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Smiling Soni On Salo And More

Mar 6, 2010  - Craig Lord

Rebecca Soni was somewhat taken aback when she walked through the door of the arena headquarters at Toletino in Italy (a couple of weeks back before returning home to get ready for the Austin grand prix, in which she competes today). This was no usual kit deal signing and tour round the factory: the hallway was brimming with the beaming faces of the entire staff of the Italian company. 

They had started to gather half an hour before the Olympic champion arrived.
 The buzz was tangible, the sentiments genuine. These were people who work in offices, on design, on marketing, on all manner of things related to the business of producing sports kit for the company of three diamonds. They rarely, if ever, get to see the showmen and women who wins the medals and serve as poster boys and girls for the image of one of the healthiest sports on the planet.

It meant the world to them to see Soni, Olympic and world champion and record holder, that morning - and the swimmer was clearly touched, as noted in the words she penned on a life-size poster of herself in the new textile cut of 2010 (arena noted that rather than claim the 'fastest' suit in the world, they would rather claim the 'lightest suit ever made').

  The evening before, I sat and had a chat with Soni, who has dropped a session a day this season, practising once a day as an experiment to see how it goes midway through the Olympic cycle.

Rebecca Soni was born in Freehold, New Jersey, March 18, 1987, making her 23 next week. She grew up in Plainsboro Township, New Jersey, and attended West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. Her parents left Europe for a new life in the early 1980s and ended up in the States. They raised their American-born daughters to speak fluent Hungarian and top enjoy and appreciate the culture and cooking of the land from whence they had travelled. But where was that exactly?


Soni, who at the University of Southern California majored in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, does not want to use that degree specifically in her future, but she is surely a worthy pupil of the topic. Coach Dave Salo's pupil at USC smiled almost the whole time, took all questions in her stride, represented herself, her team(s) and her sport with flying colours and was a pleasure to spend time with.

Below is how our chat panned out, starting with a request for clarification on her heritage, the cuttings file unclear on a couple of points of detail when it came to where her parents Peter, in real estate, and Kinga, her mother and a nurse, came from before settling in the state and raising Rita, and her younger sister.

CL: The articles out there are a little confusing as to where your parents came from to get to the States, some say Hungarian, some say Romania. Can you help out?

RS: Well, funny you should ask that. My mom came out here last week and I asked her the same question! We sat down over dinner and had some wine and I started interviewing her... Basically, we're from the Transylvania region. That's why we're Hungarians and speak Hungarian but my parents grew up in Romania.

(Whirlwind tour: Transylvania is a region in the central part of Romania bound on the east and south by the Carpathian mountain range. It was once the nucleus of the Kingdom of Dacia (82 BC-106 AD). In 106 AD the Roman Empire conquered the region, the visitors withdrawing in AD 271 to give way to tribes of various kinds, like the the Carpi, Visigoths, Huns, Gepids, Avars and Bulgars. No wonder Soni's quick! Anyhow, it all became part of the Kingdom of Hungary, a status recognised by the Habsburgs even after they'd bought up all the land in 1683. Moving swiftly along, world wars of the 20th century had some land granted back to Romania and then some land granted back to Hungary before the whole thing went back to Romania in 1945 even though the place as home to more than a million Hungarians who spoke no Romanian. Very confusing. And then came Bram Stoker, set his Dracula in them there mountains (in fact some of the most scenic landscape in Europe)and a reputation was born. She's a gem to sit and chat with ... but don't mess with Soni is my advice. Tour over)

RS: My grandmother sill lives in Cluj. (Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvár in Hungarian).

CL: So where two worlds mix, who is Rebecca Soni?

RS: My roots are a big part of me. Hungary is a part of me too. I've been in California for four or five years now and I'm an individual. I wouldn't say that I was the typical Californian girl (laughter) but I definitely enjoy being there.

CL: Identity takes part of its form from language, others things come into the mix too. What is it that makes you think of Hungary as a big part of you still? Language, culture...?

RS: Definitely. The language, the culture. We (with sister, Rita) grew up learning Hungarian as our first language. Then we went to school and we learned English. But the food, the lifestyle was really the way my parents were raised.

CL: Often that can set you apart when you first go to school. Did you struggle wit that or were you totally accepted.

