By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, January 4, 2019
When she didn’t swim up to her own expectations and missed earning a spot on the 2016 Olympic Team. Annie Lazor decided it was time to leave swimming and start the next chapter of her life.
She got a job with a public relations firm in Auburn during her final semester, and following graduation, worked in the athletic department at the University of California Berkeley.
But that disappointing performance in Omaha the previous summer lingered – slowly realizing she had so much more in her than what her swims showed and returned with a much different attitude and viewpoint than when she left.
“I came back to swimming with a renewed perspective,” she said. “It’s easy to take the mundane, everyday grind for granted when you’re in the thick of it. But once I came back to swimming, I had to celebrate every small daily success I had because I had no choice.
“I knew it would take a long time for me to get back to the caliber I was at before I retired, and I had to be patient with myself, which was hard. It made every day I was struggling to get back in shape immensely easier mentally when I was able to recognize and celebrate something I did that day that I couldn’t do the days and weeks earlier.”
So far, Lazor’s return to swimming has proven to be the United States’ gain.
Last summer, she swam to a third-place finish at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Irvine, Calif. – earning her a spot on next summer’s Pan American team.
Last month in Hangzhou, China, Lazor beat a strong field – including U.S. teammate Bethany Galat, the 2017 World Championship silver medalist – to win her first international gold in the 200 breaststroke.
And while she’s had several weeks now to absorb and comprehend the upward swing her career is on, she said during the meet – even during the final race – she never expected to win.
“I trusted my training, and knew I would do well, but ultimately my coaches and I wanted me to go for the competitive experience, and whatever happened, I knew representing my country at one of the highest levels in the sport was something I’d be able to look back on and be proud of,” she said.
“Being able to win gold and silver for the USA with Beth – who is arguably one of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of swimming against – was an amazing way to close out the final day of Worlds.”
Lazor’s road to China – and Peru next summer and potentially Japan in 2020 – began when she was a precocious 5-year-old.
She started swimming at the athletic club across the street from her neighborhood on summer league, and despite her two brothers swimming, she doesn’t come from a swimming family.
She said her hook into the sport started as something purely recreational but developed into a sincere, lasting love.
“It was something that kept us occupied during the summer,” she said. “We would spend hours and hours every day at the pool. It became a staple in my childhood.”
It didn’t take long for Lazor to tap into her natural competitive nature in the water.
And as she progressed and became faster, her own expectations increased and fueled her desire to want to achieve more each time she dove into the water.
“I’m unbelievably competitive – when racing others and with myself,” she said. “I always want to be better than I was the previous practice, the previous round of a set, the previous time I raced.
“I love having the competitive adrenaline, and I think that’s what keeps me going when swimming gets tough.”
When she came out of retirement in 2017, Lazor said she began training again with her primary coach, John Hargis, from Auburn, who is now the head coach at Pitt.
During a trip to Indiana to visit her Auburn teammate and Hoosier post-graduate swimmer Ashley Neidigh, she fell in love with the environment, energy of the coaches and post-grads and could see why Indiana swimmers had experienced so much recent success at NCAAs as well as nationally and internationally.
Afterwards, she and Hargis reached out to Ray (Looze) and Mike (Westphal) to explore Indiana as a new training environment for her.
The result of that change in environment and training is largely what Lazor credits for her continued ascendance into the upper echelon among the world’s top swimmers.
“It's been great for me mentally and physically to train with other postgrads, and to take on the training at IU,” said Lazor, a finalist in the 200 breast at 2016 Olympic Trials. “The breaststroke group we have is unparalleled; there are always people who are ‘on’ every day.
“Training with and being around people like (Olympians) Lilly (King) and Cody (Miller) on a daily basis opened my eyes to new standards I needed to set in my training in order to be more successful. Mike and Ray have mastered the balance of college program and postgrads, and make us feel as if we're part of the team while still competing as individuals.”
Her first test came at Phillips 66 Nationals, where she nearly went a personal-best time after less than a year of training.
That result gave her the “mentality of being pleased with whatever happened in finals,” where she finished with her career-high placing of third behind King and runner-up Galat.
The whole experience has been a revelation for Lazor, who said she will swim through 2020 Olympic Trials and then decide from there if she’s still loving the sport and experiencing personal success.
Her abbreviated career experience at Cal gave her a glimpse at the “real world,” so whatever happens moving forward, she said she knows she’s more than prepared.
“If I was told a year prior that I would be going a best time and getting third, then winning short course worlds a few months later, I would have called you crazy,” said Lazor, the bronze medalist in the 200 breast at 2015 Pan Ams. “I truly believe having the perspective of enjoying the small successes every day since coming back from retirement has been a huge advantage in how I approach my races now.
“Aside from working hard every day and being disciplined with my daily goals, I know there is nothing I can do to put myself on the 2020 Olympic team right now. Taking things one day at a time, one meet at a time, one race at a time makes the stretch of reaching the ultimate goal in 2020 much more attainable.”