Maya DiRado celebrates winning gold in the women's 200-meter backstroke at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Maya DiRado swam the final race of her career almost four years ago, and her memories of winning the gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 have now morphed with the video replay that her mom still likes to send her on occasion.
For instance, DiRado said, she remembers reaching the wall for the final turn and thinking she wasn’t that far behind Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, otherwise known as “The Iron Lady.” It wasn’t until she saw the replay later on that she realized Hosszu extended her lead after the turn, and just how much distance DiRado made up on the final lap.
“I remember thinking this is the last race I ever have to do, this is the hardest my legs ever have to work again for the rest of my life, so let’s go,” DiRado said. “I also remember thinking (Hosszu) is more tired than I am because she did more events, and that thought gave me a little boost. I heard the crowd getting louder so I just assumed either she’s breaking the world record or I’m catching up, and it was more helpful to think I was catching up.”
And she was.
An underdog against the powerhouse Hosszu, who’d already won three gold medals including the 100-meter backstroke, DiRado came from behind to win by 0.06 seconds for her first individual gold medal in her first and last Olympic Games. DiRado had said from the outset that she wouldn’t continue swimming competitively past 2016, and Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better ending.
Fans can watch all the highlights from the 2016 women’s swimming competition on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday night as part of the network’s Olympic Games Week. Wednesday closes out the “Return to Rio” programming.
For some athletes, giving themselves a now-or-never mandate for Olympic glory may bring too much pressure, but it worked for DiRado. Despite being just 23 years old at the time, DiRado never wanted a career in swimming. She started college at Stanford University at 17, after getting a perfect math score on the SAT at 15, then graduated with a degree in management science and engineering and had a job waiting for her at a global management consulting firm in Atlanta.
The U.S. Olympic Team Trials were a pressure cooker, she admitted, knowing she’d put her life on hold for two years to chase her dream, and if she didn’t finish top two it was all over.
DiRado won the 400-meter individual medley, 200 IM and the 200 backstroke, beating out reigning Olympic champion Missy Franklin in the latter.
“By the time I got to the Olympics, because the goal was just to be there, I felt like I’d already won,” she said.
Her first race was the 400 IM on day one of competition, and it couldn’t have been any different from the trials in terms of how relaxed she felt, DiRado said. She cruised through the prelims and made it to her first final, then won the silver medal behind Hosszu.
“It was so smooth and easy in the morning, then I went back to the Olympic Village and before leaving for the final I packed my podium gear, because you have to bring that if you’re in the final, and I remember thinking, ‘There’s a chance I’ll get to wear this tonight,’” she said. “It was the most fun I ever had on a 400 IM day.”
She followed that up with a bronze medal in the 200 IM on day four (Hosszu won that, too). Despite talk of DiRado swimming a leg of the 4x200-meter freestyle relay the next morning in the prelims to give another swimmer a rest for the final, she didn’t get that call.
Instead, she received a call after the prelims while she was getting lunch in the village that she was going to swim the third leg of the final that night.
They won the gold medal.
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“This crazy wave of nerves and excitement rushed through me,” she said. “But it’s nice to swim when you have Katie (Ledecky) anchoring. It’s very forgiving. I knew I just had to not do terribly; I didn’t have to win it for them. It worked out really well. In that moment that joy is multiplied because you’re sharing it with three other people. I thought at that point that was the peak of my Games because I didn’t expect to get a gold medal.”
Other highlights stand out from Rio, as well. DiRado cherishes her memories of the downtime with her teammates, enjoying the success they all had and just the feeling of being on the U.S. team in general. She also loved the unplanned meet-and-greets at the swimming venue with other Team USA athletes including basketball players Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, and golfers Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. She even met actor Matthew McConaughey, although she couldn’t quite place him in that moment.
“He was in the warmup area one night and he walked up and said, ‘Hi, I’m Matthew,’ and it was one of those situations where you’re so not expecting someone in that context so it just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I was like, ‘I know I know who you are.’”
DiRado said the whole week was perfection, and she’d by lying if she said the thought didn’t cross her mind here and there to want to experience it all again four years later.
“Then it would quickly hit me that I wasn’t willing to do that training again and do what was required to get there,” she said.
DiRado is now living in the Bay Area and working on the grants team for King Philanthropies, a foundation that finds organizations working with people who live in extreme poverty, primarily in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This fall she plans to go back to Stanford to pursue her MBA and hopes to make the jump to working in climate science to ensure that low- and middle-income countries can access the funding and expertise necessary to develop sustainably and can to adapt to the environmental changes already affecting their nations.
She also hasn’t left swimming completely, serving on the boards of directors for both the USA Swimming Foundation and for USA Swimming. She also frequents Stanford’s meets, cheering them on when she has the chance, and every summer she swims in a race in Lake Tahoe for fun.
Other than that, she’s happy to have left everything she had in the pool in Rio in the 200-meter backstroke.
“Looking up (at the scoreboard) it really felt like there was no way I was seeing what I was seeing because what I was seeing was far too perfect an ending for that to be true,” she said. “I felt like I was staring at the board for many, many seconds really trying to take it in, but obviously my reaction happened quicker so I was clearly ready to believe it.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.