DARIEN -- It's not every day a three-time Olympic gold medalist breezes through town. It's even more of a rarity to be taught by one, so the members of the Darien YMCA Piranhas weren't about to miss the chance to hit the pool with Rebecca Soni on Saturday at the Darien YMCA.
Soni, who holds the world record for fastest time in the 200 breaststroke and has claimed the gold medal in the event at the 2012 Olympics in London as well as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, spent the day with the team, doling out instruction in the pool, giving a motivational speech in the YMCA's basketball gymnasium and sending all team members home with an autographed picture.
"They're great. They were really interested in what I was saying, which is always really good. The young kids especially were asking so many questions," Soni said. "They were really into it and that was really good to see. What it comes down to is how much they enjoy swimming, and they seem like a really good group of kids."
Soni scored gold at the 2008 Olympics with an upset victory in the 200 breaststroke in 2:20.22, setting a new world record before defending her title in the 2012 Olympics with a time of 2:19.59, breaking her own record.
Soni's third Olympic gold medal came as part of the 100 medley relay team in 2012, and she's also captures three Olympic silver medals: The 100 breaststroke in 2008, the 100 relay team in 2008 and the 100 breaststroke in 2012.
"It was amazing. In 2008, it was way more than I ever expected. I was just thrilled to be there and be part of the experience," Soni said. "Making the team was my goal, and I thought I was racing for a silver medal, and I ended up winning a gold. It was an amazing feeling. In London I was striving for a time of under 2:20."
Getting the opportunity to be up close and personal with Soni allowed the Piranhas to identify with one of the best swimmers their sport has to offer.
Several members of the Piranhas, which include swimmers between the ages of 7 and 17, indicated that they were surprised at the universal similarities of the mental side of swimming, even at the Olympic level.
"I thought it was really interesting just to kind of see how even swimmers at this elite level still have the same kind of thoughts and challenges that people at the Darien YMCA would have, too," said Meghan Slaughter, a member of the Piranhas and senior on Darien High's swimming team. "I think it's really cool to know that I've met her, seen her and heard her story."
"At her meets, she gets as nervous as anybody else does. They all have the same feelings and they're still just like us," said Phoebe Slaughter, a member of the Piranhas and a freshman at New Canaan Country School. "I thought it was really fun and interesting, especially getting in the pool with her."
Piranhas coach Henk Jansen, who previously welcomed Olympic Gold Medalists Diana Munz and Garret Weber-Gale to speak to the team, indicated that there's generally a bump in enthusiasm in the days that follow such a decorated swimmer's visit.
"Maintaining it long term is the hard part, but the days and weeks after, I always have a couple kids coming up to me saying that they're inspired now to come to practice more and things like that," Jansen said. "I hope they're inspired and that they realize they don't have to be great at 9 or 10 or 11 years old to be great at 18, 19, 20 years old."
Lia Barsanti, a member of the Piranhas and senior on Darien High's swim team, echoed her coach's sentiment.
"It definitely makes you more excited about swimming again when you get to meet someone like her," she said. "We found out two months ago over the summer and we've been extremely excited ever since. It was great. I'm a breaststroker, too, so having her teach my stroke was really awesome. She gave a lot of pointers on the way she teaches the stroke and made us do a lot of drills."
And as excited as the Piranhas were to have Soni, the three-time Olympic gold medalist said she'd be open to coming back to the Darien YMCA.
"Absolutely. They had great questions and I didn't really have a particular plan of what I wanted to say," Soni said. "I just kind of went with whatever seemed appropriate. It's always fun to recount my story and hopefully get some people to learn a thing or two from it."
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