Sophia Herzog Is Prepping To Go Out At Her Best – And On Top

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Sophia Herzog on the podium in Rio. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)

Sophia Herzog sees the finish line for her stellar Paralympic swimming career, a visualization that brings joy and fear to her heart. She intends to retire after this summer’s Tokyo Games, moving into her next phase of life.

But in the two months between now and the end, there is much business to attend to. Herzog, who won a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2016 Rio Games, wants to show how she has improved since the last Paralympics. 

She wants to go out at her best — and on top.

That starts June 17-20 at the U.S. Paralympic TeamTrials in Minneapolis.

“I feel really good right now, I am ready for the trials and I am excited for Tokyo,” said Herzog, 24, who swims at the S6/SM6/SB6 classifications. “Rio almost feels like a lifetime ago, it’s been five years. I’ve been through two knee surgeries. My body has gotten more mature since I was 19 in Rio. I know I am stronger. My body has more muscle mass; and I am just more seasoned as a competitor. I know what I am walking into now, I know most of my competitors really well.

“I just feel more prepared all around for everything. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel a little nervous, excited, scared, happy — all of it right now.”

Herzog’s journey to the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials was challenging. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down access to pools for a lot of 2020 in her native Colorado, leaving an elite swimmer without a proper space to train.

The cancelation of the 2020 swim competition schedule, and the postponement of the Tokyo Games into 2021, brought Herzog had a lot of free time. By her own admission, she is not a professional lounger. She needs a schedule, she needs action and she needs to train.

She was spending all her time at home, in Salida, Colorado, with her partner Nick Gibb. He worked full-time from home as a real estate appraiser. 

He was super busy. She was not. 

After the fun of vegging wore off in a few weeks, she needed to find her purpose again. Herzog got an unintended glimpse of what her life will be like without swimming, a sneak preview of retirement.

“It was kind of bittersweet for me, like it is now,” Herzog, a five-time world championships medalist, said. “I got the chance to live like a normal 24-year-old for a while, and that was great. It was something new for me to be home and doing stuff others always do. But I also realized, I am 24…and I’ve never had a full-time job in the real world. That made me a little nervous. Where do I start? Where do I go? What do I do now? But having that time and space like that helped me for what is to come.”

Herzog found her groove as the pandemic and the restrictions wore on. The couple adopted a mutt rescue puppy, naming him Odie. They went camping, a fun experience that normally cannot happen while training and competing. Herzog meanwhile started going on mountain bike rides, challenging herself with intense mountain passes. She kept working out and focusing on her nutrition, keeping herself ready for the moment the pools reopened. She also trained in the Arkansas River, to somehow keep swimming.

“I started doing a lot of quirky stuff, I will admit it,” Herzog said, laughing. “I had to push myself. I became that intense Dog Mom. I went a little out there in my head. It’s just where I went when so many things were out of my control. I wanted control, I wanted to have my schedule, my training, my life back.”

Herzog got access to pools in the fall, when Colorado lifted some of its COVID-19 restrictions. Since then, she has been driving herself to be ready for Minneapolis and Tokyo. 

The ending for her Paralympic career is not yet written, and neither is her life after swimming.

She wants a role in the sport, intending to volunteer as an assistant coach for her local girls’ high school swim team. She also knows she is going to take a serious break from her own swimming, needing to reset her relationship with the pool to find a more casual gear.

Herzog, a 2019 graduate of DeVry University with a bachelor’s in business communication, hopes to work with children, animals or something in sustainability in town. She’s applying for positions now, hoping to be ready to jump into her new career after Tokyo.

There’s a lot to look forward to, in and out of the pool.

“I think I have learned a lot about myself over the past year. I’ve got so many good things in my life. I have a house, my partner, our dog and I’m really happy,” Herzog said. “There is a lot of pressure on me right now, but I intend to enjoy the process every day. This is what we all train for. I’m ready to go.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.