Claire grew up with her parents, her younger brother and her dog in Los Gatos, a small town in the Silicon Valley. She competed in synchronized swimming for many years before retiring in 2016 after not being selected for the 2016 Olympics. She now lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she attends Vanderbilt University and study biology.
How did you get into synchronized swimming?
I started synchronized swimming when I was six years old at the Los Gatos Angelfish, a small club in the Silicon Valley. My best friend’s sister was already doing synchronized swimming there and recommended it. I practiced only 30 minutes per week. All I recall is that I could barely last the 30 minutes without taking a snack break!
Tell us about your sporting career.
I continued synchro and later on joined the top club in the country. I won multiples National Championship titles and I also swum with the National Team for many years. In 2014, I moved to the National Training Center to train full-time with the National Team for the Olympics. In 2015, I was short-listed, with three other athletes, for the 2016 Olympic Duet but I ended not making the final cut. And although I did not make it, I continue to train and compete with the team. We participated in the Pan-American Games and World Championship. Following that competition, two of my team mates retired. Our team was then short of two people and we were unable to participate in the 2016 Olympic Qualification Tournament.
Wow, that must have been a very difficult time.
I remember vividly the day I got the news. I was with another teammate and we were both shocked. I was angry and felt betrayed. These were my club teammates. We grew up together with the common goal of going to the Olympics and now they had decided to bail out. It took me some time but I eventually understood what prompted their decisions.
What happened after that event?
My family urged me to apply to colleges and to start thinking about my future after sport. I was hesitant but I didn’t really have a choice. I was able to apply to colleges because I got to talk about synchro in my applications. And also because I hadn’t really decided to retire yet. I just thought about the applications as a good plan B.
Has your family always been involved in your athletic and academic careers?
My mum Alicia was very involved. She was always very supportive and she helped me a lot with planning. She took all of the worry of school off my shoulders so I could focus on my training. She made plans to accommodate my athletic and academic goals. My family in general was very supportive, even my grandparents attended events and competitions.
So did you retire after your teammates left the team?
No. I continued to train at the training center after the World Championship. It was challenging. I was in between school and synchro. I was the second alternate for the Olympic duet which meant I needed to be available as a training partner but knew I had no chance to swim in competitions. It is a pretty tough spot to be in as you are reminded every day that you didn’t make the cut for the Olympics. It is hard to keep your motivation up.
How did you keep going?
At the end of April 2016, I received an acceptance letter from Vanderbilt University. I was very enthusiastic, a school wanted me! After being rejected for the Olympic duet, this felt good. It was positive and encouraging news. My focus could finally shift elsewhere. This also gave me a career end-date and, from that point on, I tried to enjoy every moment of my training knowing I would retire soon.
You had made up your mind about retirement, how did you feel about it?
I had only decided I was going to school. I still thought I would continue to swim. School was leading me in a new direction (and new part of the country) but I still had very strong ties to the Bay Area and the Training Center. My best friend was on the team and I had been dating the same guy for two years. He tried everything to convince me to stay in the Bay Area. Now looking back at that relationship, I don’t think it was very positive. But I used it as my coping mechanism when things were getting difficult at training. For several months, I had to re-affirm my decision to my teammates and boyfriend. I could not allow myself to be scared. I had to be strong and show that I wanted to go to school otherwise these relationships would have held me back and I would have given in. Meanwhile internally, I was terrified.
When did you start school?
At the end of summer of 2016. I travelled to Nashville, Tennessee with my dad. I was not terrified until my dad left to return to California… Only then, did I ask myself “Now what?” I had never lived so far away from my home and my sport.
I started to train on my own to keep fit with the goal to attend the trials for the 2020 Olympic Team. I continued to use synchro as a defining identity. I introduced myself to other students as a Olympic level synchronized swimmer. This was easy and comfortable. This was something I knew well and it gave me a sense of control and familiarity at a moment when everything else in my life had changed.
When did you go to the trials and what happened?
