How A Career Ends: Three-time Olympic gold medalist Carrie Steinseifer Bates

How A Career Ends is an interview series in which Excelle Sports contributor Rob Trucks asks medal-winning Summer Olympians about the moment they knew their competitive athletic career was over.

At the age of 16, Carrie Steinseifer tied U.S. teammate Nancy Hogshead in the Women’s 100 meter Freestyle, to win one of the very first gold medals awarded at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Before those Games were over, Steinseifer would add two relay gold medals – the 4 x 100 Freestyle and the 4 x 100 Medley – to her total. 

Carrie Steinseifer Bates now lives near Portland, Oregon with her two daughters Gabby, a soccer player, and Miya, a competitive cheerleader, and, as of August 1, 2016, her husband of one year, Ken Blanco. 

My brother, who’s a couple years older than I am, was swimming, and our mom dropped us off at sports and we did the same stuff, so I started doing swim lessons. I learned to swim in Portland, oddly enough, because we lived here when I was a young child. I was doing gymnastics and track and other sports, and then as my brother found his path in other sports I found my love for the pool and the water and swimming. I think we all gravitate to where we see a little bit of success, and I saw a little bit of success in swimming.

I was a fine runner in track. I was probably a fine little kid gymnast. I wasn’t going to be a gymnast. I’m too big. Anyway, I don’t know that I necessarily excelled at every sport. I did happen to have a certain feel and natural talent in the pool, and because I had natural talent I had a little success, which drove my desire. It didn’t come from desire first. It came from a little bit of natural talent. I loved being in the pool. I loved my teammates. I loved all of it, and then came the desire. Even after I won my first nationals at 15, my coach had to sit me down and go, Okay, so the Olympic Trials is a year from now and you have a chance to make the Olympic team. I was like, What? I mean, I just was doing what I loved.

I was 16 when I won those medals. I was just living life, training my butt off and, you know, trying to have a few friendships on the side. Like, Friday nights for me were maybe a random sleepover here and there, or trying to stay awake for Dallas. And that was what I did, because I knew I had four hours to train on Saturday, and that was more important to me.

I had really, really supportive parents. I did not have parents who said, You need to be in bed at 9 because you have to train tomorrow. They didn’t get involved in that. It was all me. I wanted to do this. I mean, I was the kid that waited every month by the mailbox for Swimming World magazine, right? I waited for that magazine because absolutely I loved to see what my world rankings were, and Did I move up and Where am I in the world.

Of course I was driven by success and driven to be the best, but I don’t think that the “meant to be” moment happened for me until decades after I was done swimming. Like, through other life experiences, only through that journey, into adulthood, motherhood, all those things, can I reflect back and say, The Olympics were meant to be, for certain reasons, beyond the medals. It’s much bigger than the medals for me today, but I couldn’t see that until I had more life experience.

I think that that’s a lot of age, too. You know, I was one of the youngest, like maybe the second youngest, on the Olympic swim team that year, because a lot of those guys stuck around after the ’80 boycott, so they were young adults at that time. Maybe they were in a place where they had that moment because they had made a choice. Back then it was putting your whole life on hold. There was no money to be made in this sport, so these guys trained post-graduate, which was unheard of at that time, to stick around for ’84. I was still a sophomore in high school. I was going into my junior year. I don’t think I had enough life experience to be able to say, This is what I should be doing. This is exactly what I’m supposed to be in my life. As a matter of fact, when I started to struggle in ’88 when I didn’t make the Olympic team, what was interesting was that I thought more about that stuff, like, Oh my gosh, I need to make the team. I need to be top two. I’m still number one in the world. All of a sudden I’m swirling around all these thoughts that I didn’t even have four years before. It was like, I just raced. I loved racing. And then as soon as I started thinking more than I was racing I got into trouble.

Carrie Steinseifer Bates with the Reagans. (photo courtesy of Bates)
Carrie Steinseifer Bates with the Reagans. (photo courtesy of Bates)

I was, probably, in the best shape of my life in ’88. I was physically positioned perfectly, and then I didn’t have control over my brain. I fell apart. I was like, What? How does that happen? It wasn’t my physical abilities. It was my mental abilities.

It was before I even swam. It was in the warm-up pool before my prelims in the 100 Free. I knew I was not in a good place. Yeah, I knew. So as devastating as the result was, it wasn’t shocking.

That was a really pivotal time in my life. It took me years and years and years to get over the devastation of ’88 and remember the success of ’84, because in my mind that devastation of ’88 completely overrode and negated my success in ’84. I mean, I couldn’t see it then. It was definitely a turning point in my life, and not a really positive one.

Here’s the problem: I just didn’t have a Plan B. Not making the ’88 team, I had no Plan B. What do I do if I don’t make the team? I had no Plan B, so I watched that Olympic team be assembled in Austin, on the pool deck that I trained every day, and I wasn’t out there.

