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Grevers in starting block stance, wearing a Claude Bernard watch; photo by Jason Goodrich

Golden Boy

by Elaine Doremus | NS magazine | September 27, 2012

Matt Grevers, winner of two gold medals and one silver medal at the 2012 Games of the XXX Olympiad in London in August, is living proof that nice guys can finish first—in the pool and in life.

Logistical issues with his Lake Forest hometown rally and Grevers’ jam-packed schedule almost prevented us from meeting in person, and it seemed that my interview with him might have to take place over the telephone—not an ideal situation. Grevers was booked nearly every minute during his brief layover in Lake Forest en route from London to Barbados for a much-deserved vacation with fiancée Annie Chandler. I got a last-minute email in the afternoon—one day before he was leaving town again—saying that he could meet with me at 8:30pm that same evening at the home where he’d lived since the fifth grade in Lake Forest. It turned out to be the ideal setting to get to know the humble athlete with the mighty stroke.

Despite the fact that I live in Lake Forest, I couldn’t find his house number on the dark road, and the only contact information I had was an email address for his public relations person in New York. I searched on my iPhone and found a home telephone number in Lake Forest. I dialed with little expectation that someone would pick up (who even has a home phone anymore, let alone picks it up when a strange number is calling in?), but Grevers’ father did, and that’s where this story begins—with family values. His dad not only answered, he gave me directions and waited on the front porch for me with the light on when I drove up five minutes later. Chatting with me like I was a long-lost relative, he escorted me into the house while excusing the three little white family Malteses that scurried around my feet.

And there was Grevers, sitting at the island in the kitchen looking at his laptop, the remnants of what looked like a delicious homemade cake sitting on the counter. Barefoot (with those long swimmer’s feet) and in shorts, all 6 feet, 8 inches of him hopped up to greet me. He was a little shy as he took me to the adjoining dining room in his modest home with the sounds of family echoing from the kitchen and family room. His fiancée Annie joined us, and the two, obviously a tight unit already, answered my questions together. A swimmer herself, Annie recently retired from the sport after the Olympic trials this year.

Grevers set one of his gold medals in front of me. It was tucked safely in its velvet box but he insisted I take it out and hold it, which I did carefully and with awe. It was much heavier than I’d anticipated—beautiful, impressive and, of course, gold. He told me that the day before our interview he’d spent three hours at the Chalet in Winnetka, where his father, Edwin, has been a landscape architect for 30 years, signing autographs and letting every single kid (about 300) touch his medal. “It’s magical for kids to hold it in their hands,” says the 27-year-old, who started swimming with the Stingrays swim team in Gurnee in grade school. “It’s solid and makes it more real; it helps them set goals for the future.” Which turns out to be what Grevers wants to do when his competitive swimming career is over (but not yet), “to be that first spark” in helping young swimmers set their sights on greatness.

Grevers got his first taste of success at the age of 10 when he beat the national record for his age group in the 50-yard backstroke. “They told me I was the fastest 10-year-old ever. I let it go to my head and it gave me confidence. Being naïve and young can be a blessing,” he laughs. But it whet his appetite for success and motivated him to keep swimming and even dream of one day competing in the Olympics. That and all the support he’s gotten from family, friends and swim coaches over the years.

“Every family member has played a role in my swimming,” he states. “The training was very difficult, but I was fortunate to have them guide me.” As Grevers is not a morning person, his mother Anja found creative ways to wake him up for early morning swim practice. “She’d have a smoothie ready for me, or put fruit by my bed to tempt me. She made me very conscious about nutrition, which a lot of kids overlook. But it’s so important,” he adds. “I formed a love of spinach.” Anja Grevers has been a swim coach for more than 25 years, currently coaching with the Scout Aquatics Club in Lake Forest.

“I followed my sister Carolyn’s swimming ability,” he goes on. “She was Division I and we went to the Olympic trials in 2000 together while she was at the University of Kansas.” Carolyn is now head coach for the Lake Forest High School girls swim team, at the same pool where she and Matt spent so many hours training.

