By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, April 13, 2017
Although he hasn’t officially ended his competitive swimming career, Will Copeland is enjoying being on the other side of the whistle these days.
Since finishing short of his Olympic bid last summer in Omaha, Copeland has been coaching at Imagine Swimming in New York City – something totally different from what he’s done in the past.
“I’m working with the really young kids – four-year-olds – and it’s quite different for me, but I’m really enjoying it,” said Copeland, who enjoyed his best performance at his third Olympic Trials last summer.
“It’s really more teaching than coaching. We learn about water safety and a love for the water. It’s refreshing because it’s nice to still be involved with the sport without being competitive. It’s relaxing and enjoyable beyond anything I imagined.”
It’s also something Copeland never thought he would be doing at the conclusion of his swimming career that included a gold medal as a member of the 400 freestyle relay at the 2009 World University Games.
He’ll be 31 next week, and while that’s no longer “old age” for competitive swimmers, after coming close to realizing his Olympic dream last summer – he finished seventh in the 100 freestyle to miss making the team by one on the 400 freestyle relay – Copeland decided it was time to move on.
He did it once before following the 2012 Olympic Trials but felt the itch to return more than two years later when he decided to pursue his dream one more time.
And despite coming so close last year, Copeland said he has no regrets for giving it his all – again.
“I was incredibly disappointed in 2012, so I retired and stepped away from swimming,” said Copeland, a Cal-Berkeley Bears alumni. “But after a couple of years, I started lifting weights without swimming, and I gained a lot of muscle, felt really good physically and decided to give swimming another shot.”
Once he started back in the water, Copeland said he took a different approach to training and thinking about the sport than he had done in the past.
He sought the counsel of a sports psychologist and began training with Master’s swimmers at the local pool in California.
Shortly after that, he returned to his hometown of Lexington, Va., to train with his high school coach, Leslie Ayers, but decided shortly after that he needed a much bigger change of environment and coaching style if he was going to find his best swimmer.
He chose a change of scenery – and country – and picked up and moved to Sydney, Australia, to train alongside sprint World Champion James Magnussen at the Ravenswood Club on the city’s North shore.
While Magnussen worked to recover from reconstructive shoulder surgery done months earlier, Copeland said he spent his time focusing on getting faster.
And he did. Later that summer at 2015 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, he finished third in the 100 and fifth in the 50 freestyle events.
And while some of the top U.S. sprinters were absent to compete at FINA World Championships, Copeland said he left that meet with renewed enthusiasm – knowing his decision to return was the right one.
“We worked together in a very small group of sprinters (in Australia), and that worked really well for all of us,” said Copeland, a member of this year’s U.S. National Team. “It was totally different than what I had done in the past – much more yardage and hitting our race pace on the back end much harder. I had to learn to trust this new process, but I had faith it would work because of what James has done in sprinting.
“I needed a change, and moving to Australia, even for a short time, was a good way for me to find new ways to rethink what I was doing so I could get faster. I knew if I wanted to contend at Trials in 2016, I had to keep dropping time, and I did.”
After his 100 free final at Trials, Copeland understandably was so disappointed and distraught about coming so close and not making the team that he considered not swimming the 50 freestyle.
He said almost making the final in that event – he tied with Josh Schneider for eighth in the semifinals but then lost his spot in the final when Schneider edged him in a swim-off – and swimming a season-best time made the meet a little less difficult to accept because he exceeded his expectations in that race.
Still, after taking a few months away from the sport – traveling around to decompress and gain perspective – after Trials, Copeland said he is sure he is now finished with competitive swimming, although he said that in 2012.
“I don’t see myself competing at a high level again, but never say never. I’ve already proven that,” he said. “I am very happy with what I did in my career, especially this last go-round. I took a shot, and how things went is what you sign up for as a competitive athlete.”
For now, Copeland said he’s focused on the potential to start his own swim school back in California – and his experience with Imagine Swimming has made him realize he can still be involved with the sport on the front end even though he no longer takes to the blocks himself.
“I know I want to stay in the sport, and I’ve really enjoyed teaching kids how to swim, if nothing else so they can be safe in the water; every child should know how to swim,” he said. “I’d love to get started with the school this summer, but I’m still getting everything together, so it might be later.
“I’ve always wanted to have my own thing, and starting with a swim school is a great way to do that. I’ve been approached about a couple of coaching positions, but I want to work with the kids at the basic levels of swimming. That’s where I know I can make an impact on the future of swimming and safety.”