She could have been drawing comparisons to Mary Lou Retton. She could have been defying gravity on the mat, with choreographed cartwheels and dazzling dismounts.
Instead, Rebecca Soni will jump off the blocks and splash down into a shimmering pool, hopefully "teeter-tottering" her way to three Olympic gold medals.
Soni will compete in three events — the 100-meter breaststroke, the 200-meter breaststroke, the 4x100 medley relay — at the 2012 London Olympics. Surprisingly, it was another Olympic sport that piqued her interest when she was growing up in nearby Plainsboro, NJ.
“When I was younger I was doing gymnastics with my sister [Rita], I felt like that was my thing,” Soni said. “I was swimming, too, and my parents decided when I was 10 that it would be better to focus on swimming. At first I didn’t want to switch over, but I grew to love it.”
Even though Soni hasn’t lived in the Philadelphia region since high school, she still remembers honing her stroke at West Windsor-Plainsboro North in those formative years. Soni ate, slept and drank chlorine.
She would wake up and drive to Princeton to swim every morning. Then, after her school day ended, Soni would head to the Scarlet Aquatic Club — 40 minutes up the New Jersey Turnpike — to swim some more.
“I didn’t have time to hang out in Plainsboro,” Soni said. “Most of my friends were the girls I was swimming with. I was rushing straight from the pool to class, putting all my energy into swimming. I didn’t have much of a social life. For me, going to the pool was my social time.”
She qualified for her first national meet when she was 13. In 2004, a 17-year-old Soni earned a spot at the Olympic Trials, where she finished 11th overall in the 200m. One year later, swimming again in the 200m, she won her first national title.
“I kept to myself in high school,” she said. “I didn’t tell a lot of people that I was swimming. After the Olympic Trials [in 2004], people began to realize what I was doing, and where I was spending all my free time.”
Fast forward eight years and Soni is the face of USA Swimming. She’s been called the Breaststroke Queen. She’s also been dubbed America’s best chance for gold among an elite group of female swimmers. Talk to her for a minute, however, and she still comes across as the girl next door — the girl every mother wants her son to bring home to dinner. (Sorry guys, she’s dating another gold-medal hopeful, Olympic swimmer Ricky Berens).
“I don’t know if it’s any extra pressure. It’s more, when I hear it, I’m honored to be thought of that way,” said Soni, who is favored in the 100-meter and 200-meter. “I know this year is going to be tough. I don’t put the expectation on myself to win. I’m going to give it my best shot and see who comes out on top.”
Her best shot could result in three golds in London. But, for many, it would be a shock not seeing her on the podium, waving and flashing that thousand-watt smile, while the national anthem blares.
“It would be a dream come true, that’s definitely what I’m hoping for, it’s the best possible outcome,” Soni said of winning three golds. “But this year is going to be extra hard. Everybody is at their absolute best, their absolute peak. Right now, I’m not focusing on the medals or winning every event, I can’t get too wrapped up in all that. I’m trying to approach it like it’s just another meet.”
But Soni lets out a slight chuckle as that last line leaves her lips. She knows it’s not just another meet, not even for someone as decorated as she is. Soni, who already owns a gold and two silver medals from the 2008 Beijing Games, is looking to avenge a recent loss at the Olympic Trials, where she was upset by Breeja Larson in the 100m. It was the first time Soni hadn't touched the wall first since 2010.
"It was a surprise to me," Soni said. "Larson was pretty new, she had an amazing story, and it was the first time I raced her or even met her face to face. I had a feeling she was going to make it [Olympic team]. She’s one to watch in London, it’s going to take quite a bit of mental preparation to beat her in London. Like I said, though, as long as one of us brings home the gold for the U.S.”
Soni said she’s been focusing more on the 200m. At the 2008 Games in Beijing, she owned the 200m, crushing the competition in a then-record time of 2:20.22.
“The 200m is my focus, I want to get back to my time from 2008, which is still my best time ever,” Soni said.
Soni spent last week in Knoxville, Tenn, at Team USA training camp before heading to France this past weekend for another camp. Right now, she is simply “fine-tuning” and working on her mental toughness.
“Preparation really, and trying to control the things that I can control, and not worry about the things I can’t,” Soni said. “Over the next few weeks, I’ll spend a little time on speed work and mostly technique. I’m not going to fix anything, just fine-tune anything I might be weak on.”
And, with two weeks until Opening Ceremonies, Soni can smell the finish line. She’ll depart for London on July 23.
“I’m ready,” she said. “I can’t wait to get to London.”