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IU Olympians return home and get 'back to normal'

Sept. 7, 2016

Blake Pieroni, USA, men’s swimming

Rushing from Spanish class to a press conference isn’t something every IU student has to deal with. But that is IU Olympic athlete Blake Pieroni's reality.

Blake Pieroni

Blake Pieroni, IU swimmer and Olympic gold medalist | PHOTO BY JAMES BROSHER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

After an entire summer living in a hotel, Pieroni said it’s great to be back in Bloomington and back to somewhat “normal” life. Among the things he missed most: his bed, his teammates and his coaches. 

He has seen a lot of changes in his life over the past few months -- like gaining thousands of new followers on social media and making new friends from around the United States. But perhaps the most important change the Olympics brought him is his increased confidence. Accomplishing a lifelong dream and competing at the highest level for his sport make other big competitions, like the Big 10 championships, seem that much more attainable, he said.

“Over the past year, I’ve made a lot of new promises to different people," he said. "But the most important is that I am holding myself accountable to my IU teammates and coaches to help make us a Big 10 championship team. I am going to be the best that I can be every day.”

Trying hard and setting goals work in both the athletic world and the academic world, he said. Pieroni is a junior studying biology with plenty of time left to continue his swimming passion. But once that chapter of his life ends, he is confident that the skills he has learned as an athlete will translate to his professional life.

He is forever bonded with fellow teammate and IU alum Cody Miller, who went with him to get matching Olympic rings tattoos once they were back in Bloomington. But he said the bonds he made with the rest of his fellow USA teammates will also last a lifetime.

When reminiscing about his favorite memory from Rio, he didn’t name an individual moment. Instead, he recalled the moment when he watched his friends make their dreams come true.

“I was in the stands watching when the guys won the 400-meter free relay, and that was amazing and so emotional,” he said. “Afterward, I saw Ryan [Held] break down on the podium, and it was like I was living through him. He’s one of my best friends, and I got to watch him accomplish his dream. It hit me hard that I was one of the people that helped them get there and become the fastest team in the world.”

Pieroni talks more about his Rio experience online. 

Kennedy Goss, Canada, women’s swimming

Kennedy Goss went to the Olympics with a unique resource in her corner: her dad, Sandy Goss, two-time Olympic silver medalist swimmer.

Kennedy Goss

Kennedy Goss, IU swimmer and Olympic bronze medalist | PHOTO BY JAMES BROSHER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

He is the one who brought her to love the sport of swimming and constantly encourages her, she said. So when he gave her advice on how to prepare for competition on the international Olympic stage, she took it to heart.

“He said, ‘Focus on what you’re there for, and do what you have to do.’ So, that’s what I did,” Goss said. “I treated it like any other competition.”

Her mom, a sports psychologist, has also been a big support, encouraging her to set goals in and out of the pool. Moving forward, sophomore Goss, who studies Psychology, said she wants to improve her skills in the water, graduate on time, get accepted to grad school and qualify for the 2020 Olympics. A lot of her drive comes from her experiences at the Olympics, she said.

“I was around some of the greatest athletes of all time,” Goss said. “Being around so much success and seeing how much they do drives you toward success as well.”

However, the reality that she competed as an Olympic athlete and on an international level hasn’t sunk in for Goss. That might be because she has already switched from Olympic athlete to IU athlete, anxious to get back to training and competing for the university’s swim team.

Goss said to be a part of IU’s rich swimming history is a big honor in and of itself.

“IU swimming saw a bit of lag in the past few years, but now it is building back up,” she said. “To be a part of the team that is starting that build up and to represent IU as an Olympic athlete is great.”

Learn more about Goss' Olympics experience online. 

Anze Tavcar, Slovenia, men's swimming

Anze Tavcar, an IU senior from Slovenia, remembers going into his junior year swimming season with one goal in mind: making it to the Olympics.

“I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I was thinking about it,” he said. “Every day I went to practice and reminded myself why I was doing this: It was for the Olympics.”

Anze Tavcar

Anze Tavcar, IU swimmer and Olympian | PHOTO BY JAMES BROSHER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

He even printed out a sheet of times he had to beat and taped it to his bathroom mirror to remind himself every day of his goal and what he had to do to make it a reality.

Now, reflecting on his experience and how he was able to accomplish his dream, he said he will never forget the feeling he had when he finished his first race in the Olympic pool.

“I had just touched the wall, and then it hit me,” Tavcar said. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow. I just competed at the Olympics.’”

At that point, he was no longer swimming just for himself, he said. Tavcar recalled a moment just after he had qualified for the Olympic team when a fan stopped him on the streets of his home country and told him he was a “hero.”

“It took a while to process that,” he said. “I am passionate about swimming, and I do it for myself because I love it. I didn't really realize that competing in the Olympics meant representing my country, and that was the first moment I realized how important that was. It felt really good and was the best moment out of the whole experience.”

