Sophia Herzog competes in women's 100-meter breaststroke at the World Para Swimming Championships on Dec. 3, 2017 in Mexico City.
Sophia Herzog has a week-long Australian vacation planned for later this month, but she’s not exactly sure how she’ll be spending her free time.
She has heard she’s going snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and traveling around New Zealand for a couple of days. The rest of her itinerary is a mystery, though.
While Herzog hopes to show she has recovered from knee surgery at the 2018 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships Aug. 9-13 in Cairns, Australia, she’s trusting her best friend to plan the vacation they’re taking immediately afterward.
“I actually left all the planning up to her,” Herzog said. “So once I’m done competing, I’m with her. She’s in charge.”
It would be understandable if the Paralympic silver medalist wanted to just lounge on a beach after competing in her largest international meet since having surgery on her right knee on April 9.
Rather than easing her way back into the pool, the 21-year-old Herzog has a full schedule of races set for her in Cairns.
Her expectations are to stand on the podium after medaling in all six of her events, including her specialty — the 100-meter breaststroke.
“I love the pressure, and I do really well in high-pressure meets,” Herzog said. “It’s just more the nerves of this is my first big serious meet back post-surgery, just to see how I’ll perform and where I really stand.”
Herzog, who competes in the S6, SM6 and SB6 classifications, has already solidified her place in the sport.
She earned the silver medal in the 100 breast at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. She added five more medals a year later at the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City, including gold in the 100 breast and the 4x100 medley.
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But Herzog was forced to stay out of the water for around 10 days in April after having surgery on a benign cyst and a plica — a fold of tissue in her right knee.
“It was kind of poor timing for the surgery just due to it happened at the beginning of our season where a lot of qualifying meets happen that I had to miss out on,” said Herzog, who stands 48 inches tall.
While the surgery was minor compared to other knee procedures, it forced Herzog to do extra training to get her body back to feeling strong again. She also has had to limit how much she practices breaststroke because it takes a toll on her knees.
Herzog has regained mobility in her right knee, thanks to a rigorous training plan that includes physical therapy several times a week. She said she feels “the best” she has ever felt heading into the Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships.
“What strikes me most about Sophia is her amazing attitude towards everything,” said teammate Julia Gaffney. “Her focus in and out of the water is amazing, but (she) always has time for people and encourages them.
“She's very fun to talk to and is super chill and handles everything very well.”
Despite her competitive nature, Herzog is able to laugh at herself and not take things too seriously. She has heard countless jokes over the years for growing up in Fairplay, Colorado, a small town that’s the basis for the popular cartoon “South Park.”
Herzog learned to swim when she was 3 years old, and she joined her first club team at 12. However, since her hometown was too small to have a swim team, she had to travel an hour to compete on a team.
Herzog decided to graduate a year early from South Park High School, so she could move to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at age 17.
“I’m really proud of where I came from,” Herzog said. “Being able to win a (Paralympic silver) medal with a lot of odds going against me — growing up in a town with no swim team, having to travel, being super young — that night of winning the medal was just a relief.
“And it showed all the decision and the sacrifices I made as a kid all paid off.”
Herzog works as a part-time tour guide at the Olympic Training Center. Much of the rest of her time there is spent training — all in the hopes of succeeding at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“I feel definitely in my prime,” Herzog said. “I feel really lucky to have gone to Rio and be able to medal. I was so young, and it was just so new and exciting.
“I’m really excited for Tokyo to go more as a veteran knowing what to expect and knowing how to handle myself with the nerves.”
But first Herzog has a competition — and then vacation — in Australia.
Alex Abrams is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.