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Articles > Garrett Weber-Gale: Swimming to Olympic History

Thrilling – amazing – a dream come true. That is how Olympic swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale described his summer at the Beijing Olympics. As it happened, he won a couple of gold medals in the process – and helped Michael Phelps win his history-making eight gold medals. Weber-Gale spoke with the Center for Sport and Jewish Life recently; this is what he had to say…

“You dream of being in the Olympics … You dream of winning a gold medal … To do it in my first race ever in the Olympics, to start my Olympic experience off with a world record – with that special group of guys - in the race that has been called the best race ever in Olympic history – was truly a dream come true.”

Early on in the swimming competition, American swimmers competed in the 4x100 men’s freestyle relay. It was Michael Phelps’ second competition, and one in which his own dreams of earning eight gold medals was in serious jeopardy. After Weber-Gale, Phelps, and teammate Cullen Jones did their part, it was up to Jason Lezak, swimming the anchor leg, to bring it home for Team USA. Unfortunately, Lezak trailed behind Frenchman Alain Bernard, who went into the race holding the world record for the 100m freestyle. At the turn, Lezak was a body length behind, but – determined that the U.S. would recapture the gold on this even after failing to do so in the previous two Olympic Games, proved to be a man on a mission, swimming the fastest leg in Olympic history to beat Bernard out by 8/100 of a second!

It was Weber-Gale’s first event of the four he would swim in Beijing. “To get the gold medal back in that even was wonderful,” he commented. “To be a part of it with those three guys was really special. To start out with a gold medal – and a world record – in my first Olympic event was unbelievable.”

Four years earlier, Weber-Gale, then just 18, had missed out on going to Athens – by just one spot. “So the next four years were a time of work and sacrifice to make sure I made it this time,” said Weber-Gale. In the years between Athens and Beijing, Weber-Gale was a student at the University of Texas – which has one of the country’s best swimming programs.

“It was difficult to balance everything … swimming is obviously hard work,” he noted. “Balancing training with school is definitely the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. It was a real challenge.” Weber-Gale, who graduated in the spring of 2008 with a 3.24 GPA and a degree in corporate communications, continued, “the fact that in the weeks leading up to the Olympics I only had to focus on swimming made it much easier for me and that made a big difference.”

During the US Olympic trials in Omaha in June, Weber-Gale set an American record in the heats for the 100m freestyle, and then in the semi-finals Jason Lezak broke it again at 48.15. Moments later, as Lezak was talking to reporters, Weber-Gale took the record back, swimming a 47.78 race. He also set an American record in the 50m freestyle at 21.47 (which currently stands as of this article). Following the disappointment of missing out four years earlier, Weber-Gale commented, “I knew it was going to be really fast in there. I knew I had to do something. … Before I got out of the car, my dad said, ‘Swim your own race.’ I did that … and I couldn’t be happier.”

Weber-Gale also edged out Ben Wildman-Tobriner, who had previously held the world record for that event. With Wildman-Tobriner, Weber-Gale and Lezak all qualifying for the Olympics, they referred to themselves as the “Jew Crew.” (In fact, for his part in the preliminary heats of the 4x100 freestyle, Wildman-Tobriner also was awarded a gold medal – three Jewish gold medal winners in one event might also be an Olympic record!)

Weber-Gale (his mother is Diane Weber and his father is Mark Gale, hence the name) also won gold in the 4x100 individual medley relay – having been part of the U.S. foursome in the preliminary race – and swam in two individual events in Beijing: the 50m and 100m freestyle races. In the individual events he came up short. “I didn’t swim to my potential – I was projected to finish as high as 4th in the 100m race. If I would have swum as well at the Olympics as I did at the U.S. Trials I would have gotten the silver medal, instead I finished 13th or 14th. I was disappointed not to have performed my best. It will just motivate me to work harder for the next time,” Weber-Gale commented.

“The Olympic experience overall exceeded my expectations,” he added. “Teammates of mine in Texas had been there before, but nothing anyone tells you can adequately capture the magic of the experience in vivid detail. It was amazing meeting athletes from all over the U.S. and around the world.