Two months after the start of school, I travelled back to California for the trials. I quickly realized my dream of travelling back and forth and train while study would not be sustainable. This was not what I wanted anymore. At the trials, my coaches noticed my anguish and they told me it was ok for me to focus on school and put my energy towards that new goal. This is what I needed to hear so I could allow myself to leave. Although I had received approval from my coaches to retire, I was still fighting confusing feelings. I thought “they don’t want me”, but at the same time I thought “they are looking out for me and are giving me permission to leave”. My emotional turmoil included relief, confusion, uncertainty and fear of the future. I didn’t know how to deal with this flow of emotions. I cried a lot, especially when leaving my best friend.
How did you feel after officially retiring?
When I returned to school, I did not know who I was anymore. I did not know how to introduce myself to people or what to talk about especially with those who knew I had gone to the trials.
School was also surprisingly challenging. I had always been a high achiever with very good grades. But I had not been in ‘proper’ school for over two years and I had to adapt. I remember getting a C in biology. I was devastated. This had a tremendous impact on my confidence. I talked a lot with my parents about my academic struggle. I really needed their support, but most of all, I needed them to confirm I had made the right choice by retiring. I was still worried this may not be the right path for me.
This was a time where I felt I needed to prove myself on multiple levels. At times, even from far away, I was still seeking my coaches’ approval and I sometimes struggled with sentiments of not being good enough. I never felt I had done enough to please some of my coaches. Thankfully, as I have drifted away from the synchro world, these feelings have disappeared.
How do you feel about not being able to achieve your goal of going to the Olympics?
I felt I let myself and others down by not achieving my goal. This was disappointing and it made me want to prove I could follow things through. As a young kid, my dream was to go to the Olympics. As I grew older, I realized my chances were slim and, when the team disbanded, I understood it would not happen. So now, I want to prove I can attend a very good school and achieve my professional goal in life.
Do you wish you could have changed something about your career or retirement?
Perhaps I would have had better closure with my sport if I had known my participation in the 2015 World Championships would be the end of my athletic career. My career did not end after a top competition and this anti-climactic experience left me with unease, unfinished feelings and lots of unused energy. I redirected my energy and drive towards school and ended up being competitive with my former team mates who were also going to school. I grew up with a group of synchro friends who I did everything with, so when they all attended different colleges, it was only natural for me to compare myself academically. Sometimes we compared grades and this reinforced my low confidence. I distanced myself from the group for a while and stopped using Instagram as I felt my posts were never good enough.
Who supported you throughout this transition time?
My family continued to support me from far away as I progressed through my first year. But I did not actively use them as a support system in the beginning. I knew my family did not approve of my boyfriend at the time and I needed to end that relationship before I could reconnect with my parents on a deeper level. I eventually broke up with my boyfriend and got better clarity about my relationship with him.
That first year at school, I also remember getting conflicting messages from my parents regarding the study-party balance: my mum would encourage me to relax, have fun and take advantage of the college lifestyle whilst my dad would tell me to study!
Later my freshman year, through the swim club, I met my new boyfriend Jacob. Quickly, Jacob became my biggest supporter. He took an active role in my athletic transition process. He saw me cry countless times and was really supportive. He has helped and continue to help facilitate my recovery. My closest friend at school is also a former high school synchronized swimmer and she can relate to and understand my situation.
How did you feel about your second year in college? Were you coming to terms with everything?
At the end of my freshman year, I had a hard time watching one of my teammates make a come-back to compete in the 2017 World Championship. During that time, I travelled to Ecuador for a six-month volunteer project. There, my athlete identity came out a lot. I was trying to prove to myself and others I was still an athlete and still physically fit. My second year after retirement was the most challenging. I had reminiscence of my old life although I knew it was behind me. This and my academic struggle gave me great sadness. But it also probably motivated me to actively move forward and not look back at what other options I could have pursued.
You practiced an artistic sport. Did you deal with body image issues?
One day my coach told me I had to lose five pounds if I wanted to swim in the team. Ever since, worrying about the way my body looks has been a part of my athletic life. In the synchro world, it was a legitimate fear to be fat. But I have a generally healthy relationship with food because I have realized I can’t function without it. I have learned to appreciate and work with food rather than hate it. At Vanderbilt I learned you can be whoever you want and you have the right to be loved as you are. I am currently working on not comparing my plate or body to anyone else. Jacob has also been a huge help with this. Through repetition and consistency, he is helping me reprogram my mind to see beauty in the mirror where others and myself might find imperfection.
