How A Career Ends: Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist

Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 50-year-old mother of three, tenured professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law, and the Senior Director of Advocacy at the Women's Sports Foundation.

Hogshead-Makar is also a former competitive swimmer. At age 14, she was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 meter butterfly. At age 18, she was a member of the 1980 United States team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics. At 22, she swam in five Los Angeles Olympic finals and returned home with three gold medals, one silver, and one fourth-place finish, in the 200-meter butterfly.

* * *

One of the hard parts when people talk about quitting is just that it feels so good to be that masterful at something, to be at the very top of the game, and to—I mean, I still, to this day, I'm 50 years old, I get in the water and I feel masterful. I feel like I can grab hold of the water, I can move the water. I move confidently and gracefully in the water. This is clearly where God meant for me to be. And then to go try to start from scratch at anything else is tough.

* * *

I was actually probably a little bit better at gymnastics than I was at swimming. When I was 11, I was working on my double back, but I could literally press up a handstand starting at age 9. I could do back handsprings on a football field. I could walk on my hands down a football field. I could do back handsprings easily on the balance beam. But I'm very tall. I'm not only tall, but I'm big as well. So, you know, it just became clear right around age 11.

My family moved. And when I moved, it just was one of those flukes of circumstance. My dad was the president of the hospital that was associated with the Episcopal church. I had to go to Jacksonville Episcopal High School, and what do you know, Randy Reese was the coach there. At the time he was probably 22, 24 years old, so he was just getting started, but as all great coaches do, he had the knack for getting 60 to 80 kids all up at 4:45 in the morning to swim before school started. During PE period we either lifted weights or ran, and then two more hours after school. So it wasn't just me that was doing it by myself.

Anyway, we moved. There wasn't gymnastics that was the caliber of where I was. The swimming was right there at my pool, and I had a coach who was willing to sort of guide the ship. My parents really cared about making sure that we had what we needed to be successful, but was swimming their gig? No [laughs]. Were they aficionados? Never. My dad, he was real cute. He used to carry my times in his front pocket [laughs], so when people would talk to him he would sound knowledgeable.

But Randy was the one. My mom said at one point, like, "Look, I cannot get her to practice twice a day." And so he picked me up and took me to practice.

I'm 5-10 and unusually muscular. Even at age 50. So all my life I heard, "I wouldn't want to be in a dark alley with you." Well, I wouldn't want to be in a dark alley with you, either [laughs]. I mean, it's just not the kind of thing that most 11, 12-year-old girls hear.

When I was 10 years old, apparently I was close to breaking the state record in some event in, it was like a 10-and-under record. And my mom tells the coach, "Hey, look, she's pretty close here. I bet if you push her I bet she can break this." And he said, "If I push her, she's going to quit." And so he never pushed me. I never broke the record.

***

My first coach was Eddie Reese, his brother, and Eddie made it fun. I had great skill development. I had a wonderful feel for the water, but I didn't train the way swimmers train. When I see what little kids do now, I'm like, Holy cow! I can't believe that kid is going to stay in this sport. You know, we played sharks and minnows. We did relays. We did all these like funky drills to get us to feel the water. But I was unusually lucky to have first Eddie Reese and then Randy Reese. I really kicked it into gear.

By the time I was 12, I was breaking national records for 12-year-olds. And by the time I was 14, I was No. 1 in the world for all women. That was 200 butterfly. But getting there, working that hard when you're not No. 1, when you want to be doing other things, that was tough. It was awful tough for me because I was the youngest person on the team by quite a ways, and was clearly an up and comer. We had some other people on the team, other women in particular who were really good, and they were not kind.

But the universe changed. As soon as I won nationals, everybody was nice to me [laughs]. And the people who were older, they all went off to college, so they weren't there anymore.

I swam with literally a thousand other kids who were also working hard. I think everybody's got to find what drives them, but clearly I wanted to be the best swimmer in the world.

I remember watching the 1976 Olympics. I was completely taken, not just with swimming, but with track and field and gymnastics and basketball and volleyball. I loved the whole thing, this idea that this was the best in the world competing against each other. It sung to me. The music, still, gets to me. All those videos, you know, the ones where Bud Greenspan would say, "And now, going for the fifth medal with broken leg." [laughs] I love those videos. I'm just hard-wired to be suckered into those, whatever the story is.