After the Olympics, he only got to be at home with his family for one evening. But Tavcar, a biology major, came back to IU with a renewed sense of gratitude for the opportunities the university has made available to him.

He credits IU for his ability to make the Olympic team. The training, coaching and resources he has received here all helped make him a better swimmer, he said. Tavcar was one of 11 swimmers on Slovenia’s swim team, but he was only one of two who were also getting an education.

“There you have to make a decision: You either become a professional swimmer or you go to school,” he said. “Here at IU you can do both. You have an opportunity to balance both.”

He said he is getting back into the “working rhythm” of school and being a student athlete. But he has many fond memories of Rio -- like sitting on a bus next to Michael Phelps -- that he is reminded of while going about his normal routine here at IU.

Now he is setting his sights on his next big goal: getting into dental school.

Tavcar speaks more about his Olympics experience online. 

Lilly King, USA, women’s swimming

Winning a gold medal during her first Olympic competition was a special moment for 19-year-old swimmer Lilly King, who said she wouldn’t have imagined that as a possibility four years ago.

“If you would have told me I would be swimming with Dana Balmer on a relay, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy!’” said King, a sophomore studying physical education.

Lilly King

Lilly King, IU swimmer and Olympic gold medalist | PHOTO BY JAMES BROSHER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

In winning the relay, they brought home the United States’ 1,000th Summer Olympics gold medal. King said relay medals are more meaningful to most swimmers than individual wins, which she attributed to the amount of teamwork that goes into a relay.

“The feeling of accomplishing something so big as a country and experiencing it with your fellow teammates adds a special touch to the experience,” she said.

Since team support is so important to King, she was happy to have so many familiar faces in Rio to experience the journey along with her, including IU coach Ray Looze who served as the assistant coach for the USA’s women’s swim team. King pointed out the difficulty of going a month without a coach and how great it was to have someone there who she trusted during the tough and exciting moments. In addition, she built stronger bonds with her IU teammates, and they shared a lot of laughs along the way.

King also enjoyed the little things that came from her trip to the Olympics, like connecting with some of her favorite celebrities on social media.

“I tweeted at Christina Aguilera, because I am one of her biggest fans,” King said. “When she tweeted back at me, I was so excited that I fell over on the floor.”

She also saw a lot of support from one of her swimming idols, Shirley Babashoff, who reached out to King during her time at the Olympics.

For King, who describes herself as “a total swim junkie,” making the Olympic team was always a goal she set for herself. She said there’s a natural progression that happens for athletes like herself. First, she wanted to win an NCAA championship and break American records. Once she did that, the Olympics was the next step. She set her sights on winning a gold medal and came home with two.

The Olympics brought King more than the feeling of accomplishing lifelong goals; it also taught her some important life lessons. Being around so much success and experiencing so much success herself at such a young age have taught her how to handle positive and negative feedback, she said. It has also instilled in her a great work ethic.

“I know I have to work for what I want and have to put 100 percent into it to be good at it,” King said.

King shares more about her time in Rio online. 

Michael Hixon, USA, men’s diving

Spending a month in Rio made IU junior Michael Hixon realize just how important IU is to him.

“IU is home, and it’s a great place to call home,” he said.

Despite being on an international stage and garnering 60,000 new followers on Instagram, Hixon is modest about his time at the Olympics, saying he treated it just like any other meet.

Michael Hixon

Michael Hixon, IU diver and Olympic silver medalist | PHOTO BY ERIC RUDD, IU COMMUNICATIONS

When he wasn’t competing, he enjoyed being in the Olympic village around some of his biggest athletic role models. He recalls dining at the village dining hall at the same time as Usain Bolt, Jamaican Olympic track and field athlete, and watching Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic prepare for a match.

He described the entire experience as “pretty wild,” but said nothing could compare to the intensity of winning a silver medal for Team USA. Because of that experience, he feels like he is ready to tackle whatever comes next, as both a student athlete and in his professional career.

“I know what it means to care about something and really go after it,” Hixon said.

Hixon said the strong bonds he and his teammates formed were the most important aspect of getting through such a tough competition and keeping his eye on the prize. And his teammates weren’t the only ones Hixon was glad to have there alongside him. IU’s head diving coach was also the head coach for the U.S. diving team, which he said played a big part in making him feel comfortable in a foreign environment.

“My teammates and my coaches are honestly what helped me get here,” he said. “If I didn’t surround myself with these people that were so focused all year round, it would make it harder to achieve my goals.”

After redshirting for a year to prepare for the Olympics, Hixon is most excited to be back in the pool representing IU. He quickly got back into the groove of being an IU student in the Kelley School of Business and an athlete, new silver medal in tow, and is looking ahead to the the upcoming season.

Learn more about Hixon's time in Rio online. 

IU's swimming and diving program aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success.

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