It isn't very often that a person has a day that she truly can call hers. For University of Wisconsin senior Carly Piper, her day came on December 20, 2004. In her hometown of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, that Monday was officially known as "Carly Piper Day." As could be expected of someone who has a day named after her, Piper is not your typical college student returning home for winter break. Just four months earlier, along with three teammates, the then-20 year old swimmer made Olympic history.
Through three years at Wisconsin, Carly Piper is already one of the most decorated swimmers in Badgers' history. With nine Big Ten titles, two Big Ten Swimmer of the Championships honors, a Big Ten Swimmer of the Year award, 11 All-America selections, and countless other accomplishments, it is easy to extol Piper's collegiate career. However, her greatest accomplishment came on August 18, 2004 in Athens, Greece at the 28th Olympiad. That morning Piper knew for sure that she would be swimming in one race, with the possibility of another. The first race was the 4 x 200 meter relay heat in the morning, which Piper's American team won. The second race was the event finals later that day. Based on past performance and how they fared in the morning swim, a fourth American would be chosen to join Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, and Kaitlin Sandeno in the finals that evening. After posting the second best time in her heat, Piper awaited word as to her standing for the finals with Wisconsin teammate and Polish Olympic Team member Adam Mania keeping her company. "Adam said that it was going to be really close and then Mark Schubert (U.S. women's swim coach) came up to me and said, `You are going to be on the team tonight.' It was a dream come true."
The performance put forth by Piper and her teammates in that evening's race was nothing short of amazing. The team won three of the four legs with Piper only a second behind her leg's leader. The four impressive performances amounted to a two and a half second victory over the Chinese team and a new world record. These four young women, none of them older than 21, had just achieved the pinnacle of athletic accomplishment and their joy shown through to everyone in Athens and to those watching around the world. In one of the most enduring images of the summer games, the four teammates react to their record-setting victory in very different ways. Coughlin, 21, with hands on head, stares at the posted results with a wide-mouthed look of disbelief, Vollmer, 16, absorbs the scene in shock, Sandeno, 21, the teams anchor, still in the water, raises her arms in victory, while Piper begins to cry on the pool deck. "I still get shivers thinking about it," Piper said. "I just kept thinking, `I can't believe I am here; I can't believe I just swam in the finals at the Olympics, I can't believe we just got a gold medal, I can't believe we just got a world record.' Everything was coming at me at once. It was something that I had dreamed of since I was little and it was all happening."
While few were surprised by the win, as the American women have won this event each year since its first Olympic inclusion in 1996; many were blown away by the dominance shown in the race. Not only did the four ladies beat their Chinese competitors by more than two and a half seconds, the Americans set a world record, erasing the oldest mark on the books. While Piper had been aware of the record before, it was not until she was told during an interview that she realized which particular record they had broken. "We went right to the media after we got out of the pool, and they told us that it was the oldest world record," Piper said. "Mostly you're there to focus on your race and you don't worry about things like that, but I had heard of it. It just wasn't something that I was thinking about the entire time."
After the post-race media blitz, Piper and her teammates got to celebrate with family and friends before the medal ceremony. "It was just great before we stepped on the podium, Eric and Geoff (Hansen, Badger head and assistant coaches) were on one side of me and my parents were on the other side. I was surrounded by the people who helped me get there."
Piper said that while on the podium, looking at her team in the stands across from her, one thing kept entering her mind. "I was only thinking of my friends and family in Wisconsin and Michigan. They are how I got there from their love and support."
Despite the thoughts of those cheering her on an ocean away, Piper learned the hard way a lesson that many other medalists had learned before her. When we were on the podium and the national anthem was playing, "I was trying to remember the words, just to make sure I didn't mess up. People have since told me that it looked like I didn't know the words, but I definitely was singing and I definitely knew the words."
Even though Piper has garnered and earned countless honors and awards throughout her swimming career, she was no where near prepared for the interminable plaudits that she received upon having the gold medal placed around her neck. "It was something very new for me. It took a little while for me to get used to talking to people and forming sentences the right way." The new gold medalist had little time to adjust to her newfound fame as an onslaught of interviews and appearances began almost immediately after she stepped off the podium.
Piper, still not comfortable with all of the attention, had to adapt, because the interest in the new world record holders increased every day as new and even more thrilling opportunities arose. For Piper, the most memorable came less than 24 hours after winning the gold. "The most exciting thing that came from winning the gold medal was being on `The Today Show' the day after. Everyone came up to us and said, `I saw you, I watched you on TV.' It was something very new, but also something very exciting at the same time."
Piper is cognizant that the regimen and cohesion of the Wisconsin program has been a major influence on her career. "Before I came here, I knew I needed a change. I was the same my whole senior year, just trying to get through it. When I stepped on campus here, I felt like I fit in, with the team and the coaches. The whole atmosphere academically and athletically is everything that I wanted."
After spending a week in Grosse Pointe Woods, Piper returned to Madison and after seeing friends for the first time in months, her attention quickly returned to the pool. "Everything from this past summer has helped, whether mentally or physically. I just want to get out there and improve my times and team-wise, improve our finishes at Big Tens and crack into the top ten at NCAAs." So far, both Piper and the Badgers are well on their way to achieving those goals. Piper has finished first in 11 of her 14 individual races this season, while the team is 4-1 in dual meets and currently ranked tenth nationally.