Rebecca Soni shocked everyone when she won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, beating the “Queen of Breaststroke” Leisel Jones in the 200-meter race. This set expectations extremely high as the champion returned to London in 2012. The pressure was on to win gold, set records… or be seen as a failure. This changed her relationship with the sport she used to love, and ultimately affected her self-worth moving forward.
Where are you from, and how did you get into swimming?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. I got into swimming because of my older sister who got into it first. I was the typical younger sibling dragged along to everything. I started at age 10. I went straight to club and never did high school swimming, so it was intense right away. On my part, I didn’t have any objectives when I started. My sister did it and I wanted to be like her. I never thought too much about it. I just swam, and it kept going. I wasn’t trying to get this or that out of it. The hard work was what I loved about it — not as much the racing — but the physical challenge of practice. I think the coaches noticed I was fast for my age, but they didn’t tell me too much. Once I was a breaststroker, I felt that I moved quickly. My first nationals meet was at 13. But that was the only thing I could do, I didn’t swim the other strokes well. I was always comparing myself to my own times, and not how I ranked or what my potential was.
Where did you swim in college?
I went to USC and swam there 2005-2009. It was good. I came in for one coach and he left after my freshman year. Then we got a totally different coach with a different style. I resisted it at first for a year, and then ended up feeling like it was a good fit for the next few years. I really enjoyed having a coach who gave me a lot of autonomy. I liked that he let me make decisions and decide what group to train in that day. Eventually it made me really dive in to how I felt swimming and not how it looked on video. He was good at teaching based on how I was feeling in my technique and strokes. I became a much more empowered athlete working with him. I also really enjoyed the difference in being in a team environment. I hadn’t swum in high school, and club was pretty independent. So swimming for a team in college was really fun. I would train and focus on myself, but when it came to competing it was all about the team. It was fun for me because it gave swimming a different purpose and emotional weight. In general it was a great experience.
Did you go to the Olympic trials after college?
I went to trials once in 2004 and made it to the semi finals, which was cool. The 2008 trials were after my junior year, and I made it to Beijing. I went back for my senior year, but I was pretty burnt out emotionally after that. Coming back from Beijing was tough, but it was helpful to come back to the NCAA dual meets and rely on the team. I maybe wasn’t 100 percent my senior year and was pretty checked out, but I was there at practice and felt strongly for the team. I didn’t care how I did. Then after senior year I really didn’t know what I was doing. That’s when the decision came of whether to keep swimming or move on. I was leaning toward the moving on, but ended up considering what I wanted to accomplish and it turned out I still wanted to do something in swimming that I didn’t realize was a possibility. I had a certain goal time that had been planted as a seed when I was younger: hitting 2:20 in the 200-meter breaststroke. When I went to Beijing, I hit 2:20:02, having dropped four seconds off my trial time, and I realized I was so close. It felt like unfinished business. It had almost been a year since then at that point. I had taken a couple months off of swimming after college, which was a long time. I thought, “Am I done?” But I felt that feeling of unfinished business. After considering that, I decided to come back. I had another three years to train for the next Olympics. This time I was exclusively focused on the Olympics and hitting that time. There was no more focus on a team, and it became very individual again. This time I chose swimming as my profession, and it was my full time job for more than three years.
What was it like winning the gold medal in Beijing?
I wasn’t expecting it. I was never too comparative, but I knew I was up there in the top of the times. Leisel Jones was crowned the queen of breaststroke for many years at that point. The announcers, as well as all of us, had the perspective that she would win every event and the rest of us would fight for silver. It took some pressure off me. She won the 100-meter, and I swam really well and got silver, which was pretty exciting. I actually didn’t originally make the team in the 100-meter breaststroke. I freaked out the night of trials and got fourth place, and that was the year Jessica Hardy was pulled out after a drug test controversy. I was already on the team for the 200-meter, so they chose me. This was a couple weeks after trials, and the third place girl had been out of swimming for those weeks. She was very upset that her opportunity was taken away from her and sued USA swimming. But anyway, I got a silver medal, which felt the highest I could go next to Leisel.