Grevers’ brother, Andy, swam for Northern Illinois University and is a swim coach too, at University of Missouri. “He’s my coach and a bit of my therapist,” laughs Grevers. “I try and balance all my complaints between Annie and Andy.”

His father, says Grevers, was the one who gave him early morning rides to swim practice for all those years. “And he appreciates my accomplishments like an outsider would.” Last, but not least, Grevers mentions his training partner Sammy Kintz as helping him go the distance.

In 1999, though, when he was 13, Grevers wanted to throw in the towel and quit swimming. That’s where Lee Mauer comes in—an Olympic gold medalist herself and Grevers’ swim coach at the time. “She changed my view of swimming,” Grevers says, teaching him that swimming didn’t have to be a dreaded chore, that if he could have fun doing it and be happy, he’d swim better and stay in the sport. She was right, and goofing around in the pool with his teammates made the training easier.

“She opened my eyes,” says Grevers, “and my coach Rick DeMont, in Arizona, opened the doors.” After finishing his swimming career at Northwestern, from which he graduated in 2007, Grevers started training with DeMont at the University of Tucson in Arizona in the fall of 2007 in preparation for the 2008 Olympic trials. Grevers says that DeMont, an artist, takes an artistic view to swimming, viewing every individual as having a different stroke, “both literally and figuratively.”

Grevers calls Tucson home these days. He lives near the University of Arizona with Clark Burckle, his roommate and fellow Olympic swimmer. “We are submerged in the swimming culture,” he says. “We swim and sleep and eat.” Grevers’ typical daily training schedule looks like this: swim for two hours, eat lunch, nap for one to two hours, and then swim for another two and a half hours.

While he is relishing his time at home in Lake Forest with family and friends—“It’s always good to get the laundry done and a home-cooked meal by Mom”—the “one bummer is that the weather for me is tough,” he laughs. “I remember so many winters of swimming and going out with my hair freezing, spiking my hair like a porcupine and trying to jab my friends at school with it.”

When asked what his 2012 Olympic highlight was, he answers without skipping a beat, “Standing on the podium for the 4x100 medley relay gold medal with the three other guys that were counting on me. It’s something I’ll tell my grandkids.” Grevers also won a gold medal in the 100-meter individual backstroke and a silver medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay during the London games.

Grevers says he is a little busier right now than he was after the 2008 Olympics, when he came home with two gold medals in the 4x100-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter medley relay, and a silver medal in the 100-meter individual backstroke. “There are a lot more opportunities for me,” he says. “It could be daunting, but I feel grateful and blessed.” In addition to the numerous appearances he is asked to make, he appears on some Chobani yogurt containers and boxes and has represented TYR, the global swimming and triathlon apparel and equipment company, since 2007. He’s even been on a few billboards.

He is also doing more swim clinics and appearances around the world as a spokesperson for Mutual of Omaha, and Grevers participates in another clinic circuit called The Fitter and Faster Tour organized by his agent David Arluck. That’s one reason he was headed to Barbados the day after our interview—for a swim clinic. But the trip was primarily a much-deserved vacation with Annie and their friends from Arizona. The only other swimming Grevers did while there, he tells me later, was “swim with turtles.” The couple will be married next April.

And then what? I had to ask: Is there another Olympics in Matt Grevers’ future? “I hope so,” he says, and the next four years will be dedicated to training for the 2016 Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After that, Grevers would like to be a swim coach, maybe at the college level, to give back to the sport that has given so much to him. “A good coach can mold a person’s life, morals and values,” he explains. “I’d love to take on some of this responsibility. It’s like raising 50 kids of your own on a college swim team.” Which takes us back to the beginning and the values Grevers learned from his family, coaches and growing up in Lake Forest.

“So many people in the community have had such an impact on me,” he says. “I owe a lot of what I’ve done to all the people who have touched my life.” Indeed, Matt Grevers keeps finishing first.