Allison Wagner, a former world-record holder, silver medalist at the 1996 Olympic Games and World Champion in 1994 shares how her willingness to be different has helped her in sport, and education. Why she believes swimming develops fortitude, the ingredients she needed to break the world record, and her motivation to make a meaningful contribution to the world of sports.

Furthermore, we discuss

Christian: Today I’m joined by Allison Wagner. Allison is a silver medalist at the 1996 Olympic Games in the 400-meter medley swimming, a former world record holder in the 400-meter individual medley, World Champion in 1993.

She was also a three times runner-up at the World Championships and was named American Swimmer of the Year at the age of 16 years.

Welcome, Allison.

Allison: Thank you.

How she chose her signature event, the 200 and 400-meter medley, which are considered the most grueling swimming events

Christian: Allison, out of all the events, your signature event, the 200 and 400-meter medley is so grueling. How did you get into it?

Allison: My coach put me in the race when I was 13 or 14 years, and I did really well. I believe in the first race I broke a record.

I was mortified because it was so painful. I pleaded with my coach not to do it again.

So my coach told me that I was going to do it again and I was mortified because it was so painful. I pleaded with my coach not to do it again because I was a breaststroker to start, but then I went on to start focusing on those two events, the 200-meter, and 400-meter medley.

How she got into swimming

Christian: How did you get into swimming in the first place?

Allison: I grew up in a family that was focused on physical fitness and sports. My parents grew up in a very industrialized area and they saw their relatives and people in the community not taking care of themselves health-wise.

So when they had children, they decided that they were going to be very proactive and encouraging and actually mandating that my brothers and I play a sport. So I had the choice of three sports – softball, soccer, and swimming.

My parents grew up in a community where they saw people not taking care of themselves health-wise. So they were going to be very proactive and encouraging that my brothers and I play a sport.

I was horrible at softball and I didn’t like soccer. I was great at swimming right away and seemed to make a good fit. So that’s what I chose and that’s what I did from then on.

Christian: The rest is history.

Her darkest moment

Christian: In your athletic life, what was your darkest moment?

Allison: I think realizing that the injustices I saw and experienced in sport were not being paid attention to. It was not just my own injustice.

Generally, at the time, anti-doping efforts were a bit different in terms of WADA not being formed and things like that. But just realizing that my hard work and dedication to being a clean athlete was not being protected sufficiently was a hard realization.

Realizing that the injustices I saw and experienced in sport were not being paid attention to.

Christian: And how did you deal with it throughout your entire career?

Allison: I dealt with that in different ways. There were consequences to experiencing that and then there are also reactions. So now I’m in a Master’s degree program studying Sports Ethics and Integrity.

That’s why I’m doing this because I think that despite how many years have transpired since I last swam in 2008, there still needs to be more change. There needs to be more athlete advocacy.

There needs to be more representation of what’s actually going on for athletes. I was interested in what’s important for athletes and how these injustices happen. Additionally, I wanted to focus on what we could do about it and who should be doing something about it.

Her comeback attempt

Christian: You attempted to come back in 2006/2007. What happened to that?

Allison: It was great. I went back to swimming. I trained with the Cal Berkeley women’s swimming team and I had a great experience.

I focused on sprint events mostly, which was something I had always wanted to do. I did personal bests in multiple events and I learned a lot. I had a second chance at doing the sport in the ways in which I wanted to do it.

I had a second chance at doing the sport in the ways in which I wanted to do it

Not just event-wise, but training and how I approached my training program and my participation in the sport. So it was a great opportunity and I took it and it was a good experience.

Her best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Allison: Breaking a world record at the short course World Championships was my highlight. That meet was the stage for a debut of a systematic doping regime and everybody was horrified.

I broke that world record on the last night of the competition. When I won the race, winning against a doping athlete, the entire crowd was on its feet and everybody was thrilled.

The reason why her world record was standing for 14 years

Christian: You mentioned your world record. Your world record was standing for 14 years. Why do you think that was?

Allison: I think it was partly luck. It was partly a really great performance on my part. It was partly a matter of circumstances. It was the usual mix-up of ingredients that make for unusual happenings.

It was the usual mix-up of ingredients that make for unusual happenings.

