Soni sets records, achieves life-long goal with breaststroke gold
LONDON -- The greatest thing about the end of Rebecca Soni's 200-meter breaststroke race wasn't the time frozen on the clock. At least, not in the opinion of Dave Salo, her longtime coach.
It was the expression on her face. And the double-pump of her fist.
"I'm probably more excited about that," said Salo, a U.S. assistant coach and Soni's coach dating back to her years at USC. "She's a very, very serious athlete and doesn't give herself much chance to celebrate. Two fist pumps out of Rebecca Soni is big.
"I think she'll be celebrating now."
She was. On a night when the magic from the Beijing Water Cube carried over into the London Aquatics Centre -- Michael Phelps also emphatically demonstrated his dominance in the 200-meter IM on Thursday -- Soni became the first swimmer in London to repeat a gold-medal performance from China.
She did it in world-class style, not only breaking the world record for the second time in less than 24 hours, but becoming the first female swimmer to go under 2:20, finishing her race 2:19.59.
"I've always had a little bit of a hard time in the moment of the most pressure," Soni said. "To be able to do it now makes all that hard work worth it."
For eight years -- since she was in high school -- Soni, 25, has held a secret goal of swimming the 200 in under 2:20. Her club coach in New Jersey, Tom Speedling, told her he thought she could do it. And she kept it in the back of her mind.
"I said, 'Okay Tom, let's see,'" she said and, even while she was winning medals and breaking records, it kept her motivated.
"At times along the way I thought, 'There's still more. I'm not there yet, I'm not there yet,'" she said. "I think tonight I was there. I always thought I had a little more, I was always chasing two-nineteen. It feels strange to talk about it now because I always kept it to myself."
Soni is, as Salo notes, a very serious athlete who can be hard on herself. It was a contrast in styles at the pool on Thursday. Missy Franklin, 17, qualified for Friday's 200-meter backstroke final and didn't seem to be upset about finishing fifth 100-meter freestyle.
"I'm really happy with both my swims," Franklin said. "The backstroke is my favorite race and I have a lot of confidence going into it."
Is she fatigued?
"I'm only 17," she laughed. "There's no such thing as fatigue."
There was for Soni after Beijing. She thought about quitting the sport; instead she modified her training to give herself a mental break. Also, when the full bodysuits that Soni hated were banned, she felt renewed. And, of course, she kept chasing that secret goal of 2:19.
In the lead up to the Olympics, Soni tried to have fun during her taper. Instead of driving back and forth across Los Angeles to the USC pool twice a day to swim, she did her second swim in the ocean near her home, convincing friends to come with her.
"They were like, 'I'm not swimming with you, you're training for the Olympics,'" she said. "But I told them we were just going to play. I want to be in the water and feel the water without being in the pool and worrying about the mental side of competition."
Soni -- the heavy favorite in all breaststroke events - seemed to be down after finishing second in the 100-meter breaststroke earlier in the week. She was beaten by 15-year old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte.
"There was maybe some disappointment -- the last three or four years she's been riding this high on all breaststroke events," Salo said. "But we've been forecasting all along that some little 15 or 16-year old girl is coming up the pike so don't think you're going to go into this thing without some challenges."
Soni has always said that the 200 was her "baby." She broke the world record in the event in Beijing and then saw that record fall at the 2009 world championships in Rome (where she set the world record in the 100).
Salo said that, although Soni doesn't like to talk about records, he encouraged her to go for it in the semifinal on Wednesday night.
"I'm always a believer to go for the record in the semifinal and the gold in the final," he said, adding that he wasn't surprised she broke the record again in the final. "She was coolly confident when went to blocks tonight."
Soni easily won the race and touched the wall. But -- for a split second - she didn't turn to look at the time.
"I didn't want to look," she said.
But she finally did. She saw the 2:19.
And she pumped her fist. Twice.