‘My setback helped me to find new passions.’ Breeja Larson – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 112
Breeja Larson, Olympic champion shares her story how she grew up in a high poverty, low-income area with 6 siblings, how she took up professional swimming at 17 years and became Olympic champion only 3 years later, and how she found new passions after not qualifying for the Rio Olympic Games.
Furthermore, we discuss
- How she got into swimming
- Her dream of becoming an Olympic Gymnast
- Her darkest moment
- How she missed the qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
- The balancing act on being hard on yourself and kind at the same time
- Her best moment
- Her advice to a younger Breeja Larson
- Her multi-sport background
- Can strength training help the swimming performance
- Her success habits
- How she finished two studies during her swimming career
- Her morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- The use of negative visualization and positive visualization
- Her false start in the Olympic final
- How to overcome setbacks
- Her role model
- The best advice she has received
- Her value outside a sports person
- A typical training day in the life of an Olympic swimmer
- How she helps people through mental coaching, goal-setting, and mentoring nowadays
- Her interview nomination
- What’s going on in the life of Breeja Larson at the moment
- Where can you find Breeja Larson
Christian: Today, I’m joined by Breeja Larson. Breeja is a 2012 Olympic champion, representing the USA in swimming in the 4 x 100-meter relay medley.
Breeja: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited to talk today.
How she got into swimming
Christian: Breeja, how did you get into swimming?
Breeja: My family did a lot of summer recreation swim, but I didn’t start competitive swimming until I was about 17 years old.
I didn’t start competitive swimming until I was about 17 years old.
Christian: That’s quite interesting because you won the Olympics at the age of 20, so that’s only three years of competitive swimming.
Breeja: Yes, just about.
Christian: When did you take up swimming for the first time?
Breeja: I probably learned how to swim when I was about 4 or 5 years old just to make sure that I was safe around water. However, I didn’t start competitively until I was 17 years old, mostly because my sister was much better at it and I was very competitive. I wanted to do other sports, but I knew when I was a senior in high school that I really wanted to go to college.
In my ignorance, I thought if I just worked really hard at one sport, my last year of high school, I’d be able to get some money to help pay for college, and then very luckily for me, it did work.
In my ignorance, I thought if I just worked really hard at one sport, my last year of high school, I’d be able to get some money to help pay for college, and then very luckily for me, it did work. I know it’s a little peculiar to go about it that way.
Christian: Yes, I believe that.
Her dream of becoming an Olympic Gymnast
Christian: I also saw you wanted to become a gymnast earlier. How was that? Gymnast and then swimming?
Breeja: That was mainly just a childhood dream. I grew up in an area that was very high poverty and low income, and I just remember wanting to be an Olympic gymnast my entire life. I would just practice my cartwheels in the front yard and make my own dance routines in the living room, just wishing that I could be an Olympic gymnast.
My first day on the pool deck with my coach, my first day at the swimming club, he asked me if I had any Olympic dreams and I told him that it was always my dream to be an Olympic gymnast. He began to explain that swimming was just like gymnastics.
My first day on the pool deck my coach asked me if I had any Olympic dreams and I told him that it was always my dream to be an Olympic gymnast. He began to explain that swimming was just like gymnastics.
He said that every time you dive into the water, you have to have the perfect angle and finesse and grace, and all of your technique has to be perfect and powerful, and every flip turn has to have the perfect landing. He just made swimming sound like a beautiful water dance. That’s really where I began to fall in love with the sport and seeing it as so much more unique and entertaining and special than just staring at a black line all day.
- Also check out the interview ‘You can always do more than you think you can.’ With 4-time Olympic champ Inge de Bruijn, who outlines the impact her first coach had on her and her swimming career.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your athletic life, what was your darkest moment?
Breeja: My darkest moment, I call it my ‘Oatmeal Story’. I was very beaten down about the second month of my freshman year in college. I felt like I was going to fail some of my classes.
I wasn’t fast enough to finish the swim sets with the rest of my team. There was one morning when I sat down and I tried to eat my breakfast and I kept choking on my food. I was too tired to eat and I felt extremely pathetic.
