By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, March 10, 2017
After a disappointing result at Olympic Trials last summer, Claire Donahue faced an unfamiliar dilemma.
Should she return home to Tennessee to train with the University of Tennessee team or stay in Florida without her longtime coach, who left to accept a new opportunity elsewhere?
A third option – to retire with a stellar resume that includes an Olympic and two World Championship teams – after missing out on making a second Olympic team – never entered her mind.
As far as Donahue was concerned, that wasn’t an option.
She still had more to do in the pool.
“Ultimately, my decision came down to wanting to be closer to my family,” said Donahue, who has been training in Knoxville since last august. “I could have followed (Coach) Bruce (Marchionda) to North Carolina, but I still would have been far from my family. Being with my family won.”
A factor for Donahue in making the move back to Tennessee after a year training with the South Florida Aquatic Club in Ft. Lauderdale was the desire for a change of scenery following Trials.
Going into the meet in Omaha – and having made the Olympic team four years earlier in the same pool – Donahue was one of the favorites to repeat in Rio.
But after having changed teams the year before and getting used to a new training environment – not to mention some really fast swims from her competitors – Donahue came up short.
She finished sixth in the 100 butterfly final and walked away from the meet confused about what happened and especially what she could do next to get back to where she was.
In retrospect, she now wonders if her results would have been different had things not changed with her coach and she would have been able to stay at Western Kentucky – where she had lived and trained for nine years.
Was being uprooted a year out from Trials too much for her to overcome? While difficult to say, it definitely entered her mind and impacted her training.
“I go back and forth whether or not I would have been better if I was able to stay (at WKU),” she said. “I lived in Kentucky for 9 years, and being uprooted like that was one of the hardest things I've had to go through.
“But even if I had known I would have been a 2016 Olympian if I was able to stay at WKU, I'm not sure I'd want to change my going to South Florida Aquatic Club. The people I met there and the family they became are much more special. That year was one of my favorites in swimming even with the devastating swim (at Trials). I think that's what swimming is all about. It's not about how fast you go or the records you break. It's about the people.”
While disappointed with her result at Trials, Donahue decided to head to Minnesota to compete in the U.S. Open a few weeks later to see if Trials were a fluke.
What she discovered was that it wasn’t an aberration. She hadn’t swum a personal-best time in four years (Olympic Trials), and she knew she needed to make a change of some sort to mix things up.
Donahue said she’s benefitting from that change in Knoxville – and while she hasn’t seen any time drops yet, she’s fully engaged in the opportunity and excited for what’s still to come.
“I decided I wasn’t going to let my race at Trials be my last race; I couldn’t let that be the way I ended my career because I know I still have a faster time in me,” said Donahue, who broke 59 seconds for the first time a couple of weeks before 2012 Olympic Trials and went even faster a few weeks later to make the Olympic team.
“I had been so focused on Trials for so long, that it never really entered my mind that I wouldn’t make the Olympic team. I hadn’t pictured anything else after that. When that didn’t happen, it forced me to change my perspective – and it made me realize I still love swimming. I wasn’t ready to stop yet.”
The change of scenery is suiting Donahue – particularly being just a short drive from her parents and brothers and sister, and especially being closer to her 3-year-old nephew.
She said being able to stop over and have dinner with mom and dad or spend an afternoon or evening with her family has improved her overall attitude and outlook.
“I love being with my family, and I think having them close has improved my opinion and approach to swimming,” she said. “Before, I was a 16-hour drive from them, and I was only able to see them twice in the previous year. That was hard for me.”
She’s also learning some new approaches to training and competition under new coach Matt Kredich in Knoxville.
Having always been a hard worker who has never backed away from putting in lots of hours in the water, Donahue is being “reprogrammed” under her new coach to think and train smarter and more efficiently.
“Swimming a lot and hard worked for me in the past, but I’m older now (28) and my body has changed, so I’ve learned that I need to change up my training to get the results that I want and need,” Donahue said.
“I’ve always changed my stroke – it’s totally different than before – and we’re combing sprint work with some endurance work so that I come back stronger over the back half of my race. I’m just being a lot more efficient with my training.”
Donahue said being “efficient” doesn’t necessarily mean she’s swimming less than before.
“I’m changing things up; some weeks, I’m lifting four days a week, while I’m only lifting three other weeks,” said Donahue, who didn’t leave London empty-handed in 2012, winning gold as a member of the 400 medley relay team. “Same goes for in the pool. Some days, I swim long sets, and others I swim shorter sets. It’s all about variety and efficiency.”
And while she said she isn’t seeing any direct change in terms of faster times yet, Donahue is glad she made the change and sees a bright future – one that includes Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this summer – in swimming.
After that meet – and depending upon how things go – she said she’ll make a decision about whether or not she wants to keep pushing forward in the sport or take the next step and move on to the next phase of her life.
“I’m really excited about this change (in coaching and location), and I’m confident that I will start seeing the impact of the changes we’re making in my swimming,” said Donahue, who has a degree in social work but is considering coaching as a profession post-swimming.
“I’ve embraced the change, and that positivity has put me in the right space mentally. I’m loving what I’m doing now, and I’m passionate about keeping swimming for this year and possibly longer.”