By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, September 7, 2017
To say Olympian Whitney Hedgepeth is proud of her kids – Dakota, Sage and Payton – is an understatement.
Dakota, her 18-year-old daughter, is a world-class swimmer, just like her mom; Sage plays varsity football and baseball at 15 years old; and 11-year-old Payton also excels at baseball and football.
“My weekends are almost always spent cheering someone on at some sporting event,” she said. “Life is good!”
When she’s not chasing her kids to a swim meet or football game, Hedgepeth, a member of the 1988 Olympic team and a gold and double silver medalist on the 1996 Olympic team, coaches masters swimming at Longhorn Aquatics in Austin, Texas.
She has coached non-stop since she retired following the 1996 Atlanta Games – first age-group kids until she had children of her own, and then switching to masters.
Hedgepeth said after winning three medals in Atlanta – the last time the United States hosted the summer Olympics – she knew it was time for her to wrap up her stellar career that included 7 gold medals at the Olympic, World, Pan Pacific and World University Games levels.
“My goal had always been to win a medal (at the Olympics),” she said. “I finished with three medals (in 1996), so it seemed like a perfect stopping point to me.
“I felt it was time to move on. I was engaged and I was happy with the way things finished up. It was hard to make a living swimming back then. Prize money and stipends were just getting started.”
This summer, Hedgepeth had the profound honor of watching Dakota follow in her mom’s footsteps by making the FINA World Championship team in the 200 butterfly.
She said she encouraged Dakota to try all different kinds of sports while she was growing up, but she always made it a point that all of her kids knew how to swim.
But Hedgepeth said she didn’t necessarily want her daughter to become a swimmer like mom.
It just kind of happened that way.
It was in her genes.
“I made sure she knew how to swim well, but I didn't want her to be a swimmer. I thought it would be too much pressure for her,” said Hedgepeth, who missed making the 1992 Olympic team twice with two third-place finishes in the 200 backstroke and 200 freestyle (there was no 800 freestyle relay event for women at this time or she would have qualified for the team.)
“She played basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, dance, tennis, tap, karate, and volleyball. Swimming was definitely more her thing. Eventually, after all other sports failed to excite her, I let her swim.”
Hedgepeth accompanied Dakota to Budapest, Hungary, this summer for her first senior-level international meet.
Prior to her event, Hedgepeth, understanding what her daughter was experiencing from her own competitive years, told Dakota to enjoy the ride and take in as much as she could.
Having experienced her own disappointment – first, at the 1988 Olympics (8th in the 200 individual medley) and four years later at 1992 Olympic Trials – she wanted Dakota to remember what brought her to Budapest and to believe in herself no matter what happened during her races.
“I was super excited for her and so proud,” she said. “Dakota is a racer. I told her to remember she earned that spot and no one gave it to her. We had a great time. It was a super fun and fast meet.”
Hedgepeth said it was, in fact, her disappointment of not making the 1992 Olympic team that fueled her desire to train four more years for a shot at the 1996 Games.
During that time, she focused her energy and training on her backstroke events, realizing that it was more fun and easier to train for them than the butterfly or the individual medley
At 1996 Olympic Trials, she went on to win the 100 back and finished second in the 200 back en route to making her second Olympic team – a dream she remembers telling her mother she wanted ever since she was young.
“I loved both Olympics,” said Hedgepeth, who got involved with swimming by following her older sister to summer league practice when she was 6. “In 1988, my goal was to make the Olympic Team, and in 1996, my goal was to medal. I needed time and confidence to believe I belonged at that level.”
While she admits she never experienced any regrets or thoughts of returning to competitive training and swimming after she retired, Hedgepeth said she learned many valuable lessons during her years in the pool.
Most notably, she learned failing hurts, but you heal and life goes on.
“You pick yourself up and try again or find what will make you the happiest and pursue that with passion,” said Hedgepeth, who doesn’t swim much these days but runs and competes in marathons to stay in shape. “I am most proud of how hard I trained. I don't think you could find anyone who said I didn't work hard.
“What I always loved about swimming is that you were responsible for your own outcomes. It was always worth the hard work, sacrifice and everything else that’s involved with training and competing at the highest level. Everyone has doubts periodically when things are really hard. You have to stay positive and keep your goals in mind.”