I watched all my friends, everyone I had trained with for years, a lot of the people I swam with for a long, long time, and I stood in those stands like any other spectator and watched that team assemble all along the side of that 50 meter pool. I’ll never forget it. They announced the team and I was in the stands. And I went home that night and I’m like, What do I do now? I have no idea what to do now.

I had decided that I was done swimming. I’m done. I’m done. I’m not swimming anymore. And, you know, it took me a year to realize that that decision was made out of fear, anger. I’m not sure I could’ve articulated those emotions at that time, but if I look back on it now, I made that choice out of fear, shame, embarrassment. And about a year later I made the decision that I was going to come back to swimming, but not to train for the next Olympics, not to train for ’92. My goal was to make the national team again, and to be able to quit, to retire on my own terms, and not retire on that note.

It was great. I got back in the pool and started at zero. I mean, I was so out of shape. I had literally not swam one stroke. I started from zero and that next summer I made the national team, and after that I had peace. I was able to retire on my own terms, on a higher note, and knowing that it wasn’t about my capabilities. It just wasn’t my day.

Then I went to work. Like, I got home, got a job with Arena USA. At the time it was owned by Adidas US. Peter Ueberroth was part owner, and I started my career in the athletic world, and I never really looked back. That was a good transition for me.

Carrie Steinseifer Bates with her daughters. (photo courtesy of Bates)
Carrie Steinseifer Bates with her daughters. (photo courtesy of Bates)

Throughout my life and throughout my career I could absolutely see that ’84 was meant to happen. It really paved the way for much of my life, in terms of my career. It’s on my resume, right? I mean, it shows a tremendous work ethic. It shows dedication, perseverance.

For any Olympic champion I would argue that we’ve probably lost as many, if not more, races in our careers than we won, and we happened to win on the big day, right? I was not supposed to win that day. I was seeded third going into Finals. My warmup going into Finals was terrible. My sprint splits were terrible and I remember thinking, I don’t know if I’m going to have a very good swim tonight. Even at the first turn of the 100, I thought, I’m not even going to medal. You know, I wasn’t necessarily favored or even discussed in that winner’s circle conversation. So throughout my life, yes, I could see that ’84 had a greater purpose. I’ve seen the world from a view that many don’t see.

There was an aha moment for me that brought the two together, the success of ’84 and the perceived failure of ’88. And it’s bigger than medals, and it was bigger than the grief of ’88. You know, that was really my first experience with loss, and I don’t mean losing a race. Like, I lost a sense of identity. Much of my identity, as most athletes, was wrapped into who I was on that pool deck. And I watched that team assemble on the pool deck in Austin, and I realized that wasn’t who I was anymore. And that was like, Wow. What do I actually enjoy doing outside of . . . I didn’t even know. When I lost I had no idea who I was away from that pool deck.

There wasn’t a balancing where there’s a middle ground between being the best in the world to not making the Olympic team, because, in my world, those were two opposite ends of the spectrum. The pendulum swung way too far to the other side. There was no middle ground. There was such a giant pendulum swing, and it happened as soon you touched the wall. As soon as I saw my time and place in prelims, that pendulum took that swing. I was pretty damn sure I wasn’t going to get another shot that night. So the aha moment for me, quite honestly, was when I got sober. I don’t even want to call it an aha moment. What it did for me was find the purpose in each, because I think everything in life serves a purpose. Good and bad things happen to people all the time, so what is the purpose behind the good and the bad? That’s when I was able to have peace with all of it.

I think that the purpose behind ’84 has evolved through my lifetime. I can’t tell my story without including the Olympics. I mean, how do I tell my life journey without talking about who I was at that time in my life? But what it has done is it’s given me a platform to help other people struggling with addiction. In my mind, that’s exactly the purpose of why I was able to do what I did, because it was part of a bigger plan, and that plan is to be able to step onto a stage, or step into a recovery center or wherever I choose to tell my story, and say that I was the best in the world at something, and this disease kicked my ass just like it kicked yours.

I just always tell people that I’m an ordinary alcoholic that’s been able to accomplish some extraordinary things in my life.

The dream of being an Olympian became a goal. And there’s a difference, right? We can all be dreamers, and then you can set some realistic goals. And I was a big goal setter. My goals were, for sure, to make the team.

I believe that when we say it out loud, or we commit to something on paper and we show other people, we’re accountable to those things. And so I would have a poster board on the wall next to my bed, taped to the wall, all the time, with what times I wanted to go in the 100 Free, the 200 Free, the 50, whatever it was, and that’s what helped me get up every morning at 5. You know, if I wanted to achieve what I had written on that poster board, then I needed to get my butt out of bed. They just don’t happen. And I still believe that some old school goal setting is important for kids. Commit to it. Write it down. Say it out loud. Think through it. I mean, I use to lay on my bed and do visualization with a stopwatch. Like, I would lay on my bed and I’d close my eyes with a stopwatch in my hand, and I’d hit Start and I would visualize jumping off the blocks and swimming the 100 Free. When I first did it, I stopped the watch and it was like 22 seconds [laugh]. It takes practice to really start thinking about those things.

