Surprise Star Soni Back For More

By Ann Killion

Who will be the next Olympic cover girl?

It could be Rebecca Soni. The former USC swimmer is predicted to be one of the biggest stories at the Olympic Games in London next summer.

Which is interesting, because she almost decided to skip these games. After her breakthrough performance in Beijing, Soni, now 24, thought seriously about retiring.

"Once you've been through such a great experience, the biggest thing we have in our sport, it's hard to find motivation after that," Soni said.

Motivation is important to Soni. She's always looking for different ways to encourage and inspire herself. She did it back in 2008 and she's doing it now.

Soni was a surprise star at the Water Cube in Beijing.  Still competing for USC in 2008, she succumbed to nerves in the U.S. Olympic Trials, finishing fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke. Only the top two finishers qualify for the Olympic team.

"I was pretty devastated," she said. "I remember shaking up there on the blocks. And then afterwards sitting outside the pool and crying."

Though she qualified for the Olympic team with a first-place performance the 200-meter breaststroke, Soni remained disappointed in her 100-meter performance.  But when her roommate Jessica Hardy tested positive for a banned substance, Soni ended up replacing her in the 100 just a few days before the Games opened.

"It was difficult, but I was excited to swim," she said. "I used the 100 as a fun event. I kept telling myself I didn't even make the team in this event."

Soni used other motivational techniques in Beijing. She watched her teammates doing well at the Water Cube and vowed to join the party. At a team meeting she was inspired by a video focusing on swimmers who improved between the trials and the Olympics - athletes who were able to reset their goals and refocus themselves quickly.

"I got goosebumps," she said. "I remember thinking, 'I want to be in this video next time around.' It really helped me focus."

She will be in the video the next time around. Soni had her best performance in her biggest meet ever.  In the 100-meters, she won a silver medal, finishing behind Australian star Leisel Jones.  And in the 200-meters, Soni upset heavily favored Jones, winning the gold medal and setting a world record in the process.  She also won a silver with her teammates in the 4x100 medley relay.

"It went really, really well," she said.

But the aftermath of such a strong performance was difficult. Soni returned home and pushed hard through her senior year at USC. But after that season ended in March, she felt lost.

"I didn't know why I was swimming," she said.

She was burnt out. She was also frustrated by the high-tech swimsuits, which were finally banned beginning in 2010. She didn't like the focus on a suit, instead of swimming. And she hated putting them on - getting ready to compete required a painful half-hour of wrestling the skintight suits.

"It was all about the technology," she said.  "If they hadn't banned the suits, I probably would have quit."

Her coach Dave Salo didn't push toward a particular decision. He put the choice back on Soni, telling her he would be proud of her no matter what.

"I told him that wasn't very good advice," she said. "I know he was just making sure it was my decision, but at the moment I was frustrated."

But Soni traveled a little bit and decided to keep competing. She won gold in the 100-meters breaststroke at the World Championships in Rome in 2009. And had fun doing it.

"I decided to keep going," she said.

She and Salo changed her training, so that she only trained in the mornings and had more of a life the rest of the day, to focus on fitness and other pursuits, such as her interest in becoming a registered dietitian.

"We kept it interesting for me," she said.

Soni had to adjust to the freedom, after years of strict schedules and instructions while swimming for her club in New Jersey or her college.

"There's a lot of figuring it out on your own," she said. "We're not always told what to do. So you need to rely on yourself."

Soni also finds motivation by training with her boyfriend Ricky Berens, who also competed in Beijing. Berens moved from Texas to Los Angeles and both swimmers train at Trojans Swim Club, a post-graduate group of world-class swimmers who train at USC.

"We're focused on the same goal," Soni said. "We eat together, do our workouts together. It really helps to have someone to keep you on track and motivated."

Soni has rediscovered her motivation, and is looking forward to the road ahead: to the Olympic trials next June in Omaha and then to London.  She recently traveled to Great Britain for an appearance, and drove past the Olympic Stadium.

"That was really, really exciting," she said. "It was a great way to start my training year.

"It motivated me to get into the pool and start working."

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