Take 5: An interview with Para PanAms swimmer Sophia Herzog
Sophia Herzog is a fish.
At 4 feet tall with a 3.5-foot wingspan, the Fairplay native and competitive swimmer has always had a slight disadvantage in a sport that champions long, lanky limbs with oversized feet and hands.
But that didn’t stop her from joining a swim club at 12 years old, even though swimming is hardly a popular sport in a mountain town.
And she is one hell of a swimmer. Those early years on a swim team soon transferred to a stint with the Tigers — Summit High School is home to the only high school team between Fairplay and Denver — and, after blowing away swimmers in meet after meet her junior year, she earned a trip to the 2012 London Paralympic trials at 15 years old.
She didn’t make the small and highly-selective Paralympic team that year, but it only encouraged her to try even harder for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro trials in June. After graduating early in 2014, she set her sights on Colorado’s athletic Mecca: the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
For the past year, she has lived, trained and worked at the OTC, guiding tour groups between pool sessions with eight Paralympic swimming hopefuls. In August, the 18-year-old traveled to her first Para PanAm Games in Toronto and returned with four medals.
Between OTC practices, she spoke with the Summit Daily sports desk about her Para PanAm performance, the swimming culture in Fairplay and Summit, and how Ryan Lochte wished her “happy birthday” in the OTC cafeteria.
Summit Daily News: Let’s start at the top: You made your first trip to the Para PanAms this year. What was it like to stand on the podium after going head-to-head with international athletes?
Sophia Herzog: I ended up with four medals: three silvers and one bronze. The bronze was in the 50 (meter) freestyle, then the silvers were in the medley relay, the 100 breaststroke and the 200 IM (individual medley). It was just an incredible feeling to be there. I went into it very nervous — I put lots of pressure on myself to medal. I was happy with the results, with how everything turned out and I got to share the podium with one of my USA teammates. It was nice to have that, to have someone from Team USA standing next to me on the podium. I started the meet right away with the medley relay, so it was nice to start strong with a win.
SDN: You’ve been living and training at the Olympic Training Center for about a year now. How did your training regimen shift when you set your sights on the Para PanAms?
SH: I knew I was going to PanAms in March, so, beginning then, I started specifically training just for that. It was much tougher training than I’ve ever done before with a new coach. I trained 15 to 18 times per week, doing everything I could. It was a mix of weights and pool with the team and other athletes. That was all down in Colorado Springs, where I currently live now. It was quite hard, but, in the end, it was worth it.
SDN: You trained with the Tigers swim team when you were at home in Fairplay, but moving to the OTC is a major change for any athlete. How has the center prepared for that next level of competition?
SH: I just wanted to get the training I knew that I needed to get to the elite level, the level I’m at now. That’s when I applied for the residency, and it’s another reason I wanted to graduate from high school early. I just wanted as much time as possible down here. It’s brought me to where I need to be in the world, in terms of my rankings in the world. I was just ready to get started on training and be around new people. Every time I sit down at dinner at the OTC, I have no idea who will be there. You never know what Olympian will be sitting at dinner with his hood on. (Olympic Gold medal swimmer) Ryan Lochte was there during my birthday, back in March, and he actually wished me a happy birthday. I just felt like a million bucks for about a week.
SDN: Talk about the Paralympic team at the OTC. What’s it look like, and how has training daily with other athletes made you a better swimmer?
SH: We have a Paralympic team of eight people, men and women, with a coach and staff (who) adapt everything for our workouts. For me, I do three-fourths of the original workout that’s done. I’m expected to keep up with everyone. We train together, just as a team, and it’s nice to have that. I’ve never really had it until now. Living at home, no one had the same dreams as I did — no one wanted to practice as hard as I did. Here, everyone has the same drive. Everyone wakes up with the same dream in their head, and we’re all working at something. We’re all physical impaired, and that just adds another goal for us to work at.
SDN: Many people don’t quite understand the Para PanAms and how it’s different than conventional competition. What should casual sports fans know?
SH: It’s just an honor to represent my country. That’s the bigger honor that can ever be given to an athlete. It’s also nice to be with other athletes who go through the same everyday difficulties that I do. All the Paralympians and athletes work just as hard as the Olympic athletes, if not harder. I’m going to North Dakota soon for a big, big meet, another dual against Canada and then we have Paralympic trials in June. Hopefully, I can make that team and get a trip to Rio.
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