So making the team was obviously the goal. That was the big goal, to make the Olympic team. Then after Trials, when we go to work at training camp, you know, I was still a little wide-eyed. I had only been on the international scene for one year, and here I was walking the deck with the people that I idolized, that I would read about in Swimming World, and I just thought, Wow. I can’t believe I’m on the deck with Jill Sterkel.

You can have goals for times all day long, but the reality is when you get in the pool, you have a race to win. I always race to win. Always. I always race to win, so it really wouldn’t have mattered what the time was. You race to win. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. You race to win.

Carrie Steinseifer Bates' tattoo. (photo courtesy of Bates)
Carrie Steinseifer Bates’ tattoo. (photo courtesy of Bates)

In 2009 I ran my first marathon. I ran the New York City Marathon. I’d never run any races until that year. I had a training program and I had a friend that I trained with, but really I was training for a half marathon that summer. And I loved the half marathon so much that I said, Screw it, I’ll do the marathon. So I ran my first marathon in 2009 in New York, and I didn’t really do anything after that. I mean, I was working out. Working out, fitness has always been a part of my life. Even after I retired from swimming, I was a gym girl. I loved being in the gym, but it was nothing over the top until 2009.

I ran my first marathon, and then, you know, I was a little sidelined because of my sickness. And then a couple years ago I started really thinking about some bucket list items, like I’d always watched Ironman, the Kona Iron Man World Championships, on TV, and I always thought, Oh my gosh, those athletes. I still am amazed at elite triathletes. Like, I think it’s incredible to be solid and strong and legitimately fast in three different disciplines. It blows my mind. And then just by chance I ran into a woman here locally who had done a couple Ironmans, and I said, It’s kind of gnawing at me, and she said, You should talk to my husband. He’s done like fourteen of them, and he’ll help you and coach you and stuff. And so I just pulled the trigger.

You know, that Ironman sells out in like 60 seconds online, so I was online, and I registered, and that began my year. I had literally never ridden a road bike. I didn’t even know how to shift gears, didn’t have a helmet. I mean, I had no clue what I was doing. I got a training plan and it was insanity, but with every day I began to believe a little more that I could finish this thing and that I could be an Ironman. And it was an homage to my sobriety. You know, I needed to not be a dreamer. I was sober. I was healthy. I wanted to show my kids no matter how far we get knocked down we get back up and we keep trying. And my kids were super supportive. Like, they just thought it was the coolest thing ever. So I scratched and clawed my way through that training program and showed up in Arizona, and it was literally one of the single most amazing experiences in my adult life.

It wasn’t about winning. Like, my coach kept telling me, When you get on the bike, what you need to say to yourself for the next six and a half hours is, Let them go. Let them go. Because I’m such a competitor, I want to race everybody. I had to learn to let them go, that it was okay to get passed, and I got passed a lot on the bike. I am not a cyclist, but somehow I managed to ride those 112 miles and get off that bike and run a fricking marathon.

I swam every stroke, and I biked every mile, and I ran every step, and it was a monumental moment in my life. In many ways it was a deeper sense of accomplishment than even the Olympics. Like, I get a little choked up even talking about it, actually. You know, I’ve got a couple tattoos. One, of course, is the Olympic rings, and then I did get an Ironman tattoo, and across that M is the word Journey. And it is a journey, and it was a journey for me. And that journey continues. It’s not just about the race. The race is really the celebration of the journey that I took to get there.

Carrie Steinseifer Bates (photo courtesy of Bates)
Carrie Steinseifer Bates (photo courtesy of Bates)

I had not swam a stroke in at least 15 years, and it was humbling. And it was enjoyable. I swam with a Masters team here in Oregon in the mornings. I had forgotten the peace I felt in the water. I had forgotten the calm. I was not in any kind of swimming shape. I was fit when I started training for Ironman, but there’s a difference between being fit and being Ironman fit, right? It’s a whole different world.

So being out there on that day was not about being Carrie Steinseifer, the Olympic swimmer. Nobody knew that. I was one of 2000 people doing my thing. I started in the dark and I finished in the dark. It wasn’t about winning and it wasn’t about people knowing my past or who I was in the pool. It was just about being a worker among workers. It was about just being out there and participating in something that some people won’t even dare to dream, and I wanted to dare to dream that I could do that.

One of the greatest joys for me in crossing that finish line was that my two teenage daughters and my husband were there, and they watched me and supported me during that training. I mean, you can’t train for an Ironman and not get support. There’s a lot of things going on in a house with kids and, like, I was asleep at 8. I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 8 o’clock at night, and my kids were willing to support me through that. And on the race day they were there every hour, and I saw them multiple times during the day. And my girls, for them to be able to watch me do something like that, my hope is that it shows them that no matter what happens in our lives, the success, the perceived failures, that we get up and keep moving. We just don’t give up on our hopes and dreams, ever.

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