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Swimming Full Circle

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Written by
Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by
Michael Matti

When Nate O’Brien got word last year that the head coach position for the swim team at Bellevue Club was available, it seemed his swimming career was coming full circle.

A Sammamish native, O’Brien grew up in a family with a strong connection to the sport. His mother, Lisa Geary, swam for the Canadian Olympic team in 1976, and his father, Tom O’Brien, swam for Stanford. Nate showed promise as a young kid, but early on he took to soccer instead. It wasn’t until after his freshman year on the Eastlake High School swim team that he considered swimming seriously and asked his parents if he could join the Bellevue Club Swim Team (BCST).

“I got better swimming here at the Bellevue Club for Klaas Schenk; actually got good enough to get noticed by one of the best coaches in the world, Eddie Reese,” O’Brien says. “He came to the Club and watched me at practice, and then I went on a recruiting trip to Austin and ended up going to the University of Texas.”

During his time at Texas, the team won a national championship, and he became an individual two-time conference champion in the 200-meter backstroke. While swimming at an elite level and in a prestigious program, he was training daily alongside Olympic contenders such Brendan Hansen, Aaron Peirsol and Ian Crocker. And at meets he found himself competing against, arguably, the most hyped swimmer in the world.

“The year before Olympic trials, I got second to Michael Phelps at U.S. Nationals in the 200 backstroke. But he crushed me; I finished much farther behind,” O’Brien says with a laugh.

“But probably my biggest accomplishment, the one my coach likes to talk about, was at NCAA championships placing top eight in the 200-meter fly and 200-meter backstroke, which is unusual because at that level guys will pick one event and do relays. I did two events, with just a few minutes in between the races,” O’Brien says.

By 2003, his success was significant enough to put him into contention for the Olympics. O’Brien, who has a dual-citizenship and had been traveling to Canada for long training stints with his mother’s coach at different points throughout his career, decided to compete in the Olympic trials for Canada. He made the team. In 2004, he traveled to Athens, Greece, to race in two events—the 200-meter backstroke and 200-meter butterfly.

In Athens, O’Brien succeeded in reaching his goal of making the semifinals in backstroke, and fell just short of making the finals, ending in tenth place overall.

“I don’t have a lot of speed, so my thing is coming back on people,” O’Brien says of his race strategy. “But I just went out way too slow, thinking I could come back on the best swimmers in the world, and that wasn’t going to happen.”

There were a few other lessons O’Brien learned through that race experience. 

“It’s hard to reset your goals in a meet like that. All along my goal was to make semifinals. I made semifinals, and then I had six hours to reset and think: now my goal is to make finals. That’s got to be the hardest thing in sports—to set a goal and achieve it, and then try to reset it.”

Years later, O’Brien is able to relate this wisdom to others through his subsequent coaching career, which started his last year in college as he was wrapping up classes to earn his degree in political science.

“I found out I loved coaching,” he says. In the following years, he coached a few different programs in Austin, Texas. At one point he tried to leave the swimming arena and sell software, but soon found he didn’t want to be away from the pool and quickly returned. 

“Before I came [to the Bellevue Club] I was working for a highly competitive training facility in Austin, and I was actually living on the property in my Airstream, living the coaching dream. But then I saw the opportunity pop up here, and I had always told myself there was one other job I would look at if it came available.”

The rest is history; in September 2015, O’Brien, now 33, returned to the Bellevue Club pool and BCST, his home team, where he continues to hone his passion for coaching.

“The feeling of accomplishment you get as a swimmer, when you get your best times, or achieve your goals, when all that hard work pays off at one specific swim is great,” O’Brien says. “But, for example, I coached this one girl, and she worked hard, did everything I asked of her, made her time and qualified for a huge meet. And the feeling I got when she qualified was far greater than any feeling I got myself, even when making the Olympic team. That’s when I knew, shoot, it’s got me.”    

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