RS: I think it was easy ... I don't really remember that well but we were there our whole lives and you were taken for who you were. We may not have been typical Americans but we fit in just fine.

CL: Is America like that - is that your experience of America?

RS: Definitely. There are a lot of people who were in the same position as my parents. My parents speak English really well but there are a lot of stories similar to mine from different places around the world.

CL: Why swimming?

RS: My sister started it. She always loved the water and as a birthday present around 10 my parents got her a membership of a club a couple of years later I followed because the club was quite a long way from home and so we have to travel backwards and forwards every day and it made sense for us both to be there and we loved it. I don't know why we were so dedicated at such a young age but we were. 

CL: Because you were having fun, perhaps?

RS: Yes. I even just enjoyed driving with my parents, just being together. At first I'd bring my homework and we'd go for walks and eventually it was like why not throw me in the pool too. I don't remember if I wanted to get in the water or not but I definitely wanted to be like my sister. That's how it started, and at first I didn't really want to do the practices, that I do remember. I don't think I really enjoyed that until a couple of years later (by the time she was 12). Until then I was doing sessions but kind of going through the motions. Fixing my goggles, sitting on the side a lot...

CL: Was there a point at which you became aware that you had a special talent?

RS: I competed at my first nationals at 13, which considering I started just three years earlier was pretty good.

CL: Age group nationals?

RS: No, national nationals. I didn't do so well. I think it was the 100 breaststroke and I placed pretty low. It was just a first experience. That kind of gave me a reason to train harder. I didn't really think I was anything special but I did think making nationals was a big step.

CL: Those nationals featured the likes of Amanda Beard, Megan Quann. Were you aware of those kind of people?

RS: No, Not really. I never really looked at swimming and studied swimming and swimmers. I just kind of went through it myself, a meet at a time. I don't even think I watched it on the Olympics at that stage.

CL: And by Athens 2004, by which time you were already US No 1 for your age in both the 100m and 200m?

RS: The highlights. I was at those trials that year so I was part of the meet and then watched the highlights, so definitely, by then it was something I was aware of.

CL: I'm going to invite you to destroy Dave Salo's reputation as a maverick now.

Soni broke into laughter but when momentary silence followed she showed a facet of her make-up that surely plays a part in her performances in the water come the big moment. Where, in that momentary silence left hanging when she stopped laughing, many would have felt the need to say something and fill the void, she said nothing at all, kept smiling and then raised an eyebrow as if to say 'so, let's hear it'.

CL: The caricature is that Mark Schubert had you all swimming millions of miles an hour and Dave Salo had you all doing as few 25 yard sprints a day as possible before the showers beckon.

RS: Yeah? (inherent in which was 'So what's your question')

CL: So what's the truth about the difference in those two programmes from the swimmer's point of view?

RS: Well, it is similar to the way you describe it in some ways (a short giggle). Schubert was more distance orientated and that was similar to my background in school and high school teams. I did great with Schubert but then a year into it he had to leave and Dave came in. At first, for me, it was really difficult. I had never been exposed to that kind of training before. In a way you were joking in your question but we do do a lot of 25s and we do alot of short and intense swims . The first year it was just so new for me that I was kind of like thinking 'how can I swim fast when I'm just playing around in practice. Not that that is what we do but it seemed like it at the time following on from lots of yardage. It took about a year for me to let go and trust him, and trust in his practices and that change is good.

CL: I listened to Dave Salo a couple of times at a coaching clinic last year and there was some of the shorter distances stuff in there but when at the end I added up the sessions he described, it was not as if the volume wasn't there too.  Can you tell us something about how the shorter distance swims fit into the broader picture and how sessions are structured or lacking in structure?

RS: It's definitely shorter overall distances when you add it up compared to a lot of programmes. It's not the 10,000 that you're used to per session and more like 5- or 6,000, maybe 7. We start with the same warm up every day, about 1,000 or 800m, and then we kind of jump straight into fast work. And no matter what we're doing we are going fast, no matter whether its skulling or straight into 50 pace work, which we do a lot of. It's never a set structure like a kick set and a pull set.

CL: In the mix of all that high speed work, how important is it for you to get technique right, to practice as perfect as you can?

