The craziest (but best) experience of my life
It was day three of the Paralympics when I started getting messages from Russian reporters on Facebook and Twitter. "We've found your family!" one said, with a photo of a Russian-looking family attached. Another asked if I'd go to Russia straight from London to be on an "Oprah"-like TV show.
Is this a joke? I thought, my mind spinning. Are they just trying to write a good story?
My brother and I were adopted from Russia when I was 13 months old, and though I've always known the story of my adoption, I've never met my biological parents.
Little did I know, some reporters had taken it upon themselves to find them.
It was so much to handle right then, in the middle of the biggest meet of my life. Yes, that family in the photo had blond hair like me. But I look like a lot of Russian families, I'm sure. Half of the Russian Paralympic team has blond hair! How was I supposed to know what was real? I wasn't angry, but I couldn't quite process it all, and of course it made it very hard to focus on the races I had each day.
I kept getting messages and links to Russian newspaper articles, and on the final day of the Games, the USOC confirmed for me that it was definitely not a hoax. Since then, I've had all the articles and interviews translated into English and learned a lot about my Russian biological parents.
Now that some time has passed I've been able to recognize how cool it really is. Though I was less than thrilled with the timing of it all, I'm so proud that my biological parents found out that I'm a successful athlete. I'm even planning to go to Russia to meet them next summer, probably in June or July.
I've also realized that some greater good can come out of the media attention. There has been a lot of controversy lately surrounding Russian adoptions to the U.S., and even some support from Russian officials to end all adoption to American families. So this is a chance for me to show how in my case, adoption was an amazing thing. My brother and I have had a loving, wonderful family since we came here, and I couldn't be more grateful to my parents for all they've given me.
Now I've decided this whole big hoopla around my biological parents is just one more part of my incredible experience in London.
When I first arrived in August and saw the Olympic Village, it completely took my breath away. I knew right then that all the training was worth it. That practice I threw up after? Worth it. All those early, early mornings where I had to hold my eyes open? Completely worth it.
I was just so excited to be there at my third Games. I roomed with Kelly Becherer, who's always my roomie at big events. We know each other so well, and we have a blast together. We always bring this Natalie Coughlin poster of hers to every big meet. We took it to worlds in '06, to Beijing in '08, to worlds again in '10, and now to London. It was just a random poster at first, of a swimmer that we've always looked up to, and now it has become a part of every meet to bring us good luck.
The poster worked its magic again, though in the beginning I wasn't so sure it would. During my very first race of the Games, the 100-meter butterfly, I was in the ready room and I've never felt so terrified before. When you're in there, you usually sit for 20 minutes or so before your race, moving to a chair closer to the door every few minutes as your race gets closer and others leave the room. I know this sounds dramatic, but I almost felt like I was moving closer to my death. I had this sense of dread, and I was listening to Eminem songs, which made it even more intense.
Then I walked out there in front of 20,000 people and it felt like everything was on me, all alone with the pool. I felt so much more nervous than either Athens or Beijing, and after that race, I decided the first big change was going to be my music. From there on out, I listened to Dido, Mumford & Sons ... anything calming and relaxing.
The music change helped a lot, and I feel like I hit my stride after that. I am so proud of my five gold medals from London, the most so far of my career. As an athlete you always set your goals as high as possible, so I wish my times in a couple of events were a little bit faster. But hey, that gives me something to work for in the future. And if it came down to it, I'd much rather have the gold medal than have the time I want and be out-touched at the wall!
The best moment of all came at the end of my last race, the 100-meter free. I didn't realize how much I wanted that gold medal until I finished, and I burst into tears. I was so excited; I had won this event in all three Paralympics, so it was very cool to do a three-peat. It also hit me right then that the competition was all over, and I had done everything I wanted to. I've never really cried after a race, but I was a mess then, and the crowd went crazy. It was so special.
After our races were done we had a day where we rode the London Eye and took a boat ride around the city. We were all so exhausted, though, that we fell asleep on the boat. When you compete for 10 days straight, you're bound to fall asleep anywhere you can!
Now I'm at home in Baltimore, resting and recovering, and trying to get over my London withdrawal. I needed both a mental and physical break from swimming, and it's fantastic to let my shoulders heal from the stress of training and to wake up without an alarm. To be just a normal girl for once.
I gave up ice cream the whole year before London. It's my ultimate weakness, and so the minute I was done competing, I went to McDonald's and got a McFlurry. Now on my to-do list: to eat a whole pint of Ben and Jerry's Cake Batter. I know I can do it.
I even got to take my first vacation in a really long time (I can't remember how long!) to Ocean City, Md. I went with my best friend Becky, and we just relaxed on the beach during the day, walked the boardwalk at night, and stuffed ourselves with Fisher's Popcorn. I may well gain 20 pounds by the time this break is over, but it's been fantastic.
I do miss swimming, though, and it's very weird not to be in the pool right now. After Beijing, I rushed into swimming within a week, and it was way too fast. So now I've told myself to take my time -- that swimming is always going to be there. In November, I'll head back to Colorado and slowly get back into training. Rio in 2016 is in my plans, and also, I have a big visit to Russia next year!