She grew in the heart of the ghetto in Mesa, Arizona, with dreams of making a million dollars, but little else.
I was four years old, watching my first Olympic Games, and looking at the gymnasts, and being thrilled with them, how powerful and beautiful and graceful they were. And I had the thought, ‘they’re little like me. If they can do it, I can do it.’
Today, Breeja Larson is an Olympic champion, with a life of lessons for future Olympians, and the rest of us. In fact, in this age of CoronaVirus, lock downs and social distancing, Larson is expanding her network and influence virtually. Working with Airbnb, Larson offers an online program called “Goal Setting with Olympic Gold Medalist,” an intimate and stimulating experience with a world-class athlete.
Larson won a gold medal in swimming at the 2012 London Olympics on a powerful Team USA swim squad which took nearly half of the 34 gold medals up for grab in swimming. One of those gold medals went to Larson who swam in the preliminary heat in the 4×100 medley relay for Team USA, swimming one of the fastest breaststroke legs amidst the 16 teams, ensuring her team would compete in the finals. Although Larson didn’t swim in the finals, her teammates set a world record and got them all gold medals.
Larson shared her story on Zoom with 8 participants who joined from California, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina and Tokyo. They were able to hear her Olympic journey, a powerful story of perseverance.
As Larson grew to 6 feet tall, she realized she wasn’t going to realize her dream as an Olympic gymnast. But she knew sport was a way for her to get a college education, and that she would need a scholarship to accomplish that. She saw swimming as an opportunity, and convinced a local Mesa swim club to allow her to swim for free for 10 months. Her coach was encouraging, and asked her of her Olympic dreams. When Larson explained she used to harbor hopes of becoming an Olympic gymnast, her coach opened her eyes to the world of possibility.
Swimming is like gymnastics. Every time you dive in the pool, you have to have the perfect angle, grace and power. Every flip turn has to have the perfect landing. It’s a beautiful dance routine in the water.
That was the moment Larson’s mindset shifted, when she learned that every time you look at something as a negative, you can change the mental angle and see it as a positive. “Mindset has a very strong hold over your performance,” she said.
Larson built up her savings in high school lifeguarding, making sandwiches at Subway, cleaning homes, even collecting aluminum cans while training hard as a swimmer. And her hard work paid off when she got a partial scholarship to Texas A&M University. But life as a student athlete was tough, particularly since she had to embark on a training regimen to make up for years of training that most of her teammates had already compiled.
The workload as a student athlete was just crushing me. And one day, two months into the academic year, I remember going into the cafeteria, trying to eat my food, and the biggest pile of bricks just fell on me. I felt I was about to crack. Everything felt so hard and I was breaking down.
She sent a long message to her mother – “a pathetic rant” as she called it – and said essentially, “I’m going to drown. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to quit. I want to go home. I’m not good enough.” And as Larson wallowed in self pity, her mother sent a her a very simple life-changing message.
This is what it feels like to be a champion.
In this Airbnb Experience, Larson shared that lesson as well as several others she has learned over the years. In addition to the critical impact of having a positive mindset, she talked at length about how important it is to set audacious goals, to chunk the big goal into smaller tactical goals, be intensively self aware about what you want and why, and get objective feedback from others. She is articulate, practical and most of all, inspiring.
And now, at the age of 27, Larson is working hard to apply those lessons and make the team again for Tokyo next year. Competing as a pro, she actuallytook first leading wire-to-wire in a 100-meter breaststroke finalsof the Phillips 66 National Championships on August 3, 2019, only 9 months ago, giving her hope of returning to the Olympics in 2021. But then COVID-19 entered the picture.
The pools are all closed. Coaches don’t have jobs. But the athlete in my head is saying, ‘keep going. You got this. 16 more months. Just chunk it out. Figure it out up here and the rest of it will take care of itself.’ But if I choose to swim, everything else goes on hold. I can’t eat anything with sugar. (Assuming concerns of the pandemic ease) I wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere with my boyfriend or go to music festivals. I’d miss a lot of summer weddings.
However, if she doesn’t make the attempt, Larson said she would “have this empty hole. I want to hang up my goggles after my last race, instead of saying the pandemic happened and I moved on.”
So against all odds, Larson stays positive, focused on her goal. Will we see her in Tokyo in the summer of 2021? Maybe you should attend her Airbnb Experience over the next few months and ask her yourself. She’ll be happy to talk with you.