* * *

So the next year I left home to go train for the 1980 Olympics. And I really thought that was going to be the total of my athletic career, the 1980 Olympics. That would be the end. Title IX had not taken off yet, so I didn't know any women who were competing in college or who had full scholarships. I was not a Billie Jean King. I didn't see what was going on and say, Hey, why aren't girls getting scholarships? I was repeating the conventional wisdom that women's bodies give out around 18, and women stop getting better, and so women quit after their high school careers. That was the conventional wisdom. That was why women didn't compete in college.

So starting in my freshman year in high school I took an extra class every year, knowing that 1980, my senior year in high school, was an Olympic year, so I wouldn't have to do very much to graduate. So my senior year I only had to take three classes, and one of them was typing [laughs]. I took like AP political science and other classes, but everything was geared toward having 1980 be the big to-do. By the time 1980 came around, I had already been on the national team for four years.

I used to miss about two swim practices a year. I made sure I did not get sick by eating healthy, by getting enough rest. In between workouts I did 300 sit-ups and 200 push-ups every single day, and I rested getting ready for the next practice. I had never had a job. My teammates would go body surfing. One time I went body surfing and it made me so sore—I'm already sort of pushing it right to the max—it made me so sore that I didn't swim well in practice for the next couple days, so I didn't do it anymore. If I drove the car for more than an hour, I would not swim as fast in practice. If I had more than a half a cup of coffee, I would swim fast for that practice but the next practice would suffer. Everything from when I did my laundry to what positions I sat in when I was reading, how I studied. Everything was related to doing a little bit better at that next practice. Everything.

We got a week off after nationals, after each nationals. We had spring and fall, so we had two weeks out of the year off. We usually had practice Christmas afternoon. We had practice Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving Day, Easter. You know, we competed quite a bit. I went from September until mid-January being so tired. That's the really hard part of the year. That part of the year you're swimming 800 laps a day. So it's 400 in the morning, 400 at night. I'm going to school on top of this. As soon as your body gets used to one level of workload, you make it a little harder.

I did that for years. And when you get that tired, you can also get a little grumpy. And then all your teammates, they're doing the exact same thing, so they're grumpy too. And you have to be very intentional about creating teamwork. We all wanted to get to the Olympics. We were all good athletes, really good, and people would say like, "My arms feel like marble. My arms feel like cement. My arms feel like cast iron." OK, we got it. Everybody's arms hurt. No shit, Sherlock. So we had a rule amongst ourselves that we could only complain to somebody who could make a difference about it. We were all exhausted, and tired, but just to moan about it wasn't going to help us get to the Olympics.

My parents, like I said, they never knew what my times were, but they always knew what my grades were. They knew who my teachers were. They were very academically oriented. And my parents, if I had ever not gotten a good grade, they would not have hesitated for a nanosecond to take me out of swimming [laughs]. That was what we talked about at dinner table. We never talked about swimming. I just thought my life would go on as though I had never been a swimmer, that I would be a lawyer or whatnot, and take the next step academically.

In January we kind of hear these rumblings that there might not be an Olympics. And at the time I was actually in favor of it, because my brother, who's two years older than I was, had to register for the draft. And my thinking was, if there's something I can do to prevent World War III, I'll do it.

* * *

Then college scholarships started coming out of the woodwork. Starting at the very end of my junior year, it was a full-on recruiting. Suddenly my eyes went like, OK, my career's going to be four years more. It was a huge shift. And I can get my college paid for, and that brought me tremendous pride. Even though my parents told me, repeatedly, "You don't have to swim to get a college degree. You don't need to." I wanted to earn it. I felt like I had already worked so hard, and I wanted to earn it.

So I eventually picked Duke. They did offer me a full scholarship which, funny enough, my coach offered me without really having the authority to do so. I didn't find this out until later. But Tom Butters was the athletic director and his comment was, "Well, I would've given Mozart a scholarship, too, if he would've played a little music for me." [laughs]

Actually when I went to Duke, the rest of the team was not on scholarship. I think there were some women who held some Duke records, and it was a big point of pride for them, and those just fell like ...

I thought it would be OK if I wasn't the best in the world. I thought, I'm earning a full scholarship to Duke University. I'm on this team. And I had very good friends on the team. I really thought that it wouldn't bother me to not win. I would be able to focus on academics.