RS: In certain parts. I guess we are not swimming as often as other people. The team set will be a little bit of skull, a little bit of kick and so on, just what, who knows ... but then we'll do the fast set and the stroke you are swimming then should be perfect, it should be racing. And thats another reason why with this training it is a question of what you put in is what you get out -  If you can survive a practice easily. Some people could come and do what I'm doing and not get anything out of it. It's up to you. For the most part he's not going to pull you aside and say 'come on, you need to do this and you need to try harder.'

CL: It is almost like the university of swimming, then, where it is up to you to get out of lectures what you get out of them. Is that comparison valid?

RS: Yes, that's right. That's a great comparison. It's exactly what its like. He's told me many times that he's proud of me for growing up in that way. All through high school and with Mark (Schubert) too I would just listen to my coaches and do what they said. And if something was going wrong I would say 'hey, Tom, Mark, what am I doing wrong'. With Dave, without even knowing it, I learned how to figure it out for myself and what was wrong and what might be better. But its still always good to have him there . We had a meet a few weeks ago in Long Beach and he was there with the college team and was going home on the last night and I said 'Dave can you look at my stroke', and he said something that he's said a million times before and I know what he's going to say before he says it - but it still makes it all much better.

CL: He sounds like a pleasant man. Someone you like?

RS: Yeah.

CL: Do you get the impression that he likes to trade on the maverick image and be a little out there on the edge and not part of the system?

RS: Yes (laughter). Kind of. You can definitely tell there's a little bit of that. But he's also very hands on with the college team and that's kind of like a big change of energy between the college team that needs a lot more hands on and our group that doesn't. Even though he stands back sometimes, he still puts all his heart into it, always. And it shows. Each of my coaches has given me something that I needed at the moment they were there. Tom Speedling (Scarlet Aquatic Club) was my high school coach. He is the kind of person who can talk and talk and go on for half an hour and its very relaxing. Even now, just to hear him say a few words is good. And Mark Schubert taught me things and got me there. I was privileged.

CL:  As an Olympic and world champion and world record holder, you've hit the three peaks, so to speak. What did the coach bring to you on race day on those occasions? What's his role at that point?

RS: He might be there or not. If he's there, I definitely use him for confidence and even in warm-up i'll have him check my stroke out ... again, I know what he's going to say but it still helps to hear it. Mostly (on race day), it's great to see his reaction after. That's a big part too. He's big on feedback afterwards. It's pretty rare for him to be like 'great job'. He'll be much more like, look what you did here in this part and this part and this part and here's what we can do. That's what I'm looking for and I really enjoy that. It suits my personality well because I will never be like 'wow that was an amazing race'. It's always like, 'ok, we can do this better next time and see where that goes'.

CL: You hear a lot about people going to their first Olympics 'for the experience' four years before bigger moments but like you history is littered with people who arrived and struck gold first time round. But you didn't exactly arrive in Beijing with no experience. Can you tell us about the value of NCAA and those development years and did that help you to feel prepared for the Olympic Games?

RS: The NCAAs was incredibly important. Even if it's not the Olympics. Someone once came back from the Olympics and said to me 'It was cool but it was just another meet'. That kind of stuck in my head for four years. It was a good kind of way to relax when you got there. It helped keep things here (makes a motion with her hands indicating calmness).

CL: Who was that someone who delivered those useful words?

RS: It was Caroline Bruce (9th 200m breaststroke, Athens 2004), a good friend of mine. It was great to have that four years out because it was what I was thinking about the Games for four years. It wasn't like this massive thing. What helped too was that the NCAAs was a great experience that in some ways was a lot more intense than the Olympics, just because it's so compact and there's a wide variety of great swimmers. It was also the culmination of one year of build up. It was like 'this is the end point'. And that's the kind of feeling you get at the Olympics too. It's like now or never - all eyes on me at this point." NCAAs was a great hit out.

CL: A rehearsal?

RS: Yeah, exactly.

CL: Rivals. How often do you think of them, the Lethals of the world?

RS: A little bit. Obviously, I train with Jessica Hardy every day so I think about rivalries every day. But we're also all great friends.

CL: Do you actually train with her or in the same pool at a distance?

RS: Yeah, I train with her. Obviously, she's a sprinter and she can swim a lot faster than me. She's in the lane next to me and we're often very close. For me rivalry is just a fun way to race each other. In the end, it's about friendship and fun - and that's more important.

CL: What are you thinking when you get up on the blocks?