I tried to go back to my room to take a nap, but my muscles kept twitching, so I couldn’t fall asleep. I was just in this state of not feeling smart enough, not feeling fast enough, not being able to eat my food, and not being able to sleep. It just became very dramatic and it came tumbling down.
I just wanted to know why I was there. I wanted to know why I was trying so hard. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I felt very alone, so I sent my mom a message about that, just telling her that I wanted to quit. I told her that I didn’t want to do this anymore. I didn’t know why I was there.
She sent me back a really simple phrase that just said, “Breeja, this is what it feels like to be a champion. How hard you’re working, how tired you feel, that’s what champions do.” That’s all she said and that really hit home to me.
I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I felt very alone, so I sent my mom a message telling her that I wanted to quit.
She sent me back a really simple phrase that just said, ‘Breeja, this is what it feels like to be a champion. How hard you’re working, how tired you feel, that’s what champions do.’
I just began to think, of all the champions all over the world, no matter what they’re doing, whether it be the architects, politicians, coaches, or parents, all the champions in every job go to bed feeling absolutely exhausted. I wanted to be a champion. I had to learn how to desire feeling like that. Now whenever I do go to bed feeling absolutely exhausted, I just smile and think that I got better that day.
Christian: If we put it into perspective, when was it? In which year? Was it before the Olympic success or after?
Breeja: That was before.
How she missed the qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Christian: In the qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, what happened? From my research, you became Olympic Champion at the London 2012 Olympics, and then 4 years later in the qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympics. What happened?
Breeja: To be honest, it was really a lot of mental work. The pressure of trying to continue to be one of the fastest in the world and all the money that was involved, it really got to me and I began to try too much.
I don’t know if that makes sense to a lot of different even athletes out there, but in breaststroke, my particular stroke in swimming, sometimes when you put in too much effort, it slows you down because your muscles tighten up. Before I had this beautiful ignorance to just go out there and have fun.
It’s just a water dance, you stay loose, you relax and you swim fast and I wasn’t relaxed and I wasn’t loose. I was so tense and I wanted it so much that was my downfall.
Swimming, it’s just a water dance, you stay loose, you relax and you swim fast. When you put in too much effort, it slows you down, I wanted it so much that was my downfall.
Christian: If you combine these two experiences qualifying for London and not qualifying for Rio, what did you take with you for the next preparation towards Tokyo 2021?
Breeja: So much. Even in the Olympics, if you look at a lot of different sports, sometimes when it’s their first Olympic games, those athletes do incredible. It’s because they go in there with no expectations. They just want to go out there and have fun and play and do their thing.
Then there are athletes that have been the best for a very long time. But what about the in-between? There’s this strange inverted curve that a lot of us will go through. When we hit some peak, we fall into this pit. It’s the true athletes and the true genius behind every sport if they’re able to realize how to get back up, to build their confidence, to build their motivation, to understand that there’s such a friend in your head that can be your enemy or your cheerleader.
It’s the true athletes and the true genius behind every sport if they’re able to realize how to get back up.
If you can learn to be your own best friend and be kind to yourself and be patient with the progress, that’s where a lot of the success comes from. That’s what I’ve been working on the last 4 years is just dealing with understanding that the US is very, very fast when it comes to swimming.
My competition is very steep right now, but everyone has an opportunity and it all comes down to the hundredth of a second, and if you have a lane, you have an opportunity. I want to take that and I want to make it mine this time.
- Also check out the interview ‘The most beautiful and the most useful habit is discipline.’ With 4-time Olympic champ Anastasia Ermakova, who outlines the importance of being kind and positive with yourself.
The balancing act on being hard on yourself and kind at the same time
Christian: That’s an interesting one, you said about having the friend in your head. I think as an athlete, most of you guys are very perfectionistic. You have to be hard on yourself on one side pushing yourself forward, but you also have to be a friend of yourself. How would you see that?
Breeja: Absolutely. However, even your best friends should still be hard on you at times. You can fully understand if you’re putting in the right effort. If you can give an honest effort every day and know you could have done more, then you can be happy with that progress.