When the 200-meter came around, I had the same mentality. But it was always my better event and I swam really well. It was her and I the whole time. She was pulling ahead in every turn. She’s physically stronger than me, so every turn she would pull ahead and I would catch up. It happened every single lap, but at the last lap I caught her and I knew touching the wall that I had it. It was pure joy. It was probably the biggest moment of joy in my whole swimming career. It was completely unexpected and I had performed amazingly. Before it was filtered through anyone else, it was my moment.
That’s amazing. How did the experience become less joyful?
Strangely enough I didn’t know what to do or how to handle it emotionally. Obviously there was a whirlwind of media, and they followed me around while I tried to get to award on time. I was taken to a tiny room with Leisel, who had just gotten second, and I still felt so unworthy. I didn’t have time to process my intensely deep emotions. By the time I was marching out and they were saying my name and playing the national anthem, I didn’t even know what to feel. It wasn’t joy — it was overwhelming. I didn’t know what it was. I thought, “Shouldn’t I be happy and crying tears of joy?” But I was frozen. I didn’t know how to feel it in that moment. It’s sad thinking about it looking back, but it was also a testament to being an emotional robot in those years. I never allowed for emotions to come through in a productive way. You deal with a lot of pain and to get through it by shutting it out. But in doing so, you shut everything out. That or you blow up in extreme rage from holding it in. Because of that I felt like I didn’t really get to experience the joys I wish I could have.
How was training for Olympics the second time around?
It was interesting. I had sponsors, and the way I related with the sport changed. It became my job and income source. My performance was tied to my paycheck, which was not always too exciting. I wanted to do well not just because it’s fun, but because I had to pay rent. At the same time, it was really fun to be able to travel around the world. I had a swimwear sponsor in Italy, and I got to spend a week there with the company and visit their office, stay on a farm in Tuscany, and all this crazy stuff. How cool is that? But part of it felt super phony. I had to do all these videos to endorse things that weren’t really aligned with my beliefs. One of the products given to me from Kellogg to promote was Cinnamon Raisin Brown Sugar Pop tarts. I hadn’t eaten one of those since elementary school – I would have thrown up. There was literally a cardboard cut out from me in grocery stores saying, “I’m Rebecca Soni, and I eat Cinnamon Pop tarts before every race.” What a lie, and a negative one at that. People were coming up to me saying I made them feel better when they eat their daily pop tarts. It wasn’t good, but they were giving me a lot of money and at the time I couldn’t turn it down. It had its ups and downs, and at the end of the day it was cool that they could sponsor me.
BP was another interesting sponsor. They treated athletes on their team so well. I never would have expected it. I just felt they treated us like I imagined professional athletes would be treated. Other sponsors just pay you for your essence, and to just show up to events and schmooze and be an Olympian. That doesn’t feel good. With BP they made a team of five Olympians and four Paralympians and we traveled and did events together, and they took very good care of us. I had negotiated in the contract for them to take care of my family’s trip to London, and they went above and beyond. My family didn’t get to come to Beijing. This time they were flown first class on an international flight to London, picked up in a limo and taken to the opening ceremonies, given good seats, and were taken care of – and that meant the world to me. I didn’t even care about the money. That was phenomenal.
What were your experiences like in Beijing and London? Were they different?
In London, I was a returning Olympic gold medalist. There was a huge difference between being an underdog in Beijing and returning champion in London. Going into Beijing, I was an unknown. No one knew my name. I didn’t even know what I was doing there. That was so easy. It was fun and exciting because it was the first time. For example, I was walking around the dorms thinking they were so great when really they were terrible. I felt like everything was wonderful, and it wasn’t. I was nervous for the races, but there was no pressure. Then coming back in London, the expectation is that are either I win or I fail. I could have gotten my best time and gotten second, and still been a failure. I watched Michael Phelps over those few years abused by the media for any performance he didn’t win. In this sport there are certain races you aren’t as focused on, and he got obliterated any time he didn’t astound the world. I felt that too, not on his level, but it was either do your duties and win and put on a phenomenal performance or answer questions after about why you did so poorly. I was like, “who are you to judge if I did poorly?” When those are the stakes, it’s no longer fun. I’m no longer excited to perform. I did it because I had to. That played a big part in knowing I was going to be done after London. I didn’t want to deal with that. I knew I wouldn’t continue to get better in my 30s. So it was either continue for the sponsors and money or walk away.