RS: when you're on the blocks you think about yourself. I think about what I can do. Of course you want to win but you've done your work and they've done their work and its about the race in that moment. But when you get out of the pool, I don't see any reason not to enjoy the company and not to enjoy the people.

CL: Beijing. 2:20.22. Gold. Describe the feeling

RS: It felt like I was on top of the world. I think I said something like this straight after but it was like 'it doesn't get any better than that'. It was a great time, a great race and was everything I had wanted to do going into the race.

CL: Was there a point in the race where you knew?

RS: I think about half way down that last lap. I was just having so much fun. You can see it on the underwater cameras as I'm finishing: I've got this really big smile on my face.

The broadest of smiles returns for a moment. Glorious. She pauses for a moment.

RS: It was a blast. I remember thinking 'this is as good as it gets. Maybe I can be here in another four years again but for now, this is it, this is the best, everything has played out and its the best place you can be.

CL: One year on, the 200m was not quite the same race. Lots of us have written about what appeared to happen, what might have happened and so on. But what did happen as far as you're concerned, with the full wind of hindsight?

RS: it was a lot of things put together. The 100 had something to do with it. I'm still working on the speed and the sprinting and I didn't really know how to relate it to the 200. So, I kind of just went for it without thinking, and some people think that my strategy was to go out really fast. It wasn't. I was just feeling great.

Soni bursts into infectious laughter.

RS: I thought I was doing an amazing swim. And I think it was also a little bit of the training. After the Olympics it was actually hard to get back in and go straight to NCAAs and then after that it kind of went down a little bit, and that happens. I don't think I'd really decided to even go to trials (for Rome) or not until maybe a month out when I was certain I was going to do it. I was training every day, I was doing everything. I wasn't quite as motivated as I was the year before and that probably had something to do with it too.

CL: The swim and how it panned out was written up as saying something about suits. You hadn't worn the X-Glide before that summer so it was pretty new to you. Did it actually feel easier in the suits? And was there an element of learning about the suit you wore?

RS: It did take a little while to get used to, to feel the different way you felt when you had the suit on. Gliding was easier, no question, and it took you farther so maybe you should wait a little bit longer before the pull. That's what we were thinking. It definitely did make it easier.

CL: A new era. Is it a question of you looking forward to proving yourself all over again?

RS: Yes. That's a pretty accurate statement. I am looking forward to it. I kind of see it as a challenge to do best times in textile. I kind of went with it. I loved the new suits for the fun and how it was all new. They were made of exciting stuff. But I'm just as excited to see how I go now and how this summer goes in textile.

CL: What's the difference in feel?

RS: It feels a lot more free in textile. You're not as tight, my knees had never been constricted before the (shiny) suits and that was something I'd had to get used to. Its definitely different now."

CL: So, what else is new to your programme this season?

RS: Starting from last year when I finished college and after my (post-) Rome break, Ii decided to start doing just one practice a day. That's definitely new. I don't know how long i'm going to stick with it but I feel like I can race great with it. I've done a couple of races and got the world records from the duel (Manchester, Dec, 2009), so it's an experiment.

CL: A good time for experiments mid Olympic cycle?

RS: Yeah. It frees up a litle bit of time so that I'm not thinking about swimming all the time. You can get wrapped up in every practice.

CL: Long careers often feature some element of stepping back for a while, by choice or not. Do you feel it important if you want to be there in 2012 and maybe beyond?

RS: Yeah. After Beijing it was like ... I had been going so long doing doubles (two training sessions a day) and everything had been so intense. And every weekend too. So this is a break from that. 

CL: What do you do with all that spare time?

RS: I find stuff to do, take trips like this one, wander round Rome, which is always good. I like reading alot and cooking.

CL: Hungarian dishes?

RS: Yeah, a couple I do well. My roommate is unemployed because she just finished school too, so we're both home every day cooking together and doing stuff. Its really fun. I go shopping and whatever comes up. Do lots of travelling. I'm looking into doing some sort of grad school but for now I'm just really enjonying the time.

CL: Is your degree something you will take forward in life subject wise?

RS: It wasn't really my interest, it just came my way and seemed like a great way to get a degree. So I don't think I will do anything in life specifically relevant to it. I have a great interest in math and science. I also like interior design, I like architecture but couldn't really fit architecture school in with swimming. I like a broad range of things but I haven't decided where I want to go and what I want to do.