If I swim an incredible time, but I know I could have gone faster, then I am fully aware and I’ll admit that. There’s more room for improvement, but the same goes the other way. If you consistently beat yourself up for a bad performance, it’s not going to help your confidence. It’s just going to harm you later down the road.
If you consistently beat yourself up for a bad performance, it’s not going to help your confidence. It’s just going to harm you later down the road.
If I were to picture my best friend, they would be supportive, they would be tough on me and they would be loving and understanding and appreciate the hard work.
Christian: Really cool.
Her best moment
Christian: What’s your best moment?
Breeja: Honestly, one of my favorite moments was not only winning the Olympic goal, but seeing the reactions, that was very rewarding. Seeing how excited and proud my coach was, was a very special feeling.
This doesn’t really have much to do with swimming, but even after that, one of my favorite things to do is to find underprivileged youth groups and show them the Olympic gold and have them hold it in their hands and realize that it’s an actual thing. Maybe they don’t have to play a sport, but they have their own metaphorical gold medal in their life that they can go after.
One of my favorite things to do is to find underprivileged youth groups and show them the Olympic gold and have them hold it in their hands and realize that it’s an actual thing.
It doesn’t have to just be something you see on TV, but if you’re brave and you think about the right path, you can get to your gold medal. Those moments, they occur as often as I try to make them happen. I think the experience as a whole was probably pretty incredible.
Christian: I believe that.
Her advice to a younger Breeja Larson
Christian: If you could travel back in time, ten or fifteen years, what advice would you give a younger Breeja?
Breeja: Start swimming sooner. I have a disadvantage in a way that when you develop the right muscle memory as a younger child, it just creates more opportunity later. I’m not saying you have to start at a super young age, but just having more opportunities and being willing to say yes more often to opportunities that come by.
Overall, and this is very hard for younger children growing up to learn how to be kind to themselves. The mental health aspect is so important.
- Also check out the interview ‘Your thinking creates your feelings, your feelings create your actions and your actions create your results.’ With Olympic champ Jamie Salé, who advocates strongly to bring more awareness to mental health in athletes.
Christian: Yes, I believe that. That comes back very often in the talks I have. Coming back to the point that you said, “start swimming sooner”, that’s actually a note I’ve taken down here, that you started fairly late. Do you think you could have been better if you started earlier?
Breeja: I think so because when I went into college, I only really swam breaststroke. Once you get to college, they usually specialize you. In high school, they do so much development where you learn how to swim every single race with the right technique.
I didn’t have that. I just started my last year of high school and so I didn’t have that proper development, throughout the first 10 years of my sport. It’s funny. I’ll have moments with other professional Olympians and I’ll tell them that I discovered that if I do a trick, then it will cause something else.
They’ll tell me that they learned it from when they were 18 years old. I usually ask how long they had been swimming for up to that point. They will tell me that they have been swimming for 10 years. I am still a late bloomer in a lot of that.
Christian: There’s still a lot of scope for development?
Breeja: Yes, a lot.
Her multi-sport background
Christian: I also read you have a multi-sport background. We talked about gymnastics, but then I also read something about lacrosse or softball. Do you think your multi-sport background has contributed to your swimming success?
Breeja: I think so. Yes. I played softball for seven years. I played volleyball for three years. I did track and field. I loved playing all the sports. Any sport that the school district offered, I wanted to jump in and play.
And I loved weight training. I’d been lifting weights since I was probably about 14 years old and I really enjoy being strong. That translated very well to swimming.
Can strength training help the swimming performance
Christian: How was that received in the swimming world, because I know there are different discussions around the topic of how much can strength training or weight training help with swimming performance? What’s your take on it?
Breeja: When you’re looking at younger athletes, having good technique and form is very important. Even now a lot of the older athletes, aren’t always paying close attention and they’ll want to lift a heavier weight when they don’t need to.
When it comes to swimming, you want to find weight workouts that complement your swimming. You don’t have to overpower certain muscle groups, but they need to learn how to do the right technique with just their body weight before they add any weight to it.
When it comes to swimming, you want to find weight workouts that complement your swimming.
It can stunt your growth plates, so you have to be very, very careful, but with the right exercises, it can be very beneficial. You just have to understand and learn how to do those exercises and be smart with them.