How did it feel medaling in the London Olympics compared to Beijing?
I won two gold medals — in the 200-meter and the medley relay — and one silver medal in the 100-meter. The whole situation was so different. I was the veteran sponsored athlete. I had to talk about it all the time on video. The questions mess with you. You have to put on a filter with everything you say. It was all bullshit. I’m not the kind of person to say that I’m going for the gold. It was so not me, but I had to do it all the time. I had to numb it out. I had to perform and win in order to be viewed as successful. I also had the personal goal of 2:20, and I hadn’t quite gotten there yet. So if I didn’t do those things, then I was viewed as a failure. When I was successful, it was more of a relief. It was like, I checked the box, good job, thank goodness it’s over and it worked out well, and now I can breath. There was joy that I could relax for the first time in a couple years.
Wow, you must have been so mentally strong to persevere despite all that pressure. Can you speak to that?
I wasn’t born mentally strong, but naturally knew to work on my focus and bring it into every-day training. I considered hard workouts to be those practices that were mentally challenging, not physically challenging. I wasn’t putting a name to it and doing mindset exercises. I didn’t even know they existed, but I was naturally doing them. It became clear that mindset was definitely my strength. I wasn’t super physically strong, but the difference was my mental toughness.
Has that mental strength transferred over to life today?
I’m trying to transfer it over. It’s a challenge. It’s difficult when you are changing into a different realm. It’s well-known to companies that athletes make good employees because they are disciplined, hard working, and all that. I am those things. I’ve gotten up at 4:00 a.m. and jumped into a cold pool and worked hard for many years; but to sit at a computer all day… I’m not that motivated and dedicated and it’s a big challenge. I’m not permanently motivated or know how to be because of swimming. I still have to work through it. There is a difference in physical versus mental work. Sitting at a computer is mental. The work is in my head and brain and I’m not working my body. A lot of the success I had in swimming was a physical success. It was a hard workout, and I was physically exhausted, which to me meant I did a good job. But when there is no physical tiredness, that’s a really big challenge. I don’t know what my success points are because I don’t feel it in my body. For a long time I didn’t feel like I did anything. I could have had a lot of successes in my work that day, but it didn’t feel like it because I didn’t wreck my body. I’m still navigating it, but that was definitely one thing that was difficult for me, was getting the motivation and dedication to translate. Now when I’ve succeeded in a task in my job, it’s just on to the next thing. To really celebrate a success doesn’t make sense to me on my computer. There’s just something in the physical process that’s different.
What was the rest of your transition like after the London Olympics?
I had one year left in some of my sponsorship contracts, so I didn’t formally announce my retirement right away. As sure as I was, I was kind of unsure at the same time. There was the, “what if?” I wanted to be done, but didn’t know if I had the courage. I disappeared and said I was taking a break. I was still around doing events, but wasn’t competing. It was like a year of going into hiding from everybody. Once the contracts ran out I officially announced it. Maybe if I had just formally retired right away I would have had a different experience. Perhaps I wouldn’t have gone into the negative down spiraling that many of us do.
When you say you started down spiraling, what happened?
The down spiraling was immediate. I hadn’t even left London yet — I felt it as soon as I got back to my room. I felt a loss of purpose. Now what? Who am I? What am I doing? The purpose was to still show up at sponsor events and talk about how well I did in the past. I didn’t have a career lined up at all. I didn’t take any jobs because I didn’t know what I wanted. I pretty much gave myself the year because to the world, I was still potentially a swimmer. If I had jumped into a job I wouldn’t have spent as much time in the internal world sorting through it and going deep into my thoughts. I think it was necessary to sort all of it out and not tuck the feelings away for a later date.
What was it like continuing to do the sponsor events, even though you felt like you were no longer a swimmer?
