By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, March 14, 2017
BJ Bedford Miller was a perfect fit for the opportunity that was before her in winning gold on a very memorable relay in Sydney at the 2000 Olympic Games. She was so articulate at Olympic Trials, overwhelmed in making the team; that the media latched onto her. And that followed through to Sydney, where her red, white and blue (and blonde) hair made a great photo even more memorable. She talks about that, and what Women’s History Month means, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Women's History Month -- what does it mean to you, as a role model and such an accomplished woman, to have a month celebrating this?BJ: When you shine light on a topic, you give permission to dive deeper, to understand at a new level. Women’s History Month gives an excuse to take a look at the amazing women who have come before us, paving the way for a better, more equal life we live today. And as a mom of a daughter, I hope my little girl knows she can do ANYTHING.
2. How does swimming lend itself to that celebration in terms of your experience?
BJ: My mom always told me anything was possible -- and bought me shirts that said, “Girls can do anything boys can do better!” since I had 3 older brothers!. Swimming was my vehicle to prove it. So, when I tell my daughter she can do anything, BE anything, I know it’s true because swimming proved it in my life.
3. How did swimming shape you -- I realize there are a million ways -- but just a few important ones?
BJ: You’re right – there are a million ways. The ones that pop to my head quickly: 1. Be on time --and on time is 15 minutes early! 2. Friends you share a lane with, push yourself to --and beyond -- your limits with, and who you trust to shave your back are lifelong friends you will never lose. 3. Dreams are IMPORTANT. It’s not whether you achieve them or not, it’s having them, chasing them, and aligning your life to make them possible. Those actions teach you how to set and achieve goals for the rest of your life.
4. Swimming seems one of few sports where women and men share billing -- is that accurate?
BJ: I don’t know the data behind that -- a great possible research project --, but it does seem that way. Depending on who wins the most medals, etc, I think the media loves to have an Olympic sweetheart of the games, and, although Michael Phelps has dominated the medal stand, we’ve had some incredible women, through history, in the sport. In recent history, Janet Evans, then Summer Sanders, then Amy Van Dyken, Misty Hyman, Natalie Coughlin, Missy Franklin and now Katie Ledecky seem to have stolen the hearts of America in their various Olympics. So, by my calculations… that appears to be a YES!
5. Whether it's accurate, how has that evolved since you became involved?
BJ: Well, for one thing, the times Keep. Getting. Faster!! All kidding aside, I think with more social media outlets and ways to communicate, for both men and women, America is getting a closer look at what goes on behind the scenes. I think we tried to be more curated back when I was swimming (no camera phones!), and now it’s more authentic, simply because there are cameras everywhere and your privacy is so much more uncommon.
6. Your gold in Sydney, the pic of that is so iconic -- what do you think when you look at it now?
BJ: I think about how fun it was to be there, and how proud I was to be a part of a team that was blazing trails. It was the end of a very long journey for me, one that started when I was five years old. And I think about cutting my hair and coloring it again.
7. Your daughter swims, what has that done for her in terms of development?
BJ: She says, “It’s given me something that I’m good at and that I’ve always just been able to do, like lean back on and enjoy.” As for development, it’s a huge confidence boost to a kid going into middle school to feel like she’s good at something. I also really like that she has another crew of friends – and swimmers are the best friends ever.
8. How did you feel when she decided to swim?
BJ: At first, I kind of resisted. But she just looked at me one day and said, “Mom, don’t you just wish you could LIVE under water?” At that point, I realized I was holding her back because I knew how hard swimming was and how much time it took… so I signed her up. And she really loves the water. Which, at the end of the day, is all it takes to be a swimmer!
9. What do young girls face or enjoy now compared to when you started -- has it or how has it changed?
BJ: I think that when I was swimming, there was more emphasis on yardage and on being skinny. Now, it’s about being fast and taking care of the whole athlete. At least that’s what I’ve seen in Arden’s practices with Vortex and Nelson Farm Gators (her summer club team). I love her coaches and the team. The entire group is really supportive and awesome.
10. Who are a couple of your role model women in the sport?
BJ: First, Betsy Mitchell. She was the best backstroker. I went to Texas due in no small part to the fact that she had competed there and I might get to learn from her. Now, she continues to inspire as an athletic director at Cal Tech. Second, Lea Ann Fetter also was a great role model for me. She was a senior at Texas when I was a freshman, and she was an incredibly tough competitor, she was a team player and she walked the walk by working really, really hard and swimming fast in every practice.
11. How did these women impact your life?
BJ: Betsy inspired me every day because her name was on the record board at Texas and that reminder was something I looked at every day as I swam, hoping to someday have my name replace hers. Lea Ann pushed me to race and push myself every day.
12. So many of you, from that 2000 team alone, have gone onto such different roles in life, all amazing in your own rights, what do you make of that?
BJ: I think it takes a lot to become an Olympian, to be a swimmer at a high level. We had brilliant, dedicated women on that team who would accept nothing less than your best effort, and got it by giving theirs. It just makes me feel so honored to have been among them. Truly.