- Also check out the interview ‘I got the gold medal, I got the world record, but I don’t go out for dinner with my gold medal.’ With Olympic champ Mark Henderson, who outlines the evolution of strength training for swimmers over the years, and the good and the bad of past and present practices.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete and person?
Breeja: Being able to wake up early when no one else will. People always ask what my secret is or what is the secret sauce. It’s just being willing to do it every day. When I go out of town to go to a friend’s wedding, I’ll still wake up at 5:00 AM and get a swim in before the wedding starts.
People always ask what my secret is. It’s being able to wake up early when no one else will and do it every day.
I’ll make sure that I don’t drink alcohol, because I know I have to wake up to swim again. It is hard to try and balance a full life with a swimming career, but if this is what you want, then you’re willing to put in the sacrifice to do it.
How she finished two studies during her swimming career
Christian: You finished two studies during your career. What are the habits that allowed you to excel at sports and in your studies?
Breeja: Time management is big. Whenever I had twenty minutes, I knew what to do with it. Making that plan beforehand and preparing for it is very big. My backpack always weighed like forty pounds.
Time management is big. Whenever I had twenty minutes, I knew what to do with it.
It was so heavy with all of my textbooks because if I had twenty minutes before practice, I would study. If I had ten more minutes before one class, I would take out another book and study that book.
I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and my Master’s in Sports Management. Education is very important to me and I’m glad I was able to get two degrees in.
Christian: I believe that.
Her morning routine
Christian: We just talked about early mornings. What’s your morning routine?
Breeja: Before COVID, I would wake up about an hour and a half before my practice and I would stretch for about 40 minutes. My dog would be there with me, so we’d have our little bonding moment through stretching time.
I would have a quick, small snack breakfast and then do a two-hour swim and I would stretch again and then take a big breakfast, go and lift weights, come back, stretch again. Typically, if I had another workout, I’d fit that in and if I didn’t, then I would usually try and fit in a lot of different zoom calls and meetings.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?
Breeja: Rehearsing in your head is a very big thing. There’s positive visualization where you think of everything going right and there’s negative visualization where you think of everything that could possibly go wrong and how are you going to maintain your composure if that happens.
A lot of rehearsal and practice before really big moments is important, whether it be a sports performance or a public speaking event or even having a conversation with someone that is very important. Rehearsal and knowing how you’re going to react to different scenarios can help you keep your confidence moving forward.
- Also check out the interview ‘There is no secret to success, you have got to prepare.’ With the choreographer of champions Sandra Bezic, who explains that the difference between the real champions and the rest is their ability to mentally rehearse anything successfully from start to finish over and over again.
For instance, with swimming and preparing for that. I know that if I am out on the world stage about to race and I try to fix my goggles and they break and snap off my face, it’s okay because I have three extra pairs in my pocket and the same with my cap.
If I dive into the water and my goggles fill and they’re full and I can’t see, it’s okay because my eyelids don’t control the strength of my body. I can swim with my eyes closed.
I know how many strokes it takes to get from one point to the other. If you prepare that enough in your head and it happens in real life, you don’t have to panic because you know the type of reaction you’re going to have.
The use of negative visualization and positive visualization
Christian: You just mentioned the negative visualization and positive visualization. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Breeja: Positive visualization to me is just thinking everything’s going perfect. Think of the exact scenario you want to happen. Think of all the senses.
What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What are you wearing? How do you feel? Are you excited? Are you nervous? Are you hungry? Are you full? Everything going perfectly, and just going through that again and again.
That’s what I used to do before the 2012 Olympics is just positive visualization all the time; having a smile on your face, getting ready to go out there. What if something bad happens? How are you going to react?
It’s kind of like a fire drill. When a fire alarm goes off in a room, everybody jumps. They’re scared for just a second, but then they don’t panic, because they know what to do. They leave their things at the table and they walk outside and wait for further instructions.
Why don’t we do that for other important events? Why don’t we think what those alarms are going to be that go off in our head that makes us scared and how we’re going to remain calm and move forward with the next step?
