Rebecca Soni and Caroline Burckle make a difference with RISE athlete mentorship program
Rebecca Soni remembers stepping onto the Olympic medal podium in London and panicking. She had just successfully defended her Olympic gold in the 200 breaststroke, and in that race she became the first woman to clock a 2:20 time in that event. She would have one more race left, like the breaststroke stage of the US Women’s 400 IM relay, and that would be all for her swimming career. She had reached her ultimate goal and accomplished everything she had ever wanted in the pool, and suddenly Soni realized she was feeling a void.
“I had that moment on the podium after finishing his incredible career, a gold medal around my neck, where I felt panicked,” recalls Soni. “‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I do now?’ On the podium, panicking. I knew I was done and that I was a little bit missing the joy I was expecting. There was a relief, but there was definitely that feeling of “What now?” The joy came. certainly lasted a little, but it quickly turned into panic.
When Soni returned from London, she couldn’t figure out what she wanted to do next with her life. She touched here and there, and during that time she connected with Caroline Burckle, a 2008 Olympic teammate. Burckle had retired shortly before the 2012 trials, and she wasn’t entirely sure about her long-term plan as she worked on a master’s degree in psychology. Sport.
Their discussions mostly took the form of a “length of years (stretching) of vocal exchanges between them” and through these conversations both deepened the positive and negative emotions associated with high performance sport. They realized that elite swimming hadn’t prepared them enough for the life after and the real need to be grounded when swimming is gone.
“We would just have these in-depth conversations about our worth as athletes and what it meant to feel strong as a human outside of sport,” said Burckle. “Being able to know this value as a human being is incredibly important and essential to owning your successes and becoming a successful athlete.”
It’s not that being successful in swimming is negative, quite the contrary, in fact. But Soni remembers that the day after London, she had been exhausted when she heard: “You just did the greatest thing you have ever done in your life.” It might seem like a supplement, but for Soni, it stung her pain as she sought to find purpose in her post-competitive life.
“I was like, ‘Well, what about you with your kids? Having kids, isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever done? ‘ She said. “We put the Olympics on such a high pedestal, and it’s a very beautiful thing, when you grapple with what it means to you, I’ve really struggled to do my best in the past. It takes a long time, and I still have to remind myself almost a decade later that there are other very meaningful and useful things that are part of my life, that are happening in my life.
Soni and Burckle have spent months and years discussing how they could impact the sport and help young swimmers develop a healthier outlook. So in 2015, RISE Athletes began, a mentoring program for young athletes aimed at improving mental well-being. They brought in 2000 Olympian Kristy kowal right away and sought to pass on lessons they wished they had known during their career. Some of these tips might have helped Soni and Burckle become better swimmers, but they think they certainly would have been more complete, more confident, and better prepared for the challenges they would face when swimming wasn’t around.
RISE has since grown to more than 35 mentors, a list that includes 2021 U.S. Olympic swimmers Nathalie Hinds and Zach Harting with former American Olympians Katie Hoff, Kate Ziegler and Katie Meili and other high level swimmers. But many mentors are not former swimmers. Different mentors work with athletes in each of their respective sports. The goal, according to Burckle? “Supporting them through the ups and downs, taking ownership of their worth, understanding their inner rhetoric, how they overcome their obstacles and improve their communication and leadership styles and skills and all of those things. “
While coaches can design their athletes’ training and provide technique feedback, and parents provide love and education, Soni and Burckle believe mentors can provide a third essential element of support. “They are not there to step on anyone’s feet,” Soni said. “How many times in this busy world, between social media and the million things these kids are trying to do, do you just get to sit down, talk to someone, get guided through your feelings?” and learn more about yourself and be heard and seen? It’s just a really nice connection to help the work of the coach be better and the work of the parents in raising and loving their child. It really filled that separate but necessary aspect of the lives of these young children. “
This mentoring and listening role could be particularly critical with the current COVID-19 pandemic and swimming creating more stress for swimmers at all levels. Since March 2020, swimmers have had to deal with canceled competitions and training interrupted for long periods of time. “Swimming is no longer a comfortable place where I know what to expect,” Soni said. So mentors can work with their athletes by telling them about their disappointments and helping them reset and keep a healthy outlook.
But when a swimmer or athlete has definitely finished a sport, they will likely still feel a disappointment and maybe even an identity crisis because something so stable and constant in their life will be gone. Mentors can’t completely prevent this, but they can prepare their mentee with the best possible tools to handle these situations.
“The question everyone always wants answered is, ‘How do you prevent this? How do you prevent this whole thing of non-identity, where people don’t know who they are when they’re done? ‘ Said Burckle. “The answer is, you can’t stop it. You can’t stop someone from having an experience. But what you can do is equip them with tools from an early age so that they are better equipped to have these experiences from a different perspective and be able to calm down, regulate their nervous system and understand who they are. . They can fight at the same time that they have the tools to do so.
GET UP offers mentoring in several different formats: the basic one-on-one session between a RISE mentor athlete and a younger athlete, once a week via video call for 30 minutes, as long as the athlete wishes to continue. The athlete also has access to a dashboard where they can chat with their mentor and ask them questions whenever they want. RISE also offers customizable team partnerships where a mentor athlete meets a team for six sessions (and recurring, if the team so chooses), and these can be customized to meet the needs of the team. RISE has also launched a partnership with the Middle Atlantic LSC which offers parent conferences and scholarships for swimmers to receive one-on-one mentorship.
While Soni and Burckle take pride in all of their offerings, they believe that face-to-face offers the most value to athletes. Rather than just a motivational talk, mentors can work for athletes and help them make lasting change and empower athletes. On a more personal level, Soni has this experience of working with individual athletes which is incredibly rewarding as she has watched her mentees grow up regardless of their actual swim times.
“How often can you say you can talk to an Olympian or elite athlete like that?” Said Soni. “Honestly, with these one-on-one, we’ve been working with kids since the very beginning, Caroline and I, and now I’m watching them go to college. I feel like I’m part of the family, like I really care about these people as humans, without necessarily trying to get them to the top of their stage.