How meeting Catherine Fox helped inspire Olympic gold medalist Shannon Vreeland

Vreeland swam on winning 800-meter relay in 2012
London Olympics Swimming
Posted at 6:30 PM, Jun 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-02 11:37:00-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Shannon Vreeland’s right leg was shaking uncontrollably as she prepared for “the absolute best moment of my life.”

Dana Vollmer was slicing through the water in front of her during the 800-meter relay in the Olympic swimming final on Aug. 1, 2012, at the London Aquatics Center.

Vreeland nervously waited on the starting block to swim the third leg and, for the first time in her career, her back leg suddenly had a mind of its own.

“There was just something different about representing Team USA at the Olympics on the biggest possible stage,” Vreeland said by videoconference from Atlanta, where she now works as an environmental lawyer. “I don’t think I had ever been shaking on the blocks before that.”

She was so nervous that she nearly left the block too early and was halfway down the 50-meter pool before she relaxed and stopped worrying about her start.

Vreeland kept the U.S. in second place behind Australia during her leg — setting the stage for her former University of Georgia teammate, Allison Schmitt, to come home in record time, break the Olympic record and claim a gold medal.

London Olympics Swimming Women
United States' Shannon Vreeland, left, and Missy Franklin, right, embrace Allison Schmitt , foreground, and Dana Vollmer, center, after they won gold in the women's 4x200-meter freestyle relay swimming final at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012.

Vreeland, a 2010 Blue Valley West graduate, keeps her Olympic medal in an otherwise unassuming drawer at home, probably next to some napkins, she said.

“I won’t tell anybody where I live, but it’s in my kitchen drawer,” Vreeland said with a laugh. “For years, my favorite thing to do has been teaching clinics and speaking to kids, because that made such a huge impact on me, meeting Catherine Fox as a kid. I just wanted to kind of be able to pass on that same inspiration to other kids.”

Vreeland swam for the Kansas City Blazers, but she didn’t start with an Olympic goal in mind.

“I was lucky enough to meet Catherine Fox, who is a ‘96 Olympian, when I was 8 or 9 years old,” Vreeland said. “She came to practice and spoke to the Blazers about her time coming up through the program.”

Hearing Fox, a double relay gold medalist at the Atlanta Games, tell her story struck a chord within Vreeland.

“For me, it really stuck that somebody did this,” Vreeland said. “Somebody was on this team, worked their way up and worked really hard, and ended up getting to go to the Olympics. I definitely was like, ‘I could do that — maybe.’”

In her fifth-grade yearbook, Vreeland wrote that she wanted to grow up to be an Olympic swimmer.

While she was “a good high school swimmer,” Vreeland said she wasn’t nationally ranked and began to doubt whether the Olympics were a real possibility.

“That dream, while it didn’t certainly fade or subside, logic came in and I was like, ‘Maybe instead what I want to do is score points in SECs or make an impact at NCAAs for a college team.’ You set your sights on some of those more immediate, achievable goals with representing the US always in the background.”

But as Vreeland started stacking up SEC titles, training alongside and competing against former Olympians and Olympic hopefuls reinvigorated her Olympic dream.

“Beating some of those people who had been to the Olympics, who had been on national teams, really planted that seed in my mind that maybe that was a possibility in the future,” she said. “If I could keep up with them at college meets, in practice, why couldn’t I do it come Olympic Trials or nationals?”

Shannon Vreeland
Shannon Vreeland reacts after swimming in a women's 200-meter freestyle semifinal at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Omaha, Neb.

Vreeland finished fourth in the 400-meter freestyle final and fifth in the 200 freestyle at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, earning the chance to live out her dream.

She returned to the Olympic Trials in 2016, delaying her entry into law school at Vanderbilt, but spent most of the year injured and failed to make the team for the Rio de Janeiro Games.

Vreeland has settled in now as a fan — rooting on her former Bulldogs teammates and training partners, many of whom made the roster for the Tokyo Games beginning next month.

“It was super fun to watch (the Olympic Trials) without that stress and anxiety of trying to make the team myself ...,” she said. “It's great to feel that connection with the team and be able to cheer them on.”

Of course, it also stirred plenty of happy memories, too.

“The emotions that came back and the memories were really great ...,” Vreeland said, "(but) the goosebumps I got watching Trials this year are nothing compared to how it feels when you’re actually physically there, walking out on the biggest stage of your life.”