That would be the negative visualization for me, of thinking of everything that could possibly go wrong along with my performance or the important event itself and how I’m going to react and overcome them.
Her false start in the Olympic final
Christian: I read at the London Olympics in 2012, the 100-meter breaststroke final, you false-started, the information I got wasn’t very clear, so you false-started, but then you ended up sixth. What happened?
Breeja: The buzzer went off, so it did actually go off. I was the only one that jumped in and so when that happened, they called it a technical malfunction. Since I reacted to a buzzer, it wasn’t a false start, so they allowed me to swim again.
However, when I got ready to go back into the race, I remember trying to reset my brain, but I was terrified. I was very scared, I was very nervous but very determined. When I jumped in the second time, I saw the big underwater camera that started racing with us.
I just remember thinking that the camera follows the fastest swimmer, so if I just tried to beat the camera, I would win the race. That way I don’t have to look at them. I just have to see the camera that’s right under me.
So, I chased the camera as fast as I could, and by doing that, I wasn’t following my race plan. I had a very particular strategy in my race and I think because the early buzzer went off and I jumped in all by myself and I had to go through that experience, I wasn’t thinking straight.
I was just so focused on trying to get the Olympic gold medal that I saw this moving rabbit, this shiny thing that started fast, and I just chased it. That was a very rookie move. It was a very ignorant move, but I’ve never been in that situation before.
I wasn’t following my race plan. I was just so focused on trying to get the Olympic gold medal. That was a very rookie move.
I think that goes back to the negative visualization. What if there is a camera beneath your lane? How are you going to deal with it? What if you jump in early? How will you maintain your composure? How will you make sure that your head stays in a safe space so you can stay focused?
Christian: Okay, that explains it, because I also saw that the time you swim in the Olympic final was one second slower than qualifying for the Olympics.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Breeja: Honestly, I like to learn from them. Every time I have a race, I go up to my coach and ask the same question, ‘How do I go faster?’ If I have a terrible race, it’s usually pretty obvious what I need to work on.
It’s still difficult to go through those emotions of being upset or being angry, or jealous of other people that do better. That’s a big one I think all athletes have to fight through is jealousy, but I think that when you have these setbacks, it’s a chance to restart and go back to the drawing board and find out where the bad habits are.
When you have these setbacks, it’s a chance to restart and go back to the drawing board and find out where the bad habits are.
If you’re constantly winning with bad habits, you don’t necessarily look back and try and fix them. When something or some big setback comes along in your sport, it forces you to redirect and look at everything. Those can often bring a lot of really big positives so that you can really hone in and fine-tune your sport and your technique.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Breeja: That’s a very big question. I feel like I gain inspiration and look at as a role model to so many different people. I look up to my boyfriend a lot of the time because he worked very hard. He actually just got into the London School of Economics. I’m very proud of him.
One of my friends, Lindsay, she is a fighter. She goes through so many trials and helps so many people; very loving. I think, Dana Vollmer, another Olympian is someone to look up to. She’s a strong mother of two, and she continued to train and has been to many Olympics.
There’s also, of course, swimmers like Michael Phelps, who have been the best in the world and to see how they handle it in their daily life. There are so many, I could go on forever. I really admire Serena Williams and all that she stands for and what she’s done.
I have a whole list of people that I look up to and admire. It’s not so much their spotlight attributes, but how they handle themselves outside of the camera that I truly look at and admire because everyone has a different face that they wear in public.
It’s not so much their spotlight attributes, but how they handle themselves outside of the camera that’s where you see their true values and their determination.
As soon as someone asks me the Olympic question, I turn on my Olympic Breeja face. If you’re close enough to see what they look like outside of their public face, that’s where you see their true values and their determination. I think it’s a beautiful thing.
Christian: You mentioned Michael Phelps. I also think it’s very brave that he came out with all the mental struggles he went through and all that stuff, which is difficult to imagine for people having that success he had, but I also think it’s very brave what he did.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What’s the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Breeja: There’s been a lot. One of them was from Tyler Clary. He was another swimmer. He won gold in the backstroke at the London 2012 Olympics. He told me that swimming is not a career. It is an opportunity to gain more people in your network to find your next career. I thought that was very important.
