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Four years ago, swimmer Rebecca Soni won a gold medal in the 200 breaststroke at the Beijing Summer Olympics. She hopes to add to her medal collection at this summer's London Games, where she'll be competing in three events.
Now 25, Soni looks graceful when she stands at the edge of the pool. And when she jumps in, it seems to take her just a few strokes to get to the other side of a 25-meter pool.
Soni lives and trains in California, but she recently came to New York for a promotional event. Even here, she trains at least once a day. At the moment, she's concentrating on problem areas.
"I'm definitely working on the starts and turns," she says, "The kind of in-between parts of the swim — that's always been a weakness of mine."
Normally, Soni is in the pool for two to four hours a day. But her workouts now include many other activities, as well: weight training, yoga, Pilates and spinning.
Soni has some of the fastest world times in the 200 and 100 breaststroke. In Beijing, she won two silvers as well as the gold.
At one point, Soni was training too intensely, says her coach, Dave Salo, who is also the head swimming and diving coach at USC. He had her cut back, and her times improved.
"She is one of those types of athletes that grows up thinking that you've got to go 10 workouts a week," Salo says. "She needed to learn that she could be in control of that environment; she needed to learn that she could go one workout a day. ... So I think she has learned a lot, and grown up a lot."
At one point after Beijing, Soni was so burned out she was going to retire. She says the repetitive, everyday nature of the intense training got to her. It was hard to realize when she was in a funk, she says. She found herself just going through the motions.
Salo helped her learn not to have to be perfect every day, Soni says, and also to "remember why it's fun — and race your friends, and have a good time."
That means that once in a while, she'll declare a "fun day," and pull out the inner tubes to play around with.
"Whatever you need to do. You just need to approach it in a different way," she says.
From her relaxed and playful mood in the pool in New York, it seems that Soni's new attitude is working.
She previously had a problem with a rapid heartbeat; that was solved through surgery. These days, she eats two breakfasts each day: cereal and fruit before training; eggs and toast afterward. And she often mixes different cereals together.
"I think that's a habit from when I was little," she says. "It makes things fun in the morning."
Soni's breaststroke style is considered unusual. It's very abbreviated, her coach says, with a very short kick. She skims the water and doesn't go down that deep — so there isn't as much drag.
And she moves at a very fast tempo. Salo says you could never teach a swimmer that stroke — but it works for her. He calls her a lioness: strong, and protective.
"If she needs to go fight, or she needs to go hunt down something, she is at 100 percent. And I think that's kind of who she is," Salo says. "She's really 100 percent at what she does."
As the Olympic trials and London Games draw near, Soni is beginning to increase her hours of training again. She's hoping to win another gold in the 200 breaststroke, as well as medals in the 100 breaststroke and the 400 medley relay.
But Salo says the main thing he wants for Soni is for her to enjoy the experience.
"She's already the Olympic gold medalist and the world record holder," he says. "She could do this for a very long time if she continues to enjoy it. "
And clearly, Soni still does.
"Overall," she says, "there's nothing like the feeling of having a great race."