STANFORD, Calif. – Breeja Larson had always heard people rhapsodize about feeling at peace in the water.
“I never really felt that, because it was always so stressful to me,” said Larson, who won gold medals at the Olympic Games London 2012 and the 2013 world championships in the 4x100-meter medley. “It was like, ‘Another workout, I’m so tired.’”
After placing fifth at the 2018 national championships – which meant no international assignments this summer – Larson, 27, took a six-month break to re-evaluate.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to come back and then kind of got the itch again,” she said.
However, Larson was working as an IT recruiter, so the only time she could practice was from 9 -11 p.m.
“I remember just diving into the water and I just felt that peace wash over me,” she said. “I was like, ‘You know, I really feel like this is my calling.’”
On Saturday, Larson led wire-to-wire to capture the 100-meter breaststroke title at the Phillips 66 National Championships with a time of 1 minute, 6.78 seconds. Kaitlyn Dobler was second in 1:07.23 and Miranda Tucker third in 1:07.33 in the meet, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
“It’s a big one, honestly,” said Larson, whose last titles at summer nationals were in 2013, when she claimed the 100 and 200 breaststrokes.
She said that was the year fellow gold medalist David Plummer tried to explain the bell curve that athletes go through.
“In 2012, I was up here,” she said, motioning high. “I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I was just having fun. And then it kind of hit a downward slope and now I’m slowly climbing back up. And I’m super excited, seeing improvements every day and just ready to compete.”
Larson, the Olympic trials champion in 2012, had setbacks in 2014 and 2015, then finished fourth at the trials in 2016.
“I went through a lot of personal trauma/drama and just had to work through that,” said Larson, who was finishing up graduate school and trying to swim at the same time she was working “with a bunch of personal stuff.”
She left Texas A&M and moved to Phoenix, where she was “trying to reinvent the wheel both emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually all the way through 2017 and on.”
Larson placed fifth at nationals last year with a time of 1:07.80, then decided she needed to step away from swimming.
“I feel like the trials that I’ve been through had only built up to a certain point maybe to force me to take a break, just to come back with a fresh mind and really appreciate it,” Larson said, “and not just do it because you’re good at it or because people expect it from you, but doing it for you. It’s a very beautiful selfish and selfless kind of sport.”
She quit her job in late February or early March and is swimming full time.
“It’s been really scary coming back,” Larson said. “You start to wonder getting a little bit older, ‘Am I wasting my time? Should I be building a career in another direction? Am I going to enter the workforce in my 30s?’"
The win at nationals reinforced her decision to come back.
However, Larson knows the competition will be much stiffer next year as she attempts to make it to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Lilly King, the Olympic and world champion and world record holder, and Micah Sumrall, who also competed at the 2019 world championships were not in the field.
“Granted, I don’t want to take it away from the performances this summer,” Larson said. “A lot of our amazing breaststrokers were out internationally and I know they did an awesome job. But it does feel really awesome to get a win on U.S. soil and I think in a way there was less pressure to be able to really enjoy this moment and just focus on my lane.”
She said her training is different than it was in college, when she did a lot of yardage. Now she is focusing more on specific weights and sprint training, along with better nutrition. She said she is excited to go to practice every day to see what she can work on. She’s also journaling more and mentoring younger swimmers through a platform called RISE.
“You’ve got to find that hunger within you,” Larson said. “You’ve got to really believe in yourself. I think working the mental part of the sport is a lot more important than the younger kids know yet. And I think as we get older we see that a little bit more clearly.”