By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, January 12, 2017
Even though she earned her only Olympic team experience, 12 years ago in Athens, Rhi Jeffrey only just recently stopped training and competing.
While she hasn’t been on a U.S. National Team in years, Jeffrey, who tied the knot on New Year’s Eve when she and boyfriend, D.J. Poulin, eloped, was planning to compete at Olympic Trials this past summer before a recurring shoulder injury – and her coaching career – derailed her plans.
“I had qualified for 2016 Trials, but ended up staying home as I was already coaching,” she said. “Trials has evolved so much in the last eight years! It was going to Trials in 2012 that made me want to keep going for 2016.
The show they are putting on for those out in Omaha is absolutely incredible, and I am excited to see where it goes.”
Jeffrey originally retired shortly before the 2008 Olympic Trials when the same shoulder injury and subsequentpain made training and competing unbearable.
She said she knew it was time to rest and concentrate on things that she had missed out on when swimming was her primary focus.
It didn’t take long for Jeffrey’s attention to change to another aspect of swimming: coaching.
It was something she had dabbled with in college, so when her competitive career worked like it was finished, she was still able to be connected to the sport.
“I always had ideas about being a coach,” she said. “When I was in college (University of Southern California), I worked with Schubert Swim Camp over the summer and realized how much I liked working with young swimmers and the feeling of spreading the deep passion I have for the sport. It felt like a natural transition for me, going from student to teacher.”
Her coaching career has taken her across the country, and she’s currently the head coach of the Portsmouth (N.H.) Cannonball Swim Club.
“I started swim lessons when I was 6,” Jeffrey said. “My mother was approached by the lessons instructor (at her local club) and was told I needed to be on a team, that I had a natural feel for the water.
“After that, swimming was the only thing I ever did. To me, there is nothing more calming than being in the water, and I loved how my body felt when I pushed it further than I thought possible. Sometimes the sacrifices and hard work seemed like it wouldn’t be worth it, but looking back at the bigger picture, I can definitely say I wouldn't change a single thing.”
Strangely enough, until she reached her teen years in the sport, Jeffrey said she never though she would or could be an Olympian.
As a matter of fact, she hated the sport until she was 12 or 13, but when she made her first Junior Nationals final and her first Olympic Trials cuts, she started thinking more seriously about her future in swimming.
“That’s when I sort of woke up and went ‘Oh man! If I can do this without caring, what will happen if I actually work hard?’” she said. “After that, the Olympics was the only thing that made sense. If you are going to do something, be the best at it.”
At the height of her career, Jeffrey was one of the best freestylers in the world, qualifying for the 2004 Olympic team as an 18-year-old in the 200 freestyle. She went on to win gold as a member of the 800 freestyle relay team in Athens.
Once her shoulder recovered, Jeffrey made a return to training while living and coaching in New Zealand prior to the 2012 Olympic Trials. She competed at Trials, finishing 48th in the 50 free, 56th in the 100 free and 57th in the 200 free events.
After trials, she returned to New Zealand but ended up relocating stateside to her original home town of Boston and is now in New Hampshire. Although unofficially, Jeffrey said the wear and tear on her shoulder led her to final retirement from the sport after the New England Senior Championships in December 2015.
“While I didn’t swim very well, the memories will last forever because that was the first meet for a newly formed team I got to be part of in Massachusetts,” she said. “My kids were beyond excited to see me compete.”
“I’m still working on my shoulder, so for now I will probably stick to land sports to stay in shape,” she said. “But if I get the go ahead to start up again, I would definitely not say no to that. However, it would most likely be in Master’s competition.”
When she looks back over her career, Jeffrey said she succeeded due to a combination of natural talent and hard work.
She said she knows she had a certain level of understanding of the water from the beginning, but she wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as she was without putting everything she had into her training.
“I tell this to all my young swimmers: hard work beats out talent when talent doesn’t work hard EVERY time,” she said. “Maybe not when they are 12 and under, but as they get older, they will see that the kids who work harder are always they ones that continue to improve.”
And as far as her injury-shortened career is concerned, memories of her Olympic experience and time in New Zealand stand at the forefront, but her favorite thing has been the friendships and connections she made in the sport.
She knows her life wouldn’t be the same without it.
“Nothing prepares you for the real world like swimming does,” she said. “The structure, the hours, the healthy competition, the accountability are just some of the things that really made being an adult seem less scary. Nothing I have encountered in my adult life has been more challenging than anything I faced while swimming as a kid.
“Swimming gave me an identity. I know some people step away from the sport or move on to do other things, but I eat, breathe, bleed, and cry this sport. As a coach, I get just as nervous for my kids’ swims as I did my own. It’s even worse because I have zero control over it. I will be involved in this sport until the day I die. I simply could not imagine my life without the water.”