And at nationals I didn't win anything. I got second place in the 200 butterfly, and didn't swim fast. I think I went like the same time I went when I was 14 or something. And it just ate me up inside. It was like somebody reached up into my guts and twisted slowly. I just hated it. Hated it. It's one thing to get second place to Tracy Caulkins or Mary T. Meagher, which I did numerous times, but still feel like I swam a great race. When I wasn't doing my best, even though I was getting second place, it just felt terrible to me.

So that summer, in between my freshman and sophomore year, I rededicated myself to swimming. My first year at Duke I only had a 2.3 GPA. You know, not really going to school my senior year of high school, I really had to struggle. I was competing with other people who had been to Exeter and other really good schools, and this was a breeze for them. And I really had to work hard to regain study habits, so I was playing a catch-up game academically.

But by my second semester I kind of figured it out, and then that summer I didn't work. Instead I went back to Randy and I trained at University of Florida and got in great shape and did well and felt like things were moving in the right direction.

***

So I came back to Duke and training and academics were going well. And then right before Thanksgiving break, I was out running in between East and West Campus—Duke has two campuses—and there was a guy running towards me kind of slowly. And I had every bell going off in my head, but I told myself to be quiet. And I started running in the street. My bells were going off.

And he grabbed me and pulled me. There were like three giant evergreen trees where the branches went down low, and we fought inside of those for probably, I'm guessing, 40 minutes. You know, wrestling and battling. And I lost. And he didn't even have a weapon. And I was strong [laughs]. Trust me. At the time, I was in great shape. And I lost. And so he pulled me back into the woods and raped me. And the whole thing lasted about two and a half hours.

It really changed my whole world. It changed my way of thinking. I mean, my goals before that happened were, I wanted to be the best swimmer in the world and I wanted to get good grades. And that was the alpha and omega of Nancy Hogshead. That was all I wanted. That was what my life was about.

I was very lucky that he let me live. He must have left Duke, because he was never found. The police put a lot of effort and resources into trying to find him, but he was never found.

I actually gave up. I felt like I had done everything I could. I told him about my mother and how much she loved me. I told him I was pregnant. I told him I had a venereal disease. I told him everything I had read in Seventeen magazine about what you're supposed to do to get yourself out of this kind of situation. I was trying to make him see me as a person. But I was losing. I was batting zero.

And then I wasn't wearing anything, and it got dark and cold out, and I started shivering, and he kept telling me if I kept shivering he was going to kill me. And I couldn't stop shivering.

In swim practice, at least once a year, or after a competition, I would pass out. And when you pass out, it's like the blackness kind of like closes in, you know, like a small circle, and that started happening. And I shook my head like, Don't you dare pass out, because you are totally gone if you pass out. Anyway, I thought I was passing out, and so I started crying. I felt like, This is it. You have done everything. You don't have any more tricks up your sleeve here.

And when I started to cry, he liked it. And I could tell he liked it. So I started crying harder. He was probably gone in about two minutes after that. Right at the very end he goes, "You know, I really respect you." And I said, "Just don't do this to anybody else." And he said, "I won't." I didn't believe him, but it was one of those moments that he had to like thoroughly, completely degrade me and have dominance over me. If he had just told me, "If you cry, I will leave," I would've cried much sooner.

Right away, I was thinking that the police were not going to believe me. There is something about rape that is different from other ... If I had been just, if somebody had taken my purse, and they had done it in a violent way, I doubt that I would've thought, Oh, they're not going to believe me. But I absolutely was thinking, You know, I better buck up and I better not cry. I need to sound credible and act credible and get myself together. I'm sure I didn't do a very good job, but the police were bend-over-backwards nice to me. I mean, I was really beaten up. My lips were so big I couldn't put them inside my mouth, and I had one eye that was closed. I just was a mess.

And so at the hospital I told myself that this was just going to be a very bad event that I was going to put behind me, and I was not going to let it get in the way of my life. I was going to be determined to still get good grades, be the best athlete in the world. Now, I would look back and self-diagnose myself and say that I had PTSD. But I just felt very out of control of my life.

***

Duke University, they just bent over backwards. It was so obvious—to them, not to me—I was like a kid that really needed help. I was right on the cusp of dropping out of school. I had two car accidents: Bang! Bang! I'd never had one before. I've never had one since. Two car accidents. They moved me onto Main West. I dropped two classes, and I got to take incompletes, and I ended up taking those exams later.

