Fall began differently for Rebecca Soni this year as she returned to USC for the first time as an alumna and not a student athlete, following her stunning performances at the World Swimming Championships in Rome this summer.
Soni’s unbeatable streak did not fade as the competition commenced in Rome this past July, with Soni taking gold in the 100 breastroke and smashing Australian breastroke typhoon Liesel Jones’ last individual world record in the semifinals with a time of 1:04.84.
But It was her 200 breastroke, the event in which she claimed her first Olympic gold medal in Beijing, which raised eyebrows — though not in the usual way.
“I overthought the 200. But the first 100 felt great,” Soni laughed, recalling the exhausting final 25 meters that cost her a place on the podium.
Soni, who is known for her accelerating finishes, led the field by more than a body length for most of the race, and was 1.55 seconds ahead of world record pace at the 100-meter mark and 1.22 seconds ahead of world record pace at the final turn. Somewhere, about halfway down the homestretch, she hit a wall.
“I just started cramping up. I wouldn’t take it back though, it taught me a lot … It’s not just always about what place you get, it’s all a learning experience,” Soni said.
Soni managed to come back from her disappointing performance in the 200 breaststroke and achieved a suprisingly good result in the 50 breastroke, an event which Soni has rarely focused on.
“It was fun, I had never swam it at an international meet before, so I had no expectations,” she said of the 50-meter.
The combination of Soni’s experience in the 100 breastroke and a killer start resulted in a new American record and a silver medal in the event with a time of 30.11 seconds, just two hundredths behind gold and the world record.
Her road at USC has been studded with success stories — though not without battles — the first involving undergoing a heart surgery at the end of her freshmen year.
Soni also faced a rocky transition with the team’s new head coach, Dave Salo, who arrived on USC’s pool deck the summer before her sophomore year. His unique and eclectic coaching methods meant that he and the team’s star breastroker did not initially see eye to eye, a trust issue many athletes find difficult to overcome in a new program.
Over the next three years, however, their professional relationship became one of equal respect and understanding, enabling Soni to splash her way into the record books, over and over again.
“Once I learned to use Dave’s methods and apply them to my own training needs, and once I learned to trust him, he really helped me,” Soni said. “He’s actually a fun guy, I think he’s great.”
In March, Soni became the first woman to win the 200-yard breastroke in four consecutive NCAA Championships, making her the most successful 200-yard breastroker in college sports history.
She is no stranger to record boards; her name is emblazoned across the walls at McDonald’s Swim stadium, along with race times that would make many male breastrokers pale in comparison. Yet, although Soni has undoubtedly established herself as a demolisher of both American and world records, it has often been the achievements closer to home that have made the biggest impact on her admirers.
Soni’s ability to inspire and support her fellow teammates every day in practice has proven to be invaluable, leadership that will be undeniably missed.
“I never swam on a high school team, I only ever trained club, so the team environment in college swimming was new to me,” Soni said.
Soni was able to use much of her experience on the international circuit to help motivate her fellow Trojans, and she quickly found that this new sense of responsibility changed her mentality about swimming.
“Being a part of a team changes the way you compete, especially at dual meets,” she said. “You’re more concerned for the team than just yourself. You become less focused on winning for yourself, and more focus on winning to motivate the team.”
So what’s next for Soni as she returns to the pool deck this fall semester?
As a professional athlete, she will be spending much of her time discussing sponsorship deals, particularly in light of the newly passed rule by FINA, the body that governs swimming and diving. The rule involves racing suits, banning all textile fabrics and full bodysuits, which will possibly open the door to more sponsorship opportunities for Soni.
With more free time, she said she has a desire to get involved in charity work, as well as some more lighthearted activies.
“I can’t disclose much, but just make sure you watch the season finale of Shaq Vs.,” Soni hinted.
Meanwhile, Soni will continue to train with Salo at the Trojan Swim Club. Despite the familar Trojan environment, Soni said things will be different this year.
“It’s hard to move on after college, hard to not be a part of the team,” she said.
Soni takes pride in the potential of USC’s young swimming and diving team, and is excited to watch the team she helped build carry the momentum she left behind.
“This team is going places,” she said.
Soni may be beginning a new chapter in her life, but no matter where it takes her or how many records are broken, she will always be welcomed with open arms at McDonald’s Swim Stadium, where her influence reached well beyond her accomplishments in the pool.