For swimmer Natalie Hinds, the Tokyo Olympics represents a new beginning. You might well come to the conclusion that Hinds earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team is a successful comeback of sorts.
If nothing else, Hinds representing Team USA at this year’s Summer Games has a Hollywood script written all over it.
“I still find myself in disbelief sometimes,” Hinds said in a phone interview with reporter Dennis J Freeman. “Yeah, I’m like here at camp, learning and meeting everyone, swimming really fast. So it’s definitely a good time.”
Making the Olympic squad is no small feat. Hinds knows this firsthand. Like her teammates, Hinds has every reason to be feeling good about being an Olympian. That’s because if you’re an athlete lucky enough just to be considered to compete for a roster spot, this opportunity comes around once every four years.
Making the team itself is almost like putting the icing on the cake before eating it. Hinds first bite at the Olympics came in 2016. However, the Midland, Texas native wound up leaving the U.S. Olympic Team Trials dry in the mouth with shock after an underwhelming performance.
Hinds took a wipeout at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The former University of Florida standout flamed out in the 50 freestyle race with a 55th place showing. She fared a tad better in the 100 freestyle, but still wound up with a 40th place finish.
The nightmare for Hinds didn’t end there. The ebb and flow of the trials would dip a little further on the negative side with Hinds faltering in the 100 butterfly. Her placement? A nice soft landing in 70th place.
This was not the type of performance that Hinds, an All-American swimmer multiple times over at Florida, had envisioned. So her approach coming into this year’s team trials was just sticking with what she knows to do best, Hinds said.
“I’m a completely different swimmer than I was five years ago,” Hinds said. “So I think my mentality was more on the lines of if I swim to my potential I would make this team, and just kind of making sure that I’m in my own lane and staying focused on myself.
“I think those are my biggest tocuses I guess going into trials, and just to keep consistency,” Hinds continued. “In the events leading up to trials, things were going good for me…so just keeping consistent like with things like nutrition and sleep and like my intake of social medium stuff. I wanted to keep that going into trials.”
As Hinds talked about consistency, her times at this year’s trials were a far cry than they were five years ago, and ended up being in line to her 100-meter freestyle fourth-place finish.
Hinds’ time of 53.84 in the 100 freestyle is what earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and gives her an opportunity to medal in that race as well as the 4×100 relay team.
Going from having the 40th best showing in 100 in 2016 to a fourth-place showing five years later is a radical improvement on Hinds’ part. But that’s not the only race in which she flexed off where she has made strides as a big-time swimmer.
The Athens Bulldog Swim Club member improved on what she did in 2016 by 44 spots, making it to the semifinals and an overall 11th place showing in the 50 freestyle. Again, another sign of Hinds’ dramatic turnaround from the 55th place finish at her first Olympic trials meet.
The 100 butterfly is where Hinds made the biggest jump, going from No. 70 in 2016 to a No. 11th place and semifinal showing. Talk about a turnaround. So why the big shift in times?
Well, some time away from the sport, a little reflection and the desire to jump back in the pool again to give it another go at it, all played a part in her resurgence.
Combining all of those elements together, Hinds said she was able to develop a different approach to this year’s trials when asked whether she had formulated a mental makeover as a result of what happened in 2016.
“I had to sit down and understand why it wasn’t working for me,” Hinds said. “That’s kind of where my head was at in 2016,” Hinds said. “I guess the answer is yes. It [2016 Olympic Team Trials] helped play a part for how I approached…my approach to swim meets now, because if I were to fall off I would know what that feels like and those are kind of like my boundaries going into trials.
“I basically do the opposite of everything that I did in 2016,” Hinds also stated. “I think it comes with maturity and growth and experience and trial and error. I think that 2016, as much as it sucked at that time, was a blessing for me in disguise.”
That experience at the 2016 trials as well as her own personal growth and maturity re-shaped her mindset, Hinds said. A difference in mentality is where Hinds believes she has made the biggest improvement in the pool.
“Definitely mentally,” Hinds said. “Physically, I swim faster, yes. And my training was really hard. I think mentally is where I’ve made my biggest leaps and bounds, just like where my focuses are at during practice, how I’m breaking my races down and everything I did outside of the pool..my nutrition, my sleep habits, my self-talks, what I saying to myself outside and inside of the pool. Those things, like mentally, helped me make this team.”
Outside of bringing a renewed focus and attitude to the team trials, there were several driving forces that assisted Hinds in making the Olympic team. First, there’s the support system. Hinds credits her parents, especially her father, Melvin, as being the bedrock to her success.
“Him and my mom never pushed me to do something that I didn’t want to do, which I really appreciate,” Hinds said. “He’s been there with me at every single swim meet-in Midland and all the way to the [Olympic] trials.”
Then there’s the pool push and prodding that Hinds has received from Athens Bulldog Swim Club teammate Olivia Smoliga since she decided to get back into competitive swimming.
The club training partners claimed the top seed heading into the trials 100 butterfly final with matching 53.55 times in the semifinal before finishing 3-4 to lock spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
“We’re obviously really, really close,” Hinds said. “We train together. I feel that’s really, really special.”
Of course, the pathway to fulfilling her Olympic dream may have not been possible for Hinds if not for precedence. While she flailed at the 2016 U.S. Swim Team Olympic Trials, Simone Manuel was positioning herself to make history.
Manuel, who hails from Sugar Land, Texas, made the U.S. team and went on to become the first Black woman to win an individual gold medal in the 100 freestyle. Manuel failed to make the cut in the 100 freestyle this time around, but won a spot on the team with her placement in the 50 free race.
“We’re close friends and us being on the same Olympic team is really special,” Hinds said. “Being a pioneer in our sport can be a pretty lonely position sometimes like with me being here.”
With all of these mitigating factors coming into play to help her along this journey, Hinds, like the other athletes jockeying for a spot to represent the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics, still had to perform in the pool.
That’s a lot easier said than done. Surviving the pressure of the moment of how competitive the team trials were proved to be the biggest test, Hinds said.
“To get through it you kind of have to accept the pressure because it’s going to be there regardless if you’re ready for it or not,” Hinds said. “It is nice. I love to race so I just try to remember that. I love being competitive and competitive racing and having fun. So I just try to keep that in the back of my mind because pressure is very unsettling.”
Featured Image Caption: American swimmer Natalie Hinds competing at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Photo by Melinda Meijer for News4usonline