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Maya's Memories: Olympic champ reflects on youth sports experiences
By Greg Bach
When Olympic champion Maya DiRado – one of the stars of this summer’s Rio Games – reflects on her youth sports memories, first place medals and fast times aren’t the focus.
And she certainly had a lot of those.
Instead, it’s the team trips that were taken.
The friendships that were forged.
And all the special moments that occurred along the way during practices and meets that really resonate.
“There are so many little moments from age group swimming that I remember,” says DiRado, who won two golds, a silver and bronze in Rio and grabbed America’s heart with her performance, passion and infectious personality. “One of my best friends growing up was Molly Hannis, who made the Olympic team this summer, and she would always order the same meal everywhere we went. And I remember we’d all paint our nails before a meet and put glitter on before relays. Those moments are really special and I love all those memories. It’s the things that you don’t think are important at the time, and it’s the friendships and little moments that we all remember.”
EMBRACING THE PROCESS
Only a handful of athletes will ever reach the highest levels of their sport, like DiRado did, but every youngster who participates in sports can take away incredible benefits that have life-long value.
“My swimming career would have been just as valuable and just as important to me had it not ended at the Olympics,” DiRado says. “That’s because I was around amazing coaches and amazing teammates who always stressed working hard, learning and finding little things to laugh at and enjoy every day in practice, even when things were tough. And to me that’s the best part of swimming.”
It’s a crucial message that coaches of all sports need to instill in young athletes: embrace the journey of striving to get better while enjoying everything that accompanies the process.
“Growing up we talked about that so much on our club team,” DiRado says. “I think the only way you can get all that you can get out of the sport is by focusing on the process and not the outcome.”
DiRado didn’t dread going to practice as a youngster.
That’s because the practices weren’t marathon sessions.
They weren’t boring.
And they weren’t seven days a week.
“I had a really awesome coach growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif., and my experiences were a lot different in age group swimming from a lot of other people that I know that got to this level,” she says. “We only did two mornings a week for an hour from 6 to 7 a.m. I knew other kids who were getting up at 4:30 to go swim and they were just dead. Our morning practices, while we were working hard, were really fun. We worked a lot on technique and learning how to be better and more efficient in the water as opposed to just grinding out meaningless yards, so it was a great way of making it enjoyable for young kids and keeping us from getting burned out.”
DISCOVERING FUN IN THE WATER
DiRado was involved in a variety of sports growing up. She played soccer through the sixth grade, dabbled in gymnastics and ballet, and of course swam.
“I really liked seeing very tangible improvements,” she says of what attracted her to swimming. “When you’re a young kid and you’re swimming and you’re going to practice every day and you go to a meet and you drop a few seconds in an event that is really addicting and it’s really fun to see that you are obviously getting better; whereas in something like soccer it was a little more unclear whether or not you were improving. So I think I really liked the immediacy of the results.”
And there was another aspect that made the pool more appealing than the soccer field.
“I liked what some would call the monotony – I would call it peaceful – pace of swimming and turning your brain off and working hard,” DiRado says.
FACING PRESSURE – ACCEPTING OUTCOMES
All kids in all sports face pressure – it’s a part of competing.
DiRado was no different, but her coaches and parents helped her work through it so it didn’t handcuff her ability to perform.
Or affect her enjoyment of competing.
“There were so many times as a young kid that I wanted to make excuses and go home or skip an event because I was terrified of it and I think a lot of kids struggle with that,” she says. “I got really nervous but having parents and coaches who aren’t willing to accept excuses but do it in a loving and caring way really helped me realize that it’s just swimming – it’s going to be fine no matter what happens.”
Armed with that outlook, it frees athletes to go out and do their best. If their best is good enough for a win that’s great; and if another competitor or team performs better that day that’s the way sports go.
“It kind of helped me realize that the feeling that I hated most was getting done with a race or getting done with a meet and realizing that I had kind of let myself off the hook, like I had accepted a less than 100 percent effort,” DiRado explains. “And that was a lesson that I learned on my own but that really helped me calm my nerves because when I realized the only thing I’m doing here is going out and swimming as hard and as fast as I can and that kind of alleviated any other external pressure that I felt.”
Olympic champion swimmer Cullen Jones, who nearly drowned as a child, is heavily involved in the USA Swimming Foundation's "Make a Splash" initiative to save lives by providing kids opportunities to learn how to swim
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