Donna de Varona has experienced swimming from in the pool and from behind the microphone. She was the youngest American swimmer to compete in the 1960 Olympics, at age 13. Four years later, she won two gold medals — one in the 400-meter individual medley and the 400-meter freestyle relay. After retiring at 17, de Varona made the leap into the broadcast booth, serving as a commentator in several more Olympics. While visiting the Trials on Friday, she took a few minutes to talk to The World-Herald about the difference between swimming and broadcasting, as well as the recent growth of the sport.
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Q: You've been involved in swimming for more than five decades now. How have you seen the sport change?
A: Well, it's sensational what U.S. Swimming is doing in a world where you really have to market your athletes and your sport and really create an environment that's exciting. You're up against football and the other big sports. It's interesting that NBC is putting swimming on prime time — and not track and field. The underbelly of that is we really have to protect our Olympic sports on college campuses throughout the country. You want to see the Michael Phelpses. You want to see the Missys (Franklin). You want to see our athletes continue to strive and really be able to represent America in the global competitive marketplace.
Q: What made you want to get into broadcasting, and what are the different challenges with broadcasting rather than swimming?
A: That would be a book. I couldn't bear to quit the sport at 17. People forget that for women's swimming, if you weren't accomplished by 17, it was over. There were no high school swimming programs, no college programs. I had always been very friendly to the ABC producers — helping them pick out the best events, letting them put cameras underneath my lane. At that time, the minute I decided to get into the announce booth, I could never go back to the sport because of amateur rules. So I thought about it for three months and picked up the phone and said, “Listen, I can bear to quit the sport if I can still be around it.” That's how I started my broadcasting career. Getting off the pool deck and starting to do other things were a long time in coming. It was a lot of fighting for the opportunity — a lot of disappointment, a lot of pain and heartache, but anything worthwhile takes real struggle, I believe.
Q: Now that you're at the Trials, what is your opinion of the job Omaha has done as host?
A: Omaha, four years ago, raised the bar. With U.S. Swimming leadership involving the alumni and making it very family-friendly, I think they're getting the formula right. The people in Omaha are so nice. The shuttle drivers, the hotel people, the restaurateurs — I've had a wonderful time here.
Q: It's been a while, but do you still keep track of your gold medals? Where are they right now?
A: One's over here in a case (points to purse several feet away). I loan it out. The other one's at home.
Q: Looking back on your Olympic experience, what can you remember about standing on the podium and hearing your national anthem play?
A: I think I was lucky to go and get up there twice. One was with great relief because I was expected to win. One was with a lot of joy because I was a part of a relay. I love being part of a team, and swimming can be a very lonely sport. That's what I like seeing on the pool deck with these swimmers. They understand they're competing for America as well as the individual golds. It connects you in a global world when you make an Olympic team, and it's about the journey and I think you have to focus more on that. One thing I do think is that every single swimmer and family who qualified here really has to embrace having a lot of pride about making it here. I think we need to do more about that.
— Mike Vorel