Written By: Claire Donahue White
The transition from an Olympic athlete to a normal person is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Change in itself is not an easy thing, but then you add in completely changing directions and then you have a whole other issue at hand. Going through it myself and seeing other swimmers do it every year was not easy. Swimming was 20 years of my life. It’s literally all I knew. Okay, maybe not all I knew, but it consumed 50 percent of what I did and then in the last five years it took up about 90 percent of my life and 100 percent of my focus. No complaints there, but when I was trying to figure out what to do next I found it particularly challenging.
For those of you who don’t know me I was one of the rare Olympians that didn’t know they were good until end of college. A good high school swimmer that could NOT go to college anywhere I wanted. Jokes on them; mid-major school was the perfect fit. I swam at Western Kentucky University for four years and continued as a pro-athlete. From my senior year in high school to my senior year in college I dropped over five second in the 100 fly for a 51.6. Of course, in 2011 a 51.6 got you 2nd place at NCAA’s. Then one of my proudest moments was in 2012 making the Olympic team from lane one. At that point who would want to go into the real world. Over the next few years I got an Olympic Gold Medal and was able to make multiple world teams. However, in 2016 when I left Olympic Trials devastated I told myself I’d give it one more year and then I’d call it.
When the time came I was a little nervous not knowing what was next. All I knew, I was ready to be done, but what would I do now? I majored in Social Work in college, but I had this very strange feeling about moving on from swimming. I had invested thousands of hours in the pool. I spent over 20 years of my life perfecting my stroke and working the hardest I’d ever worked physically, mentally, and emotionally. After all that work I was going to have to start over; start at the bottom somewhere new. That meant moving to a brand new field where I would know very little. When you’re at the top, or in my case close the top in 2016, knowing you have to start at the beginning and work your way up the next 20 years was, to say the least, a little overwhelming.
What did I do in that situation? What any human would do, I put it off. As I finished out my summer coaching a summer league team I tried to picture myself in different situations but nothing felt right. Since college I knew I wanted to help people, hence the social work major, but I couldn’t find the right direction. Eventually, I came across the idea of coaching for a while until I found the right fit. Little did I know that is exactly where I was supposed to be. My first year with the TAC Titans I was challenged more than I had been those previous four years training. I couldn’t believe how much to swimming there was that I didn’t already know. I spent over 20 years in the sport and I still had so much to learn. After that first year I decided that coaching was the perfect fit. I got to use some of my social work expertise combined with my swimming knowledge. I couldn’t wait to be challenged the next year.
Making the decision to coach and move away from family was the hardest decision I made. I wasn’t very confident and definitely kept going back and forth between my options. I think that was the scariest part, the unknown. When it was all said and done I followed my faith and my instincts and had my family’s full support. What more could you ask for? It may have been something I fell into, but I don’t think it was on accident.
Claire Donahue White was a high school All-American, but was far from earning the junior-superstar accolades that most future Olympic gold medalists receive before graduating the 12th grade. Coming out of tiny Lenoir City in Tennessee (population 8,000) she didn’t get any attention from the traditional swimming powerhouses that produced the majority of the Olympic team.
Instead, this 2012 Olympian went to Western Kentucky University, which had only one NCAA finalists in its history before White’s arrival. In London, it didn’t matter that she came from a small town in Tennessee. It didn’t matter that she went to a non-traditional swimming power. All that mattered were the consistent enthusiasm for training and the undying belief that she belonged among the best swimmers in the world. That’s what earned her the right to represent the United States on sport’s highest stage, and that’s what made her an Olympic Champion. After six year as a professional athlete, Claire decided to take her swimming career to the next level and become a year-round swim coach. She has now been coaching for the TAC Titans in Cary, NC for four years. She’s worked with a number of different age groups but currently coaches 15 & overs.