Ever wish you could talk to an Olympic swimmer and ask him or her what it was like? Not just what it was like to swim THAT FAST, but what it took to get there? In our series of Olympic Interviews, Go Swim asks Olympians past and present about their early years, their training, motivation, successes, and failures. This week’s featured Olympian is Rich Saeger, a member of the 1984 US Olympic Team in the 800 Freestyle Relay. Rich swam in the prelims of the 800 Free Relay, which qualified the team for finals, which won the Olympic Gold, awarding him the Gold Medal. Rich still competes as a Masters swimmer. In 2000 he was world ranked in the 100 and 200 LCM Freestyle, with times of 55.62 and 2:02.65 respectively.
How old were you when you decided to get really serious about your swimming?
I started swimming competitively at the age of 8 in upstate New York. I practiced four days a week for an hour and swam for 6 months out of the year. I was actively involved in baseball and tennis in the summer months until I was about 14 years old.
I started to put more time and effort into my swimming when I was a freshman in high school. In high school, we had swim practice once a day during the school year with double workouts in the summer months only. At that time I had decided to take my swimming seriously and work toward the goal of getting a scholarship to college. I have always thought that it is important by the time you are freshman in high school to pick a sport to concentrate on if you are going to become eligible to compete at the college level. Then by your junior and senior year in high school you have put yourself in a situation to get to the next level in your chosen sport and to further your education experience.
Did you always love to train and did you always get along with your coach?
I always enjoyed the training aspect and seemed to thrive on the day-to-day competitive nature of swim workouts. I aspired to be the fastest person in workout and would challenge myself to swim faster in practice based on year-over-year comparisons on similar sets in order to reach new standards. The training for me after meets turned into opportunities to reinforce my goals and make sure that I was training with a purpose to prepare for the next competition. I was fortunate in high school and prep school to have great coaching mentors and people who really knew how to help improve me as a person and with my swimming. My college and club coaches were also good people and motivators and I was fortunate to always have a good relationship with them. My college coach reinforced the importance of attending class and making sure that we were on track to earn our respective degrees.
Did you win every race you ever swam? If not, what did you learn from your defeats?
There were many instances when I did not win races and I seemed to remember losses more vividly than most of the wins. The thought process was: If I did not learn anything from a loss, then how could I hope to improve in the future? By analyzing the races that I lost, I aspired to train faster and make sure that I was better prepared the next time around. I did not like to lose, and that was a motivator for me to get better. I also wanted to execute a certain race strategy and be satisfied with the way in which I competed in addition to the final result.
Where did you find your motivation / inspiration?
Initially it was my parents and my brother who provided the motivation. My brother and I swam in meets together as age groupers and pushed each other to swim faster. Later on I was fortunate to be able to motivate myself to swim faster and seemed to have the ability to focus on the next race and meet to reach my goals. I was always motivated to reach certain time barriers and set goals for each season to improve on what I had done the season before. The ability to always seek better competition led me to become a better swimmer and provided the inspiration I needed to compete hard in practice on each and every repeat.
What was your most memorable swim?
My most memorable swim was leading off the relay in the 1982 World Championships in Ecuador for the USA 800 Freestyle relay team. This was my first international event and I was 18 years old representing the United States. I went a personal best time and our team went on to win the gold medal. Jeff Float, Kyle Miller, and Rowdy Gaines were my teammates and listening to the National Anthem while standing on the awards stand was something I will never forget. I ended up being ranked 3rd in the world in the 200 free that year and was proud to have competed and represented my country in the World Championships.
Would you do it all over again?
For me swimming was never a burden and was something that I truly enjoyed and excelled at, at a very early age. I never was pushed to train or compete in a sport that I did not embrace and I was fortunate to have very supportive parents who provided all the support emotionally and financially for me to compete all over the country. I traveled to many countries and all throughout the US, and made many lifelong acquaintances through swimming. I would definitely do it all over again.
What do you remember most about your training?
I remember the early season distance training as being the toughest time of year for the training. I also remember certain days where I felt invincible and seemed able to swim forever without getting fatigued. I trained with some great people and in some highly competitive practices that typically found the best in me to go faster.
What would you tell a young swimmer today, who’s got Olympic dreams?
I think having longer-term goals like the Olympics is great, but it’s probably more important to make sure that you enjoy the process of becoming a competitive swimmer and have the desire to improve all the time. For me it was always as much about the journey as about the destination. I knew that if I had trained appropriately during a specific season that by the time the actual year-end meet came that everything would take care of itself in the final meet. Swimming was a sport that I truly enjoyed, and competing at the next level was just part of the maturation process of becoming a better swimmer.
Do you still swim or compete? Why or why not?
I still enjoy getting in the pool to work out and have competed sparingly in some Masters Swim meets. I actually feel better when I am swimming a few days a week and like the idea that I can think about a lot of things when I am swimming because it’s so second nature to me after all these years. I like to think that I am still an athlete, and I enjoy competing with people in workouts to try to stay in shape. I realize that I am a husband, father and businessman who supports his family, but there still is a competitive spirit that I want to keep within me to stay in good physical condition.
How do you train? Where? How long? What kind of practices?
The training nowadays is much more quality oriented and typically is based on an hour of practice time only. I have enjoyed working on other strokes and now have to be much more of a technician than ever before and seem to understand the mechanics better than I used to. I train to stay in good physical condition and I focus on trying to swim fast in workout all the time in order to get better. I have a group of Masters swimmers I train with who are primarily ex-college swimmers and I am fortunate to live in Southern California where I can train outdoors 12 months out of the year.