I thought I would be able to get back in the water once I was physically OK, but when I tried it wasn't physically, it was mentally. I tried to keep very strict control over my brain, because if I let it wander it would go back into the woods.

I used to go back and check and make sure the doors were locked and that the windows were locked. I would check, I would say, at least a dozen times every single night. The first couple nights that you do that, and you know the doors are locked! But I couldn't not go check and make sure the door was locked. I had to do that over and over again, knowing it's completely nutty behavior.

I didn't want to tell anybody that I felt that way, because I was so embarrassed about feeling that way. I mean, people were really ready to throw arms open and help me, but like I just didn't want to be a rape victim. I didn't want to have been raped. Me, a victim? Are you kidding me? A victim? Give me a break. I mean, it just was not who I'd constructed myself to be.

So my coach tells me, "Nancy, listen. I'm going to redshirt you. And let me tell you, I'm going to see you win gold in 1984." And I remember thinking like, He is off his rocker. I'm going to take this redshirt and I'm not going to train for the rest of this year—thank you very much for the full scholarship—and I'm going to enjoy myself.

It was my first time ever not swimming. I thought that was going to be my easy way to slide out of swimming. That I wouldn't have to deal. But I just find that my own competitive spirit and my own sort of desire is very much like a ball. When I dropped it, it just bounced back into my hand. Just like my freshman year, I'd thought, Well, I won't have to swim that hard, and it'll be OK that I won't win.

And my coach knew that about me, but I didn't know that about me. I just thought I was quitting. I mean, the story that was told to people who were not in the know was that I had retired. That I was taking a redshirt, but really this was the exit. This absolutely was the retirement.

* * *

My coach calls me up and says, "Listen, If you want to keep your scholarship"—by the way, he's totally devious here —he said, "If you want your scholarship, all you have to do is show up for the meets. Don't do anything else. Just show up. You don't have to come to a single practice. You don't have to warm up. Just show up at the meet."

Well, I was unhappy with how the first warmup went. I didn't think I was in good enough shape for the first warmup, but I won all my events, OK? And so before the second time I thought, I'll just go to a few workouts, you know. And then slowly, but surely ...

He was just so spot on. So then, sure enough, I'm now going to two workouts a day. I'm lifting weights and I totally get the hunger in a big, big way and my time was the third-fastest in the country. It wasn't like the end-of-the-year time, which would be much faster, but I was really psyched that I could go that fast and do that well with just the amount of training that I had had.

So I went home at Thanksgiving my junior year and I talked to my parents. I said, "Would you support me if I took time off to go train?" And my dad said, "You want to take a year and a half off to train for one swim meet?" And I said, "That's exactly what I want to do."

My mom did not want me to do it, but they just said they would be supportive of me if that's really what I wanted to do. The deal was, I was borrowing money from them. Initially I tried to have a job, but that wasn't working. But I had to drop out of Duke. My mom didn't really like it. She was ready for me to sort of move on to the next chapter, and I just wasn't ready. And, you know, more power to them. They didn't think it was the right decision—they laugh about it now—but they did support me through it.

And so I went home, and then the first real practice I couldn't swim two miles [laughs]. I remember thinking, Maybe I should rethink this decision, because in the hard part of the season you're swimming about 14 miles. You're swimming more than a mile just to warm up.

But I got it back really quickly. And I think I was like second at the next nationals. I was comeback swimmer of the year. I just really dedicated myself. And this time, frankly, it was different for a couple reasons. One is I was still, obviously working through a lot of emotional stuff at the pool and I found that swimming was giving me that feeling of control over my life back.

I found that it was very healing. I was making decisions. I had chosen to be here. I was giving up a lot. I didn't think I was ever going to get my college scholarship back, so I thought that this was a huge sacrifice. And I was borrowing money to be able to do this, and I ... It made me feel like I was doing it.

Also, swimming, as in any athletic endeavor, is a very socially acceptable place to be angry. Under the water I could like battle it out with ... I could replay the rape, and this time I won [laughs]. This time I was able to overpower him. And this time I was able to get away, and get in a few really good hits in the meantime.

In swimming you've got a lot of time to replay those things, and I found that I could use that anger to help me go faster. And so not only was it socially acceptable, it was like, Oh, God, I can actually use this. This is going to actually help me do better if I can tap into it sort of at will. So I was able to relish being really strong and getting stronger every day in a way that I couldn't as a 12- or 14-year-old.