Do you feel you have completed your transition now?
Yes and No. School is really exciting and it is good to have something else to focus on. I have been able to explore my academic interests and I am now focusing towards a career. I am also able to talk about my athletic career and transition without being emotionally overwhelmed. I still have things to deal with so I started seeing a therapist to make sense of my emotions and have someone who can listen to me. I share with her only the bits and pieces I am ready to share and I take it at my own pace.
How do you introduce yourself to people now?
When asked to introduce myself, I don’t automatically bring up synchro anymore. I often wait for people to ask about it. I don’t want to only be defined by my sport. I have realized I am so much more than just an elite athlete. I am finally able to look at the future and explain to others what my goals in life are. I am not always able to articulate the link between my past life and my future life but I know I have learned invaluable life skills and I understand how to transfer them in my new life.
Please give us examples of skills you learned from sport you can transfer to your new life.
One of my strengths is my focus and determination and my ability to work hard when I set my mind to it. I have already proven I can persevere in one field and I know I can do that in any field. I also want to do things for a reason. This is what I did in synchro and I want to continue with purpose. As an athlete, I considered myself very patriotic. I always had a sense of community and belonging to the team. I tried to portray the sport values and ethics every day and I would place the needs of my team above anything else. I was committed, responsible and reliable. As I continue my journey, I applies these same values to my daily life. I would never skip a class or miss a meeting and always rally in support of the group. It is hard at times because this can come off as too intense and arrogant but it really only is a deep sense of commitment. I have had to learn to let go a little. I also realized pretty quickly that I know how to travel, how to interact with other people and other cultures. My athletic career taught me how to be a great leader, a team player and how to communicate in public. I also know how to follow the rules, how to present myself and be respectful of those I meet and work with.
What are your plans for the future?
I always knew I wanted to do something in science but I didn’t have a narrow destination in mind. This allowed me to explore many areas of science without a specific focus. Now I am finally studying genetics and genetic counselling. I plan on doing a 2-year master program in genetic counselling. But first, I will be taking a gap-year to travel and a year to work before I decide which graduate schools to attend. I have always been a planner. I find great comfort in knowing I have multiple options already lined up. I finally have started to develop a level of comfort with my new life post athletics.
Do you still do synchronized swimming?
Since retirement, swimming has taken up different roles in my life. I have been part of the swim club at Vanderbilt University and I was able to keep up my synchro skills on my own. My second year of school was a lot more challenging. I couldn’t handle getting into a cold pool as it would bring back too many emotions and memories from my sport. But since, I’ve been working on incorporating swimming and synchro back into my life as they are valuable skills I always want to have.
What is your best memory from your sport?
I think my favorite memory from synchro would be competing at the 2015 World Championships. This was my first competition at that level. I was terrified, but absolutely loved every second of it. I had practiced for this moment as far as I can remember. So when it was finally happening, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was proud and in love with my country, my team, my sport, and all the work we had put in. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how I felt during that competition. Nowadays when I’m feeling scared, I remember this competition and it puts my fears into perspective. When I’m walking into an interview and not feeling confident, I remember that competition and my posture immediately changes. Those ten days were the part of synchronized swimming I choose to take with me every day.
Are you still in contact with your teammates?
I am still in touch with my teammates from the 2015 World Championships and I will have ties to the synchro community forever. The girls from that team are definitely my closest friends from my sport life. It is great to talk to them because we share so many memories. We are learning now how to support each other in our respective new endeavors. One of the hardest relationships to work through during my transition was with my best friend. Our relationship fell apart once I officially retired. It happened because we cared so much for each other. We had to grieve the loss of not being together all the time. I will always cherish the relationships I have with these teammates. We watched each other scream underwater, cry in stretching training, fear the unknown but we also have seen each other’s biggest smiles, most genuine laughs and I have watched them rise to the challenge on a world stage. Not only do I love these girls, I’m honored to be their friend. So yeah :), I’m still in contact with my teammates.
Follow Claire on LinkedIn.