Typically, when you become very focused on your sport, that is your entire identity. You eat, sleep and play and that’s it. I learned that you need to be able to diversify your personal worth and value, to understand that you are worth so much more than just your sport.
It’s important to understand that, so if you’re investing your money in different companies to invest in, if one company fails, your money’s okay because it’s in other places. When you look at your personal value, if you put all of it into your sport and you have a bad year, your head is going to go crazy.
You’re thinking that no one will you or appreciate you. They’ll all drop me because I didn’t perform well. If you’re able to understand where your value lies outside of your sport, those are strong fast holds that keep you in a safe place and then trying to find different areas that you can grow in as well.
In 2012, I was a student-athlete. In 2016, I was a professional swimmer and I cared so much about it and that was my entire identity. That’s what led to my downfall because I was so focused on it and there’s so much pressure.
In 2012, I was a student-athlete. In 2016, I was a professional swimmer and I cared so much about it and that was my entire identity. My setback in 2016 really helped me to find new passions.
However, now I love mental coaching. I love doing different workshops for different companies to try and teach Olympian mindset, goal setting, and just trying to show how powerful your brain can be outside of sport as well. My setback in 2016 really helped me to find new passions.
Her value outside a sports person
Christian: You mentioned it’s important to understand the value that lies outside your sports person. What is your value outside your sportsperson?
Breeja: I feel like I have many values. I am a very good big sister. That’s one of the reasons why I was a little bit late for this interview. I take care of them. I love them. I try to volunteer for the boys’ and girls’ clubs in our neighborhoods and in our area. I love mental coaching and I love trying to teach as many people as I can, the value behind their brain and how they can use it to work with them.
I like to think of myself as a teacher and a mentor and a role model, even outside of swimming, so much so that when I meet someone new, I don’t even tell them I swim. I just skip over it. They’ll tell me that I look like I work out. I’ll mention that I love working out, but this is what I like to do. I’ll just not even tell them about swimming.
I like to think of myself as a teacher and a mentor and a role model.
Christian: Talking about being the oldest sister, you have seven in the family, right, and you are the oldest one?
Breeja: Second oldest of seven.
A typical training day in the life of an Olympic swimmer
Christian: How does the typical training day look like?
Breeja: Right now, it’s very different. Because of Covid, I have about an hour and a half of water time a day instead of two to four. It’s very different. I do a lot of rowing and a lot of jump rope and body weights work.
All the gyms are closed. So I’m slowly working on trying to build my own home gym, so I can have more weights to lift, but it’s a work in progress and I think we’re all struggling with that right now.
Christian: I believe that.
How she helps people through mental coaching, goal-setting, and mentoring nowadays
Christian: You help people through mental coaching, goal-setting, and mentoring. What do people get from your help and where can you find that? Where can they find it?
Breeja: Typically, if it’s in a professional setting, reaching out on LinkedIn is great. All of my social media handles are my first and last name. I got a pretty strange name, so I can put it on everything.
I feel that I’m able to help enlighten them and help them understand and see where they can improve on their goals and in their life. In general, having a second opinion is very helpful and I love being able to be vulnerable with people, being able to tell them, what I think they may be struggling with, and relate it to experiences I’ve had.
If I’m able to tell them very personal experiences, it helps them trust me more. If they’re able to trust more and give me more information to help them, it creates a really incredible relationship to help them grow.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Breeja: I would love to. I think that you should look into Brad Tandy. He is a South African Olympian. He finaled in the 2016 50 freestyle and he is a phenomenal character.
What’s going on in the life of Breeja Larson at the moment
Christian: What’s going on in the life of Breeja at this moment in time?
Breeja: I’m just trying to stay in shape, do as many meetings as I can and hope that the swim season will pick up. We’re not really sure if the swim season will happen this year. We’re just doing our best and try and stay positive.
Where can you find Breeja Larson
Christian: Where can people find you?
Breeja: You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
Breeja Larson’s social profiles
Christian: Very cool. I will link that up. Breeja, thanks a lot for your time. That was awesome.
Breeja: Awesome. Thank you so much, Christian.