Christian: It’s interesting that you use the word usual in context with a world record.

Allison: What I mean is when something like that happens and a record stands for that long, there are usually multiple factors influencing that.

Her advice to a younger Allison Wagner

Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 15, 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Allison?

Allison: If I’m going back to that time where I broke the world record in those years, I would say, do more of what you feel is right, and what you want to do. Don’t put your life directions so much in other people’s hands.

Do more of what you feel is right, and what you want to do. Don’t put your life directions so much in other people’s hands.

Christian: What was there in your life that you didn’t feel like it was right, if I may ask?

Allison: A lot of my training during those years, I was constantly getting injured. It was so heavy and I believe any person has some degree of innate wisdom and connection with their body and I, but like many athletes, I was just trained to not listen to that.

I believe any person has some degree of innate wisdom and connection with their body and I, but like many athletes, I was just trained to not listen to that.

If I could have embraced that, my performance would have been better. I addition, my experience with the sport would be even better and my relationships with other parts of my life would have been better.

So yes, there are many instances in which I could give you an example, but just generally, connecting with myself and understanding how important that is, would be something I would advise a younger me. And I do advise younger athletes for the same effect.

Christian: Is that also what you were referring to your comeback that you could train a little bit more the way you wanted or thought should be trained?

Allison: Yes, and I was in an environment, in Berkeley, in which that was largely encouraged. So, it was great to be able to allow me to better my technique, to understand there’s a correlation between health and performance.

When I was a younger athlete there was no discussion about health. It was all about performance and seeing how hard I can push myself and that I can be pushed.

When I was a younger athlete there was no discussion about health. It was all about performance and seeing how hard I can push myself and that I can be pushed.

So to understand and experience how those things overlapped was really great and to develop a relationship with my body that was more in line with what was actually happening versus what somebody wanted to have happened.

Her success habits

Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete and person?

Allison: I would say I’m very disciplined and self-motivated. I can be very singularly determined in terms of my professional goals and sports goals. Something that I also did, and that was helpful, I was never afraid to try something new.

So I did that a lot and I got strange looks from people and that never really bothered me. So I believe that habit of being willing to be different was helpful. Additionally, I think something is just an ability to endure toughness.

Everybody has that just to certain degrees, but to be a 4:00 AM-er, you have to be able to continually override your desire to sleep basically. So I think just fortitude is what I’m trying to say there.

I believe that habit of being willing to be different was helpful.

Christian: It’s an interesting one, right. All the habits you just mentioned, are also formed through the sport of swimming. So it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question, right. Were the habits there first, or did the sport make them come out?

Allison: Depending on their age find out either before or after their participation in the sport just through self-awareness and seeing how they perform in other areas.

Her morning routine

Christian: Swimmers have early mornings. Do you have a morning routine?

Allison: Currently, no, but I used to. I still generally enjoy working out early morning and early mornings don’t bother me. Like you said it’s unclear as to whether or not I’m just innately a morning person, or if swimming drilled that into me.

But yes, I don’t think you can be a swimmer and not be a morning person to some degree. Us and the rowers and a few other sports that do the early morning 5:00 AM workouts.

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?

Allison: I do some meditation and spend some time with myself at the moment leading up to whatever I’m leading up to. I will employ different techniques, like breathing techniques and focus techniques.

When I was an athlete, every year I would rotate two songs. So what I would do is train myself to respond a certain way to a song and then use that song over the period of the year to initiate that state of being.

I would train myself to respond a certain way to a song and then use that song over the period of the year to initiate that state of being and use that song to act as a trigger.

For example, calming down. I would listen to that song when I was going to sleep so that I could correlate that with calming down. It would take some time, of course, like training takes a few weeks or a month. Then in a competition, I can use that song to act as a trigger.

Christian: That’s interesting. I think in NLP, neuro-linguistic programming, they have something very, very similar that you can train yourself to react to a stimulus, so that then later you get actually what you’re training to do. You get it back.

Allison: Yes, I believe it’s really helpful.

How to overcome setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?

Allison: Knowing myself and knowing what kind of responses, activities, or things I need to do to make it through the recovery period of having a setback is what I’d say first. Things like, just keep a healthy routine going, healthy eating, exercise, and sleep. Being self-aware is a really important thing to work on just for everybody.

