For Olympic swimmer Rebecca Soni, the last month of summer seemed nothing out of the ordinary for a Trojan alumna. She met up with old friends, relaxed as much as possible and took a trip to London.
The primary difference was Soni returned from that trip across the pond with two gold medals.
After taking home a gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing after her junior season at USC, Soni successfully defended her title in London. She also took home gold as a member of the U.S. women’s 4×100-meter medley relay team and nabbed silver in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Among Soni’s surplus of accomplishments in London, the U.S. swim team captain singled out her gold-medal-winning swim in the 200-meter backstroke as her crowning achievement.
“I was so happy to break the 2:19 mark,” Soni said.
Before becoming the first woman in history to swim the 200-meter breaststroke in under two minutes and 19 seconds, the signs for Soni’s record-breaking performance were present.
“In her warm-up preceding her 200-meter final, there was a breakthrough moment,” said USC swimming coach and Team USA assistant women’s coach Dave Salo, who has been Soni’s coach for almost six years.
In pre-competition workouts, Soni always warms up the same way: three 50-meter laps. Salo noticed something about her on that night.
“She hit those paces dead-on — [the] right number of stroke counts — and it kind of came easy,” Salo explained. “It was a quiet moment between her and me where we kind of looked at each other and had that acknowledgement that ‘you’re going to be really special tonight.’”
Sure enough, less than 2 1/2 minutes later, the pair’s forecast proved correct. Before her journey to the Olympics, though, Soni arrived at USC in the fall of 2005 out of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North in Plainsboro, N.J.
“It was a pretty big decision to come all the way from New Jersey,” Soni said. “Everything all kind of came together. It was a fit between the swimming program and the academic challenge.”
Despite the adjustment, her success as a Trojan was immediate and resounding. She won the national title in the 200-yard breaststroke as a freshman in 2006, and proceeded to be the first woman in NCAA history to win the 200-yard breaststroke event four years in a row. She also won two national titles, one in the 100-yard breaststroke and another in the 200-yard breaststroke in 2008.
More impressively, she won gold in Beijing the summer after being a full-time student. Though some Olympic athletes might take a semester or a year off to train for the Games, Soni took a full course load in addition to training during her junior year.
Along the way, she continually received advice from Salo about swimming and life.
“‘Swim in your own lane — in and out of the pool,’” Soni recalled as the piece of advice she remembers most from Salo. “He said to follow your own path and do what makes sense to you.”
This attitude partially inspired Soni’s switch from majoring in business administration to communication.
“Being a [communication] major was not my original interest, but it made me learn how to do something outside of my comfort level,” Soni said. “It taught me how to get my point across.”
Though Soni has found success on an international level, her achievements have not overshadowed the pride she feels toward her alma mater.
“It’s great being from such an amazing school with over 40 athletes in the Olympics, and a school that cherishes its Olympians,” Soni said. “My medals are not just for Team USA, but I’m also bringing them home for USC.”
After earning three of USC’s 25 medals from London, Soni’s six total medals now ties her with track athlete Allyson Felix and former Australian swimmer Murray Rose for the most medals won by a Trojan alumna.
In addition to her personal accomplishments, Soni is also active in helping the current generation of Trojan athletes find success.
Soni has been a volunteer swim coach for the Trojans the last two years and will do so again this upcoming season. By swimming with the current squad and giving advice on technique, Soni feels her role is mutually beneficial.
“I’m not a certified instructor,” Soni said. “I just go out there and teach. Even though I’m a professional athlete now, it’s helped me to stay a part of the team.”
Salo has reaped the benefits of having the star around. “She’s a great resource,” Salo explained. “She’s still swimming and not too far removed from our program that she can’t enlighten the kids to what it’s like to be a Trojan swimmer.”
Soni maintains other connections to USC swimming, as well. Though no longer a student, she and her boyfriend, fellow gold medalist Ricky Berens, and many of the world’s top swimmers are a part of the Trojan Swim Club.
Coached by Salo, the team is exclusively for post-graduates and is another source of pride for Soni.
“She really has changed the profile of the athlete coming to USC and the how post-grads and international swimmers view our program,” Salo said.