Four-time Olympic medalist Maya DiRado will be at Big Swim Big Kick April 29. Kids will have the opportunity to meet Maya and take photos.
Maya DiRado went into the 2016 Rio Olympics knowing it would be her first and last. The ending was nothing short of perfect, finishing her career with a gold medal in a 200-meter backstroke thriller. Maya walked away from the sport the breakout star of the Rio Games, earning a medal in every event she competed in (two golds, one silver, and one bronze).
At age 23, Maya could continue swimming, but the Stanford grad is ready to start the next chapter of her life. Before she punched her ticket to Rio, she accepted a job at McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm. We caught up with the four-time medalist and learned about her journey to the Games, that defining Olympic moment, and how sports have shaped her as a person.
Q: How did you get started in swimming?
A: I started in synchronized swimming when I was 5 years old. I really loved the pool, so after a year, I started swimming with my local club team.
Q: What did you love about the sport? Is there a specific moment that stands out?
A: At the beginning, it was just a lot of fun. I played multiple sports, but I was best at swimming. I enjoyed being with my friends, the practices, and being in the water. I came to appreciate later the clear feedback you get from setting goals, working hard, and accomplishing them. I specifically remember the first time I understood the butterfly stroke. I was able to get the rhythm. It was the little things, the breakthroughs, that I really enjoyed.
Q: What challenges did you have to overcome?
A: Early on, staying motivated was probably the most challenging. In middle school and the beginning of high school, you’re missing out on certain of experiences because of the sport. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to swim in college. I had to realize there was value in waking up early, going to practice, working hard, and competing.
Q: How did you stay motivated?
A: It’s a combination of thinking about the bigger picture and the small victories along the way. If you’re struggling with motivation, think about your goals and how hard you have to work to get there. Other times it’s about the victories in pushing through the little things like completing six dolphin kicks.
Q: When did the possibility of making the Olympic team become a reality?
A: I thought I was going to be done swimming in 2014, when my NCAA eligibility at Stanford was up. That year went really well, so I was convinced to swim through the summer. I was qualifying for bigger meets, so I had something to train for in 2015, and then I got hired by McKinsey. They were great about letting me defer to see where swimming would take me. Everything was lining up, and it made sense to go for it. I had to adjust my thinking, reevaluate my goals, and prepare to work really hard for the next year and a half.
Q: How would you describe your Olympic experience?
A: It was a perfect experience. I never really thought I would be at the Olympics. I grew up watching, and experiencing it was incredible. I have a clear memory of putting on our opening ceremony gear, even though we couldn’t go because we had to compete the next day, and walking through the athletes’ village taking pictures. The meet was a blur but so fun and so relaxed. Everyone was having a great time and swimming out of their minds. There are so many things you can’t control, so for it to go as well as it did was just unbelievable.
Q: The 200-meter backstroke was your last race. You were trailing Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu until the last 50-meters, only to out touch her by a fingertip to win gold. It was one of those defining Olympic moments. What was going through your mind during that race?
A: That whole day was weird. It was a strange combination of trying to enjoy it and recognize that this was my last race ever, but at the same time I had to still focus and do what I normally do. I remember saying goodbye to my coach before I left for the ready room, and before we walked out, Michael [Phelps] came up to me and said, “Let’s go, you got this.”
After that, I don’t really remember anything until the last 50 meters of the race. I noticed the crowd getting louder, and I thought, “Maybe I’m catching up. This is so cool that I’m racing for a gold medal.” I still did not expect to win. When I touched the wall and saw my name at the top, l thought, “No way, it can’t be true, it’s too perfect of an ending.” It was just a crazy moment.
Watch the race here.
Q: When you went into the games, you knew it would be your first and last. Did that put more pressure on you or less?
A: I think it put less pressure on me. I’m ending my career at the Olympics. That alone is amazing enough to feel no pressure. I got to swim from a place of relaxation and peace.
Q: How do you keep calm under pressure?
A: I think it’s years of practice. The big moments have gotten bigger and bigger, but knowing I’ve prepared and worked hard gives me the most confidence. All I can do is execute.
Q: What was your favorite moment of the Olympics?
A: There are two moments that stand out.
- Watching Simone [Manuel] win her gold medal. It was the only race I was able to watch from the stands. I was sitting on a chair, and when we realized she was going to win, I got down on my knees because we were freaking out. We were getting so emotional. Being able to celebrate as a team was rewarding after working so hard.
- Standing on the podium for my 200-meter backstroke. I looked up and saw my parents and husband. I was laughing and crying because the moment was so crazy.
Q: How do you think swimming has impacted you as a person?
A: It’s been such a huge part of my life. I don’t know what I would look like without it. Swimming taught me it’s not always going to be easy, but if you commit yourself to something you enjoy, things are generally going to be OK. You’ll find some way to excel if you set up the process well and put in the work. Sports build character; that’s what you’re doing every day you decide to wake up instead of pressing snooze. You‘re in control in a lot of things in your life, and you make the choices to get better.
Q: What advice do you have for kids in sports?
A: Sports are a unique vehicle for learning skills that are helpful for the rest of your life. I think it is so important for kids to have something where they see the results of hard work. You have to enjoy the day-to-day process with whatever you’re doing. You can’t be a 12-year-old thinking about Olympic glory. You have to work on getting better every day and enjoy the little accomplishments.
Q: What are you most looking forward to at Big Swim Big Kick?
A: I’m excited to see the joy on kids’ faces when they are just playing and having fun. Sports are games. A race is a game. It’s play.