Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by milk life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Sophia Herzog remembers the moment when she went from feeling like an underdog going into the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 to feeling like a swimmer with a chance to bring home a medal.
“It was one practice prior to the Games where I said to (coach Nathan Manley), ‘Let’s get on the blocks and let me swim the 100 breast all out for time and just see what I can do,” said Herzog, 20. “I made some kind of bet with him that if I did a certain time, I’d get to sleep an extra 30 minutes. And I swam a time that would have put me at third in the world. I was sitting at sixth at the time.
“I looked at Nathan, and he said to me, ‘You know you just changed the game for yourself. You’re going to the Games to medal.’ I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can really do something.’”
Herzog won the silver medal in the breaststroke in Rio, her first trip to the Paralympic Games, with a time of 1:36.95. The gold-medal time was 1:35.39 and the bronze 1:37.79.
Although Herzog swims a number of events, her focus for the past two years has been on the 100-meter breaststroke, and for the past year she’s been focused primarily on the second 50 meters of the race. In Rio, she went out and swam the first 50 meters in 44 seconds, but her time slowed to 52 seconds the second half. It was a natural place to target her attention in order to get a faster time in the pool.
“We’ve been training by doing a lot of longer distances in breaststroke and more intense sprints just to build my endurance within that stroke,” she said.
Swimming was not Herzog’s first sport of choice growing up. She is from Fairplay, Colorado, a tiny mountain town at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet perhaps best known as the basis for the cartoon “South Park.” Not surprisingly, Herzog first wanted to be a skier.
“But I knew I was going to need a double knee replacement before I graduated high school, so I switched to a more therapeutic sport,” she said.
Herzog first learned to swim and dive from her mother with the Dwarf Athletic Association of America. There weren’t any swim teams in her area, however, so when she joined her first club team at age 10 her parents had to drive her an hour each way.
“There were five girls, including myself, and it’s probably still to this day my favorite team because we just had so much fun,” she said. “It really helped me find this love for the sport. But I remember my parents sitting me down and saying if I wanted to keep doing this drive, if we were going to keep doing this, then I needed to be serious about it.”
That turned out to be fine by Herzog. She was twice named to the U.S. Paralympics Swimming Emerging Team, graduated high school a year early and moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the summer of 2014. Two years later, she made her Paralympic debut.
Now she’s preparing for her world championship debut beginning on Dec. 2, a bit later than anyone had planned. The World Para Swimming Championships were scheduled to begin on Sept. 30 in Mexico City, but following the deadly earthquake on Sept. 19, the International Paralympic Committee postponed the event.
It was a shift for which Herzog was unprepared.
“I think it was actually good for me, honestly, because I’m a huge schedule person,” she said. “I like to know what I’m doing, I’m a huge planner and I had everything built up to that week and then it was taken away. So I was flustered for a couple days trying to figure out what I was going to do. It was a good lesson for me to learn to take it day by day and not worry about something I couldn’t control. But my thoughts were also with Mexico City the whole time, and I’m just so glad they were able to come together as a country and rebuild, and I’m really excited we’ll get to go there now.”
Herzog will be swimming in six events while there and said that just being able to make sure her body is fully recovered every day will be a focus. She’ll also no longer be able to sneak up on the competition as an unknown, as she was in Rio.
“I swim the 100 breaststroke the second day, so I’m super excited,” she said. “My goal is to beat my Rio time, so 1:36 or better, and I’ve really been working on the 100 backstroke this year, too, so I’m excited to see what I can do.”