Weber-Gale also shared his view from up close regarding Michael Phelps, noting that “it was, honestly, jaw-dropping. I think it’s hard for people who are not involved in sports, and the sport of swimming, to understand what a big deal his accomplishment is. As someone who is involved in swimming, I know just how difficult it is to do what he did. To win eight gold medals in a single Olympics – we might not see that again in our lifetime. For me to have been a part of that – one of the most historic feats in Olympic history – was remarkable and a real honor.”

After missing out on the chance to go to Athens in 2004, Weber-Gale’s coach said to him, “Just remember how this feels and don’t let it happen again.” “So I promised myself I wouldn’t let myself be in that position again and from that point on I worked hard to make sure that never happened again.”

Commenting on some of the technological advances that have been introduced in swimming, Weber-Gale said, “Technology plays some role in the records that are broken, but it never takes center stage. It’s always about hard work. Advances in technology are an added bonus, but it never makes or breaks you. Nothing will ever take the place of hard work. I think swimmers are just getting faster, stronger and smarter. I don’t know when it’s going to stop but I think it’s great.”

The now-famous 23-year-old noted that life in the limelight hasn’t meant that much of a change for him personally, adding, “What it has presented is the opportunity to speak to more people, and be a role model to more kids. (Weber-Gale has spoken at a number of schools, including his own high school.) There are some added benefits, like throwing out the first pitch at a Brewers game or be on the field for a Packers game (the Wisconsin native is a big fan of the hometown teams). Or sometimes if the airlines know who you are you get upgraded to first class when you fly. There have been endorsement opportunities as well. But for people who think your life changes dramatically after something like this it wasn’t really the case for me. Life is pretty much the same as before. It was truly an honor to represent the U.S.A. and it is an honor to represent my team at these events.” (Weber-Gale was also part of the Olympic delegation that was invited to Chicago to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show earlier this season.)

During his time at the Olympics, Weber-Gale got to meet some of the Israeli swimmers, 5 of whom currently swim in NCAA programs in the U.S. “I got to hang out with a bunch of them after the swimming events were over,” he said, adding, “I would love to go to the Maccabiah Games sometime – the problem is when it conflicts with other swimming competitions. I have never been to Israel and would love to go – it just depends on training and meet schedules, but hopefully I will get over there sooner rather than later.”

Weber-Gale became both a Bar Mitzvah and a confirmand at Temple Shalom in Milwaukee. As a teen, Weber-Gale attended Olin-Sang-Ruby summer camp in Oconomowoc, WI, which is run by the Union for Reform Judaism. “It was a wonderful experience for me,” he recalled. “I got to meet a lot of other Jewish kids and made some great Jewish friendships, and had the opportunity to learn about my faith and about Jewish life – doing it with your friends makes it a lot more fun. It was also great because at camp you learn how to adapt to new situations, how to adapt to living away from your parents, it was just a great process overall.” Schedule permitting, Weber-Gale will be on hand in the summer of 2009 when the camp dedicates its new swimming pool. During his days at the camp, Weber-Gale was a multiple winner in the camp triathlon.

Weber-Gale, who will resume training in preparation for the 2009 World Championships in July, said “After that I will see how I feel and if I want to keep going. I’ll just take it year by year, and as long as my heart is in swimming I will keep at it.”

Weber-Gale hopes eventually to use his undergraduate degree to open a business that has to do with health food. At Texas I started cooking for myself and found that making my own meals was better, and more satisfying, than buying meals elsewhere. Because of high blood pressure, I have focused on cooking a low sodium diet. I also decided that healthy eating was important to my performance in the pool.”

Weber-Gale has heard from or met other Jewish swimmers, who usually tell him of their great pride in seeing a Jew excel on the highest stage in the sport. “I am happy that in addition to representing my country, I have been a visible representative of the Jewish community as well, and happy that I can be a role model and hopefully inspire others to work hard and reach their dreams.”

Garrett Weber-Gale has a website – www.gwgswims.com – where you can read more about him and get some great recipes. It has been said that the real miracle of the Jewish people is that we have survived all those cholesterol-inducing (but delicious) foods. Perhaps Weber-Gale will lead the way to a healthier – but equally tasty – Jewish diet!

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