CL: God calls on you to write your CV, starting with 'who are you'. What do you tell him? Who are you?

RS: I don't know ... I'll come back to you on that one.

CL: Home support is important to many careers. What's your experience?

RS: My parents has always supported me. They do it quietly in the background, never criticising. They tell me what they think but they never interfere.

CL: Do you feel the weight of the US success story behind you? Does team matter?

RS: Definitely. I guess in high school I didn't really have a team. I swam for myself. Then in college the team was everything. I've seen both sides and when you go out as team USA you get swept up by everybody else and it makes it a lot easier than if you're by yourself.

CL: Is this your first personal sponsorship contract?

RS: Yes. It feels great.

CL: You are living at a time when prize money and other support is a part of the sport. Do you feel privileged in that sense?

RS: The sport is changing in that sense and it's a great time to be part of swimming with so many changes going on. We're getting more attention, living in a time of Michael Phelps and all eyes are on swimming suddenly. Its a great time to be part of this sport. It is really great to be able to follow my dream as my job. That's a huge privilege.

CL: What is it like to be on a team with Mr Phelps?

RS: Its pretty cool. He's such a hard worker. He knows how to race better than anyone else. So there's a lot to be learned from him. What he's done for the sport of swimming is amazing.

CL: Do you learn lessons for life or for swimming life?

RS: Both. Life lessons - I look for that everywhere and see it everywhere, every day. And I take it in from whoever and wherever. Its great  to be on a team of people who come from all across the country and have very different lives and you can take a little from each of them and learn from it.

CL: Swimming as a springboard to life. Will it serve you well?

RS: Definitely. When you talk to people who started swimming at a young age, swimming has taught them just about everything they know. We would not be who we are without the sport and the practising and dedication and everything we've been through. It teaches you about your life.

CL: Banished to a desert island as a great swimmer, do you swim for it?

RS: I would stay on the island. It depends if you can see anything. If there's a line i can follow ... I feel like I've watched too many TV shows to get into deep water. I know what happens when you can't see below the surface (much laughter).

CL: Will you always be fit in life?

RS: I would like to be. Ii feel that's really important to me. I don't see it changing.

CL: Does that comes from home?

RS: Yeah. We never really went out to eat. We home cooked. It was very structured. We always ate good food.

CL: What's great about America?

RS: I guess the opportunity, the idea that you can do anything you want. I have yet to decide what I want to do and where I'm going. It's not like given to me. I have to find it, to do it. But It feels like the opportunity is there to do anything.

CL: So many choices. Some have struggled with that. Too many?

RS: Swimming is the one thing that keeps that out there (at bay). I kind of don't know what I want to do. Swimming is the one thing i do want to do so I don't struggle for choice on that score. I think it's important to grow up with that choice around you to be able to handle how to deal with it through your life. But its great just to know your whole life that you can do whatever you want.

CL: Do you believe in fate or must you work for everything?

RS: A mixture of the two but I do believe in fate, just that you have to work for it too. I'm not very religious but I still believe in he big picture, that someone is putting it together. The closer that it is to the present, the more it touches me, if that makes sense.

CL: Being in the moment and knowing you worked for it, even in a world full of celebrities famous for doing ... nothing?

RS: Yeah. You get what you work for. I kind of think celebrities work for it too even if they're famous for being stupid. We have some famous neighbours around where we live. I'm not  good at recognising them, even though I love looking through trashy magazines. There are opposites everywhere. I drive drive through great places like where I live and then a few minutes down the road you better lock the doors. I find that very interesting. Different sides of different worlds.

CL: An indication of what direction you might look in later in life?

RS: The end of school left me feeling like I didn't have any project that I can finish and be proud of right now. I miss that and that's why I'll probably go back to school for grad studies.

CL: Ending on what drew the biggest smile, what kind of attention did you get back home after Beijing?

RS: My family were the same as always, they were quiet and proud. In school you get more attention and back home I heard my home town put out banners and stuff. There's a lot of support from the communities. Swimming is almost not as big in the US as ... but it's so big in terms of success that no one person gets loads of attention. And who needs that anyhow.

CL: The memory, medal, money, something else - what do you cherish most?

RS: The memory and definitely the medal - and most of all having that as part of my past and how that can be used as a stepping stone for the future and where I'm going from here.