13. Jill Sterkel has done so much, how did she impact you?
BJ: Oh man – how could I have forgotten to mention Jill as a role model? Jill is, first and foremost, an inspiration. As a person, as an athlete and as a mom. When Jill coached me at Texas, I wasn’t ready to take responsibility for my own swimming – and Jill was the kind of coach who wasn’t going to intimidate me into swimming fast. She taught me so much about how to be not just a great athlete, but really, how to be a better person. That’s incredibly important in college.
14. Title IX is one of the few successful quasi-affirmative action programs, how did that impact you to swim in college and get an education?
BJ: My mother played field hockey all through high school, and she was good. She said they made her play defense because she was the only one who could knock the ball the length of the field. But she had to stop when she got to college because there were no options for female athletes. My dad did crew, but my mom didn’t have that option. I had three brothers, two of whom competed collegiately, and I followed in their footsteps. Without Title IX, I doubt I would have had the same options, and not only did I have the opportunity to compete, but I had the opportunity to make a choice WHICH school to compete for. Swimming and Title IX allowed me to swim my way into two Ivy League Schools, Texas and several other great west-coast schools. The options for me as a female athlete were so much wider than even my own mom had just one generation removed. Again, I’m grateful.
15. What has changed the most since you were a collegiate and elite Olympic swimmer?
BJ: Well, my swim suits don’t fit anymore! I think the way we approach the sport has changed hugely. It’s no longer about yardage, yardage, yardage – it’s now about being smart about how you prepare athletes. Before it was just volume, or at least, that’s how we were. Now, you don’t have to do that to get great results. And I think the workouts are more tailored based on your events, your age, your gender… there’s so much data-driven information these days that I think it’s awesome!
16. Where is the sport headed and where is improvement still crucial?
BJ: My hope is the sport continues to improve and become even more data-driven. I think the way forward is through improvement in how we train, in how we compete and the hydrodynamics of form … I’m just excited to watch the sport keep on learning from itself and keep testing and pushing our boundaries. We have brilliant coaches and teams committed to getting faster, and as long as we do, we will keep being great.
17. Katie Ledecky, Simone, Lia, Maya, Lilly -- I can only imagine how you felt about this year's team
EVERY Olympic year, I am prouder and prouder to have taken part in this amazing Olympic tradition.
BJ: Maya DiRado’s 200 backstroke was the one I was the most thrilled with. She had a killer finish and came from behind, swam her own race – she OWNED it. I’m so incredibly proud of those women!!! They set a new bar for excellence and I can’t wait to see what happens in 2020!
18. What did these Olympics do for young women/girls swimmers?
BJ: I can tell you what they did for me when I was young. As a kid, we really kind of only knew there was this high level for football, baseball and basketball. And certainly not for women. When I watched the Olympics in 1984 and watched Matt Biondi, Betsy Mitchell, Carrie Steinseifer, Jill Sterkel, Tom Jager, Pablo Morales – I had a goal. I was 11. And that day, I decided I wanted to go to the Olympics. And then I set about achieving that goal. Before I saw the Olympics, I didn’t even know it was possible to swim on TV and win Olympic medals. The inspiration that young women will know watching these heroes will have ripples far into the future.
19. Everybody still loves you and talks about you so fondly because your journey was so real, your experience so genuine. In hindsight, how much did that add to your experiences and even challenges looking back so many years later?
BJ: I’m nothing if not authentic. I raced with all that I had, I tried to win and lose with grace, but through it all, I think I was an easy person to read. You always know exactly where you stand with me, even when my heart was broken and I didn’t make the ’96 team. In 2000, I had so many people pulling for me. So many family and friends in the form of swimmers, coaches and media folks that I felt like I would let them all down if I didn’t pull through. It may have added to the pressure, but at the end of the day, it was something I could share with this huge audience of people who had actively contributed to me being successful. And I worked really hard to let all the people who were pulling for me know – YOU MADE A DIFFERENCE (I’m also talking to YOU, Bob!). I believe we’re the sum of all our experiences, of all the interactions we have. Without every one I had leading up to the Olympics, any little thing could have changed and I might not have been the one on the awards stand that day. But thank goodness, it all lined up and I’m grateful to every person who shaped my life then, and now, when I love my life so incredibly much.
20. What do you see as the future for women in swimming, and what do you see in particular that could make it an even brighter future?
BJ: The more we can put ourselves on equal footing, the better. Natalie Coughlin’s times rivalled some of the men. Katie Ledecky’s certainly do. Back when I was at Texas, the distance guys used to bust their butts to not get beaten by Janet. The higher we set our standard, the faster we become and anything is possible. Keep racing the boys. Keep fighting for equal scholarships. Keep being the best, the smartest and the toughest, and I think the top will keep getting closer.
21. Bonus question: Who is another trailblazer woman in your mind who shaped you and inspired?
BJ: The most influential woman in my life was my mother. She raised me like she raised my three brothers – with the same rules, with the same treatment and with the same ideals. She imbued in me the spirit of equality that has led me into challenging fields with an “Anything-is-Possible” attitude I still brandish today. My mom is brilliant, she is tough, and she’s a born adventurer whose joi-de-vivre is beyond measure. As a mother to my own two kids now, I look at my husband and think, even when things get hard, that if my default is to be like my mom… we’re going to be ok. I love you, Mom.