By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, January 6, 2017Tom Shields knows exactly to whom he should credit his recent success in the swimming pool.
Not only is she his inspiration, but she has helped him organize, prioritize and ultimately capitalize on his immense swimming talent.
Needless to say, he’s pretty grateful.
“I wouldn't be a professional without her, and I likely wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to try,” he said. “Before meeting Gianna, I was a happy-go-lucky, inconsistent, yards swimmer. To be completely honest I thought making the Olympic Team was too hard. My dreams in high School were NCAA titles, and trying to be the fastest yards swimmer ever in something.
“We met right before I broke the NCAA record in the 200 fly at Pac 12's, but I lost it at NCAA's as well as the 100 fly, eeking out a win in the 100 back. I was emotional, all over the place, and really hard to get to focus, just ask any of my coaches. The next year, I won the 100's, and lost the 200 fly to a teammate, going on to get 4th at Trials. The difference in approach and consistency was night and day from 2011 to 2012, and has only gotten better since.”
In addition to his swimming, Gianna’s influence also helped Shields improve his grades – not that she “mommed” her way into his life. But he credits her for helping provide a reason for doing things like chores, errands, homework, even abs.
She became his manager in 2013, and helped him secure a sponsorship deal with Kellogg’s, a partnership he said he knows would have never happened without her operations skills or follow through.
“Obviously, people at Krispr and AEG, and especially my agent Janey Miller, you could easily say the same about, but Gianna was the driving force from our end as I was in Kazan or at camp through most of the talks,” he said. “So more than I think anyone really knows, Gianna deserves a lot of credit for the way things worked out for me.”
While Gianna may have inspired Shields to want more in the pool – particularly long course swimming competition – ultimately, he deserves most of the credit for putting in the work and being dedicated to changing the path of his career and the perception that he garnered during his days swimming and training at the University of California-Berkeley.
One of the most successful short course swimmers ever – he won six individual NCAA championships (four, 100 butterfly; two, 200 fly) during his years at Cal and brought home seven medals this past fall from Short Course World Championships – Shields earned the reputation of being a short-course specialist.
He admits his goal early in his career was to be the “best NCAA swimmer I could be,” and often that came at the expense of his long course results.
But that all changed in 2014 – a year after he finished his collegiate career and focused on training for long course swimming – at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
Shields won both the 100 and 200 butterfly events – edging longtime rivals Michael Phelps and Tyler Clary in the process – to earn a spot on his first FINA World Championship team.
And while he left Kazan with no individual medals – he finished fourth in the 100 fly and eighth in the 200 fly and won gold as a member of the 400 medley relay team – Shields said the overall experience and breakthrough did wonders for his confidence and psyche moving forward.
“(Worlds) give me a ton of confidence (moving toward Trials in 2016),” he said. “I swim well with experience, and although I didn't touch those times from Worlds (at Trials), it gave me the perspective to try to get next to MP (Phelps) in both finals and stay tough no matter what.
In Rio, Shields said he endured “a challenging, long process” but left the country very disappointed with how the Games progressed for him.
He did win gold as a member of the 400 medley relay, but finished a disappointing seventh in the 100 fly and an even more disappointing 20th in the 200 fly.
“I feel I underperformed almost every step of the way and by the time I got to the final of the 100 in Rio, I was just broken and ready to not be in the race,” he said. “That’s hard to admit in an interview, but I am truly sorry for what I think amounts to an embarrassing showing for the butterfly squad we have, to my coaches and the USA swimming community at large.
“That being said, I know now that I can never question if I walked down the right path in my life, and if I can figure it out, long course and I guess it’s cool to kind of put that to bed in a sense. I'm tired of qualifying for a job, and then not doing it. Really tired of it. So if I qualify for another team again, I will do everything I can to come home with a W.”
But the bottom line for Shields is that he’s currently swimming – planning to compete for the rest of 2017 and then decide where to go from there – for his family and for himself.
And to prove those doubters who thought he was primarily a short course swimmer wrong.
“I was honestly disappointed with how the Games went for me personally, despite my excitement for both my Cal teammates and USA brethren who performed amazingly,” he said. “I learned a lot, but unfortunately too late to really do anything about it.
“My plan is to get better and be competitive for World titles and Olympic golds. I had fun with a little yards racing this fall, skipping the World Cup events. I've come home pretty empty handed these last three years, and there is always more speed. And I want to impact the sport in bigger ways. There are things we can do better as a community.”