There was a time in the pantheon of the world’s athletes when swimmers were underappreciated. When you get out of bed in the middle of the night to swim long distances in cold water, people think you’re a bit odd. But nowadays, thanks to the heroics of Olympians like Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin, swimmers are veritable pop stars, to the extent that real-life pop stars—and even heads of state—want to connect with them.
Justin Bieber tweeted Franklin to congratulate her after she won her first gold medal at the recent London Olympics, and President Barack Obama tweeted Phelps after he won a record 19th gold in London.
The trickledown effect is so pronounced that even a quiet, self-effacing sort like Terry economics major Shannon Vreeland finds herself making adjustments in her busy Honors class schedule to accommodate an upcoming visit to the White House to meet the president. Vreeland is also scheduled for trackside duty at a NASCAR race in her home state of Kansas, where she will wave the green flag.
Unaccustomed to the spotlight and uncomfortable with it, Vreeland brought these ultra-public appearances on herself by winning a gold medal in London as part of America’s 4 x 200 freestyle relay team.
“Shannon is a coach’s dream because she’s a brilliant student and she can swim any distance, short or long, from the 100-meter free to the mile,” says UGA’s Jack Bauerle, who was on site in London as a personal coach after serving as the head women’s team coach at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “But one of the things we’ve had to work on during Shannon’s career at Georgia is getting her to realize just how talented she really is.”
Standing on the blocks awaiting her third-leg swim in the finals of the 4 x 200-meter free relay in London, Vreeland wasn’t a picture of confidence.
“Her parents said they could see her knees shaking,” says Bauerle.
“They were!” says Vreeland. “You can see it on the video.”
Vreeland exploded into the water so quickly that she was worried the U.S. might be disqualified because she had left the blocks too early. But both the timing of her start and her swim were impeccable. Vreeland cut into what had been a half-second lead by the Australian team, and anchoring the U.S. team was another UGA stalwart, Allison Schmitt, who had previously won the individual 200-meter freestyle event. Schmitt quickly took the lead and cruised home with another gold for America in an Olympic record time of 7:42.92
Here are some other Vreeland numbers of interest.
Her high school GPA in Overland Park, Kan., was 4.7, which looks like a misprint, and she was versatile enough to have competed in nine different events at the U.S. Junior Nationals. Undecided about where to attend college, Vreeland says something clicked when she visited Athens.
“This town has a real sense of community,” says Vreeland, “and UGA not only has a great swimming team but also a great Honors program.”
Vreeland’s college GPA is a near-perfect 3.9. Her favorite teacher is legal studies professor Marisa Pagnattaro. She thinks she’ll go to graduate school with a focus on international relations. And she intends to work overseas when her swimming career is over.
“That idea was reinforced by my experience with the Olympic swimming team,” says Vreeland. “We flew into Geneva, we trained in France, and we got to see and experience a great deal of London both during and after the Games.”
Asked whether her life has changed, Vreeland—whom Bauerle characterizes as a “quiet warrior”—acknowledges that it has. Her contribution to the U.S. Olympic team’s medal load lasted less than two minutes, and she’s visible for only a few seconds near the end of the U.S. swim team’s “Call Me Maybe” video. But that video has logged more than eight million views on YouTube, and a gold medal elevates an American athlete into rarefied air.
Flying back to Georgia for the start of fall semester, Vreeland was surprised when a total stranger extended his hand across the aisle of the plane, offered her congratulations, and, when questioned by the person seated next to him, said, “Oh, that’s Shannon Vreeland. She won a gold medal in swimming at the London Olympics.”