Coming home, I didn’t love the sponsor events. I don’t like networking and schmoozing. I started doing clinics and lessons, but I didn’t like doing them. I didn’t feel like I was giving value. Everything I had to give was in the past. It was a gut-wrenching feeling, like my only value was in the past. I wasn’t swimming any more and there I was… not talking about who I am, but pretending to be a person I didn’t resonate with. After a clinic or banquet speech where I shared my story, I felt so out of alignment, invaluable, like trash. I felt empty and disgusted with myself every time, even though I did a good job. I felt like shit immediately. Going back to the hotel room I would eat my feelings. I would just destroy myself because I was so in genuine. I couldn’t put words to it. It was just bad. It was definitely a couple months of not knowing why I should get out of bed. I had my dog at that point and I felt like he saved my life. He made me feel like I had a purpose, even if it was just to get out of bed and take him out of a walk. That was a saving grace. I had to tell myself that my goal for the day was to feed him. Make Cody happy. If he was worn out, then I achieved my goal and I was successful. It was a reframing. The world has expected such big things from me, yet there I was in hiding and had to ask what I expected of myself. It was feeding and taking care of the dog.
What type of things did you pursue during that difficult time that led you to becoming a founder at RISE?
I liked Pilates, as it was something helpful for my shoulders. I became certified, but I didn’t like teaching it turned out. Then I took a health-coaching course through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I thought it was going to be more nutrition focused, but it was more about life coaching. In there I heard mention of the term “positive psychology,” and looked into that. I fell in love with that, and it led me to another course called the Certificate in Positive Psychology that was a year long. That was the most beneficial thing for me in dealing with a lot of the emotions I was feeling. It gave me many tools for how to create a mindset that was helpful.
That was my first time focusing on psychology and mindset. It was unnatural for me out of the pool. So that was also what gave me a lot of the tools and language in realizing what I had done well in swimming. Before, I just kind of did that and didn’t know what or how. Having the language and tools helped me transition or put words and language to it and know what to do. In this process was the beginning of what is now RISE. It was my final project for that course – basically putting together tools for young athletes that I benefitted from as an adult. Because that is what sports are about. Sports aren’t about push ups, but working within the mind to make things happen. So I started to really realize what my value as a swimmer was. Now I can talk about the mindset behind it and how to build it. I started to talk about that at clinics and talks, and that’s what I resonated with. It took a year to get to that conclusion — that I don’t like swimming, but I do like the mental side of it.
What is RISE?
RISE has been my full time thing since Caroline Burckle and I formally founded it in 2015, which has been great. It’s been really great to work in mindset, on mindset, and helping the future generation have these tools I learned after my career. I want others to have this language and foundation to realize they are more than how good they are at their sport.
The project has been very unique because even though RISE was a start up, I was working with a friend and it has catered to and honored what we are going through as well. RISE was both a way to teach myself tools to be successful in business, but I also have a built in therapist with Caroline. I can talk to her and be like, “I’m really struggling today, what am I doing? What’s the point?” The transition is not over and it never ends – at least not yet. I’m a lot better now, but in the first few years I was struggling with my relationship with swimming. We have challenges and things that come up. One of the most unique things is, aside from meetings, its her and I. There have been days where I have struggled and I don’t have energy to go to work. Since we are our own bosses, no one will punish me for that. I have the freedom to dive deep into what I’m struggling with. I don’t have to put on a fancy outfit to go pretend that everything is OK—which may sometimes feel easier, not dealing with it. But because the way we built our company, if I need to take a day, I take a day. That means I may work on the weekend or whatever, but I have the so-called luxury to go into whatever I’m struggling with and deal with it now rather than in a week, a year, or 10 years. We can dive into our individual struggles deeply because we have the power to do so. It’s painful and emotional, but it’s beautiful we have the space to do that. If you don’t deal with it now, it will lead to problems later.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The best thing I did for myself was give myself permission to explore and to hurt. My impulse in the first year, week, and month after I retired is that I shouldn’t have been hurting — that other people don’t seem to be, so it was a bad thing. I think the best thing was to acknowledge the hurt and realize it’s not bad. It was OK to mourn the loss of my swimming. I spoke to a lot of friends who had been retired for a few years for advice, and they said it’s like a break up. It’s going to hurt for a while, but bring it on. So giving that a voice and a name and acknowledging it was important. To say I’m struggling, I am hurting, but it’s ok. It’s ok not to know.
Follow Rebecca Soni on LinkedIn.