Skylar Lea, who was born on Nov. 9, 2016.

The couple announced their pregnancy in May via Instagram with a photo of two tiny yellow flippers between two large blue and red ones and a heart-shaped sign that said, “Baby Girl Grevers Coming Thanksgiving 2016.”

Grevers, who is 6-foot-8, and Annie, a 6-1 former national team swimmer, wanted a name to fit a daughter they assume will be very tall.

“Skylar sounded big and Amazonian,” Grevers said.

As a bonus, the roots of the name mean ‘scholar’ in Dutch, and Grevers’ parents are both from the Netherlands.

“She’s a pretty happy baby,” he said.

The first two weeks, Grevers got up every time Annie did to nurse the baby. “But I wised up,” he said. “It wasn’t worth having two adults not sleep at all.”

They started taking care of Skylar in shifts.

“When we’re awake, I’m the primary diaper duty guy,” Grevers said, “because Annie does so much at night and when I’m at workouts.”

The new dad initially had trouble keeping up his training regimen.

“Those first few weeks, I was worthless in the water,” Grevers said. “I was so tired it was very hard to get the energy to train well. And you don’t feed yourself or take care of your body.”

He has since adjusted to his new routine, which is not quite as rigorous as it was in the past.

“I’ve done so many yards, so many hours, so many workouts in my life that I don’t think I need quite as much time in the water as I once did to continue being at the top of my game,” Grevers said.

He’s been fortunate over the years in avoiding major injuries. “I do a lot of prehab,” Grevers said, “and I really try to take care of my shoulders and hips, but there’s some creaking going on in this older body.”

Grevers, who represents Tucson Ford Dealers Aquatics, still trains with the University of Arizona, where he is a volunteer coach.

“They keep me young,” Grevers said of his training group. “I stay in contact with what’s going on and with what’s fun. But you can’t be too attached. I am much older. I have a child and a wife, so I’m very different from a college kid, but it’s fun to be around that energy and excitement in the pool.”

His coach, Rick DeMont, an Olympian and former world record holder, gave Skylar “one of the best baby gifts ever,” Grevers said, “a ‘Lifetime Swimming Lessons’ certificate. They have a swim school, so as soon as Skylar hits the 6-month mark, we’ll probably take her.”

With her genes and good coaching right off the bat, Skylar could be another champion swimmer.

Her dad swam in his first Olympic Trials in 2000, when he was 15 years old. “I had never been to a meet like that before and I was just in awe,” Grevers said before the 2016 Trials. “It was also neat to be on deck with those big-time athletes.”

At that time, Grevers was the one getting autographs. In 2004, he remembers bleeding from hitting the lane line at the trials, since he wasn’t accustomed to swimming outdoors.

Four years later, Grevers was looking at the jumbotron while he raced, “trying to figure out which one was me,” and got the huge shot of adrenaline that carried him onto Team USA. At the Beijing Games, he won the silver medal behind world record holder Aaron Peirsol.

By 2012, Grevers was the big man in the 100 back. He won the trials and set an Olympic record at the Games to win his only individual gold medal. He also won a gold medal on the medley relay and a silver in the 4x100 free.

After he missed out on the Olympic team at the 2016 trials, Grevers said reporters might have assumed he was retiring because he did not swim the final of the 200 backstroke and scratched the 50 free.

The normally upbeat Grevers said he pulled out of the meet because he didn’t want to be “an energy sucker instead of a contributor.”

“I usually embrace the role as someone that lifts people up,” he said, “but it was hard for me to try to encourage teammates or friends. I didn’t want to be around and feel like I was detracting from such an awesome occasion, so I thought it was better if I just kind of left.”

He and Annie went to the zoo on the day of the 50 and got a flight out that night.

They were on vacation in August during the Rio Games, but Grevers made a point of tuning in every night.

“It was not as hard as I would have thought,” he said. “I thought even watching the 100 backstroke would have been an emotionally draining experience or I would have been jealous — and there was some jealousy, no doubt, throughout all of the Olympics, about what they were able to accomplish without me — but I remember seeing Ryan Murphy win and being so happy and proud of him.

“And David Plummer was able to get bronze. That guy has worked so hard and had so much perseverance to get that medal.”

He called Anthony Ervin’s win in the 50-meter freestyle at age 35 “mind-blowing,” and was thrilled to see Nathan Adrian win multiple medals.

“And Michael Phelps,” Grevers said, “again the jealousy comes up. He makes it look too easy. It was incredible to say I got to swim with him, and see what he was able to accomplish, and it was a happy experience watching. It was really cool to see the U.S. dominate and do so well and see all my friends really complete their goals and dreams.”

He said it was some consolation that both Murphy and Plummer medaled in his event.

“I think I would have been sad if it didn’t come out that well,” Grevers said. “Maybe I would have thought I could have done something. So I wasn’t as upset as I could have been not being there.”

However, he is reconciled to the 2016 trials being his last edition of the most competitive meet on the planet. He tried to soak in the experience while he was there.

“To try to commit to four more years is definitely not something I’m willing to do,” Grevers said, but added, “I don’t think I ever will officially retire. Maybe I’ll stop being as competitive and serious as I am or was.

“If I could swim forever and be on top of the podium, then I probably would try it, but understanding that usually the length of a professional swimmer’s career ends around now, it’s maybe time to look for what that next step is outside the pool.”

For the past few years, Grevers has been involved in residential real estate, flipping houses to rent to students.

“I guess I’m getting to the point where I could say, ‘I’m in residential real estate and swim,’ instead of vice versa,” he said.

In the future, he’s interested in commercial real estate as well as coaching.

“I love swimming so much; it’s given me so much that I’d still love to be involved somehow,” Grevers said. “There’s no way I can go cold turkey away from the pool.”

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Matt Grevers