Between training for Olympic trials, a recent engagement to fellow swimmer Dominik Meichtry, and activity in water conservation campaigns, 25-year old Jessica Hardy has her hands full.
Despite her busy schedule, the 11-time World Record holder took a few minutes to catch up with Aquatics International to fill us in on her career — and why she continues to get in the pool every day.
Q: When did you start swimming?
A: I started swimming at 7 in a neighborhood community pool. My mom would take us there and we would hang out at the pool. There was a team that congregated there so I asked my mom if I could go beat them. I guess my competitive nature started way too young.
Q: You’ve been active in other sports as well. What were they and how did you make the transition to swimming?
A: I did every other sport imaginable growing up in addition to swimming the whole time. In high school, I played water polo and swam, but my junior year, I quit water polo to focus on swimming. I had made the Olympic trials with only swimming three times a week and really mainly focusing on water polo. So I moved club teams and started swimming for Dave Salo, who at the time was with Irvine Novaquatics. It was like an hour commute for me every day in high school each way, so that was a big sacrifice. It was a good move, though. The first year I trained with him I was a 1:12 100m breaststroker. The next year I was at 1:06 100m breaststroke. And I broke a world record in 2005 after a year and a half of swimming with him.
Q: A lot has happened in your career thus far. What would you say has been the most interesting aspect of swimming?
A: I guess from a broad perspective, it’s the people you get to meet from all over the world and traveling all over the world. There’s people from everywhere from all backgrounds and getting exposed to that as a kid is really cool.
Q: Are there different things culturally people do in the swimming world?
A: Oh definitely. A lot of European coaches, for example, will smoke on deck even in an indoor pool, and we’re trying to work out really hard. Some of the coaches will wear speedos, and we’re not really used to that in the U.S. In training, in the U.S., we always swim down the right side of the lane and then flip and turn and come down the left side of the lane coming back so it’s just like how you would drive down the road here. But if you’re in the pool with Australian or British swimmers, they’ll go the opposite way, so it messes up your flip turn and a lot of people will get in head-on collisions.
Q: What has been one of the most challenging aspects of being a competitive swimmer?
A: The social sacrifices you have to make to be a successful swimmer are huge. Growing up in high school, especially, I wasn’t able to go out with my friends on the weekends as much as normal kids. Morning practices put a damper on how late you can stay up and your energy level throughout the day is really low all the time. You just have to be really mindful of your social exertion and swimming has to come first.
Q: Why did you choose swimming?
A: I think swimming really chose me, because I played every single sport and I sucked at everything else so really I didn’t have a choice; it was just that I was only good at swimming. What I love about swimming is that the reward from the hard work you put in is 100 percent equal so it’s not based on judges, it’s not based on political involvement from referees. It’s how hard you work and how fast you swim, which is awesome.
Q: What has been your fondest memory of your swimming career thus far?
A: Breaking two world records in the same race in 2009 (the 50m and the 100m breaststroke).
Q: Leading up to the Olympics, what are you most eager to experience and what are you looking forward to the most?
A: I think I was 13 years old watching the Sydney Games while on vacation with my family, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. My stepdad said, “You could do that too. Why not, you?” And I thought, “No, I could never make the Olympics.” That was the first time someone had told me I could do it. In 2005, when I broke the world record and made the national team, I really put myself into a position where I really could have an Olympic dream. I’ve been at an elite level for so many years, but I haven’t had the chance to go to the Olympics in my career. So to finally have the opportunity this year with so many barriers in my career, I’m really appreciative to have the opportunity. But I am hoping to win some hardware at the Olympics this summer.
Q: How important is a family’s support for an athlete?
A: Supportive parents are so helpful, and I was lucky to have my mom and stepdad there. But all young swimmers need, is someone to believe in them, and to have confidence in themselves that they can do it too. Great things can happen. You never know.
Q: Earlier you mentioned some barriers? When you were banned from participating in the Olympics four years ago after testing positive for a banned stimulant, what did you learn from the experience and what insight would you give to somewhat else who might not be knowledgeable about supplemental products? (A sports arbitration panel later found Hardy had unknowingly and unintentionally consumed a contaminated nutritional supplement. Her suspension period was set to the minimum possible, one year.)
A: It’s a very scary topic because anything that’s a nutritional supplement, if it says supplemental facts instead of nutritional facts it’s not regulated by the FDA in the U.S. Everything on the label is not guaranteed to be exactly what it says. People go through lengthy discussions and claim they have tested products and have safe vitamins and nutritional supplements, but there is no guarantee. They cannot promise a clean product. If it’s not regulated by the FDA, it’s not safe. So I’ve learned how careful you need to be with everything you consume. Literally toothpaste: I have to look at the labels, and I don’t take anything that’s not poured with a closed lid that I watched being poured, even at a friend’s house. It gives me anxiety a little, watching how many people at swim meets take nutritional supplements.
Q: A lot of young, aspiring athletes look up to those in the limelight. What are some things you hope to share as a role model?
A: The biggest thing is that it can be them, too. A world record holder, world champion, national team member, hopefully an Olympian. I am no different than them. I was their speed at one point. I was them at one point, and all I did was keep trying and keep believing in myself. I’m a goofball just like them, so that’s all they need to know. They are just like me. They just need to keep working hard, and keep believing in themselves.
Q: When it comes to community, you have been active in some charitable causes. What issues are most important to you?
A: I work with the Long Beach Water Department on water conservation, but I’m hoping to spread that to more than just in my own community. It’s a message we should recognize worldwide. I grew up in the water, living on the water in California, swimming and playing water polo and surfing, but the importance of having water is really understated. In California, we have a lot of drought problems. We waste water and don’t make smart decisions. So educating people on how to improve their habits — that’s all it takes. It’s not a big movement. It’s just little changes, and I hope I can help make an impact.
Q: From this point, what is the next step in your Olympic goals, and what point are you at?
A: Right now, I’m that phase where you train really hard and can barely lift your arms above your head. We have a few competitions leading up to trials, but Olympic trials are my focus, because it’s really difficult to qualify as an America. My goal for trials is to do what I did in 2008 and qualify. I have three individual events, and if I qualify for any of those, I will be very happy.
Q: What are some really simple things aspiring swimmers can do to improve their swimming skills?
A: Being active and healthy is really important. That feeling you get after working really hard in practice and giving it your all. You have a buzzed feeling after when you get out and start moving around and living in the real world again. You have a buzz all day from working in the water. It’s a totally happy feeling I think everyone should have that healthy lifestyle. Eating right and being active is such a great thing to do.
Q: Speaking of lifestyle, what is a day in the life of Jessica Hardy like?
A: I wake up at 6; walk my dog; make breakfast to eat after practice; eat something small before practice; go to the pool; sit in the hot tub for 15 minutes; then I start my swim workout at 7:30 and go until 9:30 or 10. Then I eat my bigger breakfast and drive straight to weights. I lift for two hours; come home; eat more; take a 20-minute nap for recovery. Then I return emails or conduct interviews; run errands; get a massage; do physical therapy; go for a jog and/or do yoga in the afternoon; cook dinner, and then take my dog out for another walk before bed.
Q: What are your favorite and least favorite training exercises?
A: My least favorite is long-distance swimming. It's hard on my body because I have lots of “fast-twitch” muscle fibers as a sprinter. My favorite, besides fast swimming, is yoga.
Q: If you were not a swimmer, what would you be?
A: Hopefully a stand-up paddle board racer or a beach volleyball player. But, most likely, I would be finishing up my degree and looking for a job.