I was really proud of what I was doing. Even though really what I was doing was swimming back and forth in a swimming pool, I was living with dignity.

* * *

I still felt that I could've gone faster after 1984. After 1984 my dad, my parents said, "We're not paying for it anymore." And there's no professional at this point. You pretty much couldn't do anything back in 1984. So I didn't quit because I wasn't getting better. I didn't retire for any other reason than lack of opportunity to continue to keep going.

I had some experiences in the water when it felt like my soul was a needle and there was a lot of splashing and cacophony around me, but that I, my soul, was still and calm. And I was very aware of my breathing. I felt no pain whatsoever. I was at one with the water. I never competed in that state, but I would get in that state in practice that were shared moments with God. I've never had an experience like that outside of athletics.

It wasn't just like an emotional feeling of elation. It wasn't that at all. It was a feeling that the rest of the world went away. There was a calmness to the universe. There was a lightness with the universe, but I was a part of it.

***

I wanted to be like Donna de Varona. I wanted to be a broadcaster, and I tried very hard for four years. I hired a private coach. I practiced over and over, different races, and not only was I terrible at it [laughs]—I was awful—but I didn't like it. I couldn't figure out why I didn't like it, but I didn't like it.

It's actually good that I was so bad at it, because I didn't get hired to commentate the 1988 Olympics, which, believe me, I was gunning for. Every contact I had. I really tried hard to do it. I did a lot of work with ESPN. They were just getting started. But I failed. I didn't get it, and so I just thought, better move on.

Motivational speaking, for me, was paying the bills. But what I loved, and what got me up in the morning, was anything doing with being an advocate. And the whole Women's Sports thing, I tried to say like, this is really not what I'm supposed to be doing, because it's very uncomfortable. I come from a very traditional family. I didn't get married until later and I had wanted very much to be married. I wanted to have a guy that I would have a life with. And to be a feminist in the sports world ...

I'm like, this is just too difficult for me personally, and I just need to go be an advocate for something that's a little less charged, something people won't get so mad about. But Donna de Varona came and talked at the Olympics—she talked to the entire team—about why we needed to get involved with Title IX.

And then that summer in between my junior and senior year—I still had a year of college left—I was an intern in San Francisco at the Women's Sports Foundation. And after I graduated I went on the board of the Women's Sports Foundation. And who was on the board, it was Anita DeFrantz, it was Donna Lopiano, it was Carole Oglesby, it was Christine Grant. It was the leaders of the women's movement in athletics. And I was the youngest person by 20 years. And they opened as many doors as they possibly could for me.

* * *

How A Career Ends: Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist

When I was pregnant with twins, my doctors told me over and over, if I had not been an athlete, then my kids would've suffered. It was only because I had the 8-liter lung capacity that I was able to take them as long as I did. Actually, that's probably the thing I'm most proud of in my life. Because it was painful. I was scared. I was nervous for them. It was the first thing that took the same amount of effort, the same amount of myself, since swimming.

* * *

The rape changed my life. It turned me into a much more empathetic person. I'm very comfortable around somebody else's great pain, whether it's alcoholism, or losing a child, or grief, or tremendous anger, or a divorce, whatever it is. Just being around pain, I can do it because I've been through it myself. Today, I don't want to be somebody who wasn't raped. I absolutely think that it moved me in ways I can't imagine I would've been moved had that not happened. The rape absolutely made me a better person.

Interestingly enough, it made me much, much closer to God. I mean, I was in such a needy place. I could not stay in a victim place. That had to move. I was not going to stay there. And this natural ability of the soul to heal, I mean, I worked really hard at it, and at the same time it was doing it all by itself.

* * *

Every Olympian talks about how hard it is to go from being graced and blessed: When you dive in and you have a skin suit on and you're tapered and nothing hurts and you do something with such elegance, it's just beautiful. It feels beautiful. It feels just graced by God to be that good at something. Just masterful. And then to stop that and do something else and start at the bottom, not knowing if you're ever going to feel graced and masterful again, not knowing if this is what God meant for you to do—that not knowing, I find, in talking to other athletes, it is a universal feeling.

For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.

Rob Trucks spent eighteen months talking to 49-year-olds. Two of those interviews, with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, appeared in Deadspin. You may read others at his website tusktusktusk.com . Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.