Matt Grevers reacts after competing in the Men’s 100m backstroke during the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials on June 14, 2021 in Omaha, Neb.
Just over a month ago, my husband, Matt Grevers, competed in the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials—Swimming. It was his fourth time competing at trials, and at age 36, he took sixth in the 100-meter backstroke in a time of 53.27. For perspective, that’s faster than the 53.32 he swam at the 2008 Olympic Trials to qualify for the Beijing Games and pretty close to the 53.11 he swam at the 2008 Games when he won an Olympic silver medal. Pretty remarkable consistency over 13 years.
I’ve been either dating, engaged or married to this 6-foot-8 colossus during all these years. For the first four years (2008-2012), I was training in the University of Arizona’s Hillenbrand Aquatic Center beside him. Or rather, as far from him as possible because the waves he generated were absolute hell to train through. We’ll both be fond of water for life because it’s the current that pushed us into one another in 2008. All that to say, I’ve been too close to Matt through these years to fully appreciate the unprecedented feats he’s quietly been amassing.
Matt set his first national age group record at age 10 and the adrenaline rush never left him. He asked his mom where he could go to become the fastest in the world. His mom, Anja Grevers, a swim coach at the time, said, “Well, that’s called the Olympics, Matt.” And like so many thousands of kids, Matt naively said, “Yes, I want to win the Olympics!” But unlike many of the kids who claim the same goal, Matt committed to it for the next 13 years. Then another 13 years.
At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, I was competing in the 100-meter breaststroke final — the event right after Matt’s 100 back final. In the ready room (aka the holding “box of nerves” where finalists wait prior to finals), there was a TV broadcasting the pool’s happenings. Matt wasn’t predicted to make the team in the event, but then, he did. He touched out Ryan Lochte and earned a spot on his first Olympic team.
I yelped in the silent ready room. He surprised a lot of people, including me, and the surprises kept stacking. In Beijing he won an individual silver in the 100 back. I was jumping on my parents’ couch at home in Texas — too ecstatic and distracted to answer my phone, which happened to be my winded silver medalist calling me. And I’ve never stopped getting flak for being terrible at answering my phone.
Matt made the 2009 worlds team, and then had a career-jarring summer in 2010. It happened to be a double-qualifying summer nationals. Meaning the times from the meet would lead to the selection of the Pan Pacific Championships team and the 2011 world championship team. For the first time in 25-year-old Matt’s swimming career, he didn’t swim well when it counted. He had a bad meet. He was perplexed, disappointed, devastated. But it would become a pivotal moment in his career.
“It was at that meet I learned I had to take some responsibility for my training; for myself,” Matt said. He had swum a 53 low at a meet in January of 2010, so he thought training harder would make him even better. By the time nationals rolled around, he wasn’t feeling strong, he was buried.
“You’re coaching yourself in the water,” he said. “You are given sets, but ultimately you’re the driver. I became a mindful swimmer after that year. Even if I swam slower in sets, I made sure the stroke I was using in practice was the stroke I was going to use in my race.”
And what a difference two years of mindful training made.
At the 2012 Olympic Games, Matt won Olympic gold in the 100 backstroke, setting a new Olympic record of 52.16. I was in the stands with Matt’s family when he touched the wall to handily win the Olympic final and fulfill the dream he had as a clueless 10-year-old boy. We cried. We hugged. Matt smiled a blissful smile of satisfaction; of a 17-year-old mission accomplished. Then he won a gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay with Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian and Brendan Hansen. Matt briefly bragged that he was part of Phelps’ last race ever, until Phelps came out of retirement and collected a few more golds in 2016. :)
The following year, with very casual post-Olympic year training, Matt won the 100 back at the world championships in Barcelona with a 52.93. Then we went on a two-week honeymoon cruise through the Mediterranean Sea. Life truly felt like a fairy tale.
At 2014 Pan Pacs, Matt took silver in the 100 back (53.09). At 2015 worlds, he took bronze in the 100 back (52.66).
In December of 2015, Matt set a world record (48.92) in the 100 backstroke (short course meters). He came from behind to win the 200-meter backstroke later in the same meet. Things were looking really good going into 2016. Matt had sponsorships racking up. Pressure was mounting squarely on Matt’s broad shoulders. And it was heavy.
I was pregnant with our first baby during the 2016 Olympic Trials. The Grevers family sat in the box right behind the starting blocks. We anticipated hugging and congratulating Matt for making his third consecutive Olympic team, but instead his face sunk after seeing the dreaded ‘3’ beside his name on the Jumbotron. He missed making the team by 0.48 of a second. I hugged him afterwards, and saw his wheels turning on what to make of the result. The sponsors will be let down. My family is let down. There’s a baby on the way. Will we even have insurance?
All these thoughts quickly fogged Matt’s view. He wasn’t emotionally prepared to not make the team. He wasn’t prepared to confront the question of retirement. So he didn’t. He gave himself a few months to think and regroup. We had a baby — Skylar Lea. She changed our world and breathed new life into Matt’s swimming.
“Professional athletes live very selfish lives — self-preservation is everything,” he said. “Then you have a kid and all of a sudden, you’re taking care of someone else. You’re no longer number one. You have to let go of things; learn to adapt because they [kids] are so unpredictable, and you’re never fully in control.”
Everything became more enjoyable when he let go. He didn’t have to do everything perfectly. He just did what he could do.
In 2017, Matt won world championship trials, then very nearly won gold at worlds. He took silver to China’s Xu Jiayu by 0.04 of a second (52.48). Matt took fourth at 2018 Pan-Pacs the next year and fifth at 2019 world championships.
He was at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in March of 2020 when Covid hit the nation. The OTC shut down. Matt’s last big training block of his career/before trials was shut down. He didn’t touch the water for the next four months. There was no water to be found. At 35, his career was hanging in the balance. But once he found water and committed to another year of training, Matt was all in.
And he was in a new place mentally. He lured his old coach, Rick DeMont (an Olympic legend in his own right) out of retirement. Matt did what he has always done so meticulously: he studied. He dissected his swimming. He never ever stopped believing there was more in him. And he was determined to dig it out. People have said Matt is a consummate pro, and I think that’s a true description.
The beauty of experiencing sport — at any level — is the tangible search for excellence. The beauty of watching Olympians grace the track, the pool, the gym is knowing the thousands of hours they devoted to mining out the greatness within them. As many of them remind us in interviews, it is never a singular effort.
As a former elite swimmer, I know what it feels like to want to do it all right. So when the time came to help Matt do it all right, I felt equipped. But doing it “all right” means something different for every person. Matt taught me this in my most successful year of swimming. He told me, “Buy yourself some Dove chocolates and just have one every day at NCAAs. They make you happy.” And as the sage phrase goes: a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer.
Matt’s swim journey has been an adventure. It has been golden hours and searching for the silver linings. It’s been long, sometimes painful, but never futile. It’s what sport is for. When it’s no longer life, it is a lovely metaphor of life.
Though Matt did a lot right this year, he did not make the Olympic team for Tokyo. But through this long, winding swim, Matt has learned the end goal isn’t always a team or a medal. Actually, it never is. It’s finding joy and contentment in whatever you do and doing whatever you do as a consummate professional. The greatest loss would be leaving the potential within us untapped.