Being self-aware is a really important thing to work on just for everybody.

But just knowing yourself and knowing how you’re most likely going to respond and what the weaknesses and strengths are in that response, and then addressing them.

Her role model

Christian: Who’s your role model and why?

Allison: We were talking about Al Oerter; he was a wonderful Olympian and he really embodied the Olympic values. He showed everyone he interacted with respect. He was honest.

Al Oerter embodied the Olympic values.

He was really interested in advocating for people who were put down and shut out. He helped his competitors at the Olympic Games.

He’d help them with their technique. That’s something that’s very unusual. And yes, in terms of Olympians, he was one of the best.

A typical training day in the life of an Olympic swimmer

Christian: Back in the days, how did a typical training day look like?

Allison: In my first career, I’d wake up at 4:13 AM. I get to the pool to start training by 5:00 and train until 7:00. I would then go to school until 3:00 PM, and then train again until 7:00 PM or later and then do classwork and studies and do it all over again.

Later it was moved up where our practice time started a little later at 5:30. But basically, most of my career was spent in school, and in the pool. Swimming early morning, studies, swim again, studies, repeat and sleep when possible.

Swimming early morning, studies, swim again, studies, repeat and sleep when possible.

Christian: Yes, I was about to ask, did you get time to nap?

Allison: I always made time to nap. I would be riding my bicycle when I was in college at the University of Florida. I would ride my bicycle to class and if I had a 20-minute window, I would pull over on-campus, find a bench and sleep for 20 minutes.

For so many years, all I wanted to do was just sleep. So I would nap 20 minutes or 10 minutes, whatever I had.

Her interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Allison: Yes, I’ll nominate Kevin Young. He’s an Olympian. He’s a classmate of mine. I am convinced he’d make a good interviewee.

Christian: Really cool. Thanks.

What is going on in the life of Allison Wagner at this moment in time

Christian: What’s going on in the life of Allison Wagner at this moment in time?

Allison: As I mentioned, I’m studying this Master’s degree program in Sports Ethics and Integrity. We’re about to start our thesis work.

My thesis will be focused on safeguarding, which is the protection of athletes from abuse and harassment. So I’ll be working on developing a map of factors that increase the likelihood of abuse and harassment in sports.

I’m also very interested and focused on athlete rights and athlete advocacy and other social justice issues in sport, aside from abuse and harassment. After I graduate, I hope to find a way to make a meaningful contribution of some sort.

I hope to find a way to make a meaningful contribution of some sort.

Christian: Yes, I was about to ask, where would you like to see your career going with that education?

Allison: I have a few things in mind, but I mostly would just like to make a meaningful contribution in some way, to some degree. I think that because of my background and because of the studies and research, I’ve been doing, I’m in a good position to do something like that. So I’m looking forward to it.

Christian: And it shouldn’t be underestimated that athletes do need help. Not everyone goes through this, but there are a lot of cases and I also know of some cases where athletes go through their career and they could need a helping hand.

Allison: In terms of abuse and harassment, you mean?

Christian: Not only that but also guidance. Transitioning out of the sport and how you can navigate your life towards something new.

Allison: Yes, it’s a hard transition for most people, especially the athletes that don’t earn a lot, which in the Olympic movement is the majority, usually you have to transition quickly.

It’s hard for many athletes because I think one of the things that are not talked about enough is that there isn’t anything like what you’re doing. I would have appreciated somebody telling me that.

It’s hard for many athletes because one of the things that are not talked about enough is that there isn’t anything like what you’re doing. I would have appreciated somebody telling me that.

What you’re doing now is very unique. There will be nothing like that, but we can extrapolate certain personality traits or skills and experience you’ve gathered through your career to apply them to something else. But it’s just a unique situation to be a professional or a full-time athlete.

Where can you find Allison Wagner

Christian: Where can people find you?

Allison: People can find me at alisonwagner.com and I have a contact portal there so you can reach out there. Other than that, I’m not a prolific user of social media. My domain is always open and available for people to reach out through.

Allison Wagner’s social profiles

Website

LinkedIn

Twitter

Christian: Allison, thanks a lot for your time. That was awesome.

Allison: Thanks, Christian.