Connor Jaeger takes the 1650 in 14:29.27 – 2014 Men’s NCAA DI Swimming & Diving Championships (courtesy of Tim Binning, theswimpictures)
In the weeks since the Rio de Janeiro Olympics ended, Connor Jaeger vacationed with his girlfriend in South America, moved his belongings halfway across the country in a rented truck, signed a lease for a new apartment, interviewed for a handful of jobs and threw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game. He was honored as an Olympic swimming silver medalist by both his hometown and his college alma mater, and was visited at 6:30 one morning by an anti-doping drug-tester who somehow managed to find him amid the chaos.
Pretty much the only thing he had not done in that time was swim.
When Jaeger jumped into the pool, feet-first, at the Rocky Run YMCA in suburban Philadelphia on a recent Saturday afternoon – clad in a competition swimsuit, a pair of goggles and a Team USA swim cap, and observed by 48 kids in the pool and their parents in the bleachers – it felt vaguely foreign. Since Rio, he had been in a pool exactly twice, and both times it was for one of these Fitter and Faster Tour clinics for young swimmers.
“Okay, let’s get started” he said to the 48 kids, ages 11 and under, all of whom paid at least $139 to be taught freestyle racing technique and “explosive” turns by an Olympian.
In the glow of post-Rio glory, following a dazzling performance by the U.S. swim team, its most famous members drew national headlines as they entered new chapters of their lives: Michael Phelps embracing fatherhood and retirement, Katie Ledecky starting classes at Stanford, Ryan Lochte – well, let’s just say he took a roundabout path to competing on “Dancing With the Stars.”
But for the vast majority of the 47 American swimmers – and for that matter, the 550 athletes that made up Team USA – re-entry to American life was a far less celebrated affair. And plenty of them, like Jaeger, weighed the realities of economics, physiology and time commitment – and decided, even in the prime of their athletic lives, not to spend four more years training and sacrificing.
And so, at age 25, with his silver medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle under his belt, and armed with a master’s degree in business management from Michigan and just enough fame (he hopes) to open some doors to the corporate world, Jaeger has effectively retired from competitive swimming.
“We can’t all be Michael Phelps and be set for life,” Jaeger said after his recent clinic at the YMCA. “I ended up going further with swimming than I ever thought I would. But I was always making decisions along the way where – if I stopped swimming tomorrow, and I’m not an athlete anymore, how am I going to be ready? That’s how I lived my life.”
Thus, instead of returning to Ann Arbor this fall to resume training as a post-graduate swimmer with an eye towards the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games – and piecing together, through sponsorships, appearances, stipends and bonuses, the six-figure income needed to accomplish that – Jaeger has moved, along with his girlfriend, to Hoboken, N.J., and is flinging himself into a sphere that is only slightly less cut-throat Darwinian than elite-level competitive swimming: the Manhattan real estate industry.
“I’m super-competitive, and I hate losing,” Jaeger said. “But I can direct that where I want to. I’m hoping that whatever job I get, I can channel it.”
But he also isn’t fooling himself: “The reality is, whatever I’m doing – I mean, I always loved swimming. I looked forward to going to practice in the morning, or the afternoon. That’s the one thing – I may not enjoy this next thing as much.”
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How much is a single Olympic silver medal worth in real terms? Probably not as much as you think. The U.S. Olympic Committee attached a bonus of $15,000 for silver medals this summer ($25,000 for a gold), and USA Swimming tacked on another $30,000 (or $75,000 for gold) – money that will help bridge the gap during Jaeger’s transition from elite professional swimmer to ground-level corporate worker. His two major sponsorship deals, a swimwear company and a credit card, will expire at the end of the year.
The silver medal could push Jaeger into a slightly higher bracket for sponsorship earnings in future years, if he were to stick with swimming – but “it isn’t life-changing money,” Jaeger said.
“A lot of people have multiple golds. I had a silver,” he added. “I’m not downgrading that – I’m plenty, plenty proud. But in the grand scheme – who’s going on the Wheaties box? There’s only so many sponsors wanting to sign up swimmers.”
What the silver medal can do, Jaeger has found, is open doors. He is not above touting it in cover letters and résumés, and even if the medal can’t get him a plum job, it can get him into an interview – something he has discovered as he tries to sell himself to Manhattan employers ranging from banks to real-estate developers to brokerages.
“A lot of people are willing to meet with me because of my background, but from there you still have to prove yourself,” he said. “Some people are more impressed than others. [So] maybe a portion [of the interview] will be about that.
“And then they usually want to talk about Ryan Lochte.”
This was Jaeger’s plan all along: Since at least 2014, when he finished his undergraduate degree (in mechanical engineering) at Michigan, turned professional, joined a group of about 20 post-grad swimmers under Michigan Coach Mike Bottom and started graduate classes at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
“It was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to swim for two more years, go through the Rio Olympics, and then I’ll plan on stopping,’ ” said Jaeger, who also swam the 1,500 in London in 2012, finishing sixth. “I really wanted to win a medal.”
At age 25, Jaeger wasn’t washed up as a swimmer. But in a sense, he was – at least as a distance swimmer who specializes in the 1,500. The 1,500 gold medalist in Rio this summer was Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri, who was 21. The previous six Olympic champions in the event, respectively, were 24, 24, 20, 22 and 18. Jaeger, meantime, would be 29 in Tokyo.
“I think if Connor wanted to do it, he could do it,” said his Bethesda, Maryland-based agent, David Arluck. “I don’t think he’d be out-talented in the next four years. The question becomes the commitment level.”
As his post-swimming plans crystalized, Jaeger realized he couldn’t afford to lose four more years in the corporate rat race.
“Being 25 goes both ways,” he said. “I’m still only 25, and I have time to redirect my career. But also, I’m already 25, and most of these jobs I want, you need a couple of years of work experience. The people I’m competing again, they’ve already gone through the experience of [working] for a couple of years.”
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As the three-hour kids’ clinic wore on, with 2008 and 2012 Olympian Chloe Sutton helping him conduct it, Jaeger began to feel at home again in the water, even if he was only there to teach some 9- and 10-year-olds the intricacies of the six-beat kick.
“One-two-three, one-two-three,” he chanted at the side of the pool, churning his fists to imitate the rhythm of the kicks. “Straw-ber-ry, blue-ber-ry.”
From now on, the Fitter and Faster Tour, with its network of nationwide swim clinics, will be Jaeger’s primary connection to swimming. Though he has been doing these clinics for two years, he can sense the difference in the kids’ reaction now that he is a silver medalist. As he posed for pictures with the kids before it started, he wore his medal around his neck, and a handful asked to touch it. Jaeger dutifully obliged.
“We’re here to teach them and fix their strokes, but I would like to think what they’re getting out of it goes beyond that,” he said. “It’s more about seeing what someone else has done [in the sport], and seeing that it’s attainable. I hope that meeting us is the better part of the day, rather than getting help with your flip-turn. Because there are a lot of people who can help you with your flip-turn.”
Started by Arluck eight years ago as a way to create both employment and sponsorship opportunities for his clients, Fitter and Faster employs some 40 pro swimmers – the majority of them Olympians – and will run more than 200 clinics across the country in 2017.
“USA Swimming does a great job promoting the top people in the sport, which makes sense: promote the superstars,” Arluck said. “[But] the B- and C-level Olympian – there wasn’t much of a marketplace for them, until we created it. And it makes them more marketable to sponsors, because they’re out there every weekend in front of all these kids and parents.”
In 2014 and 2015, being a Fitter and Faster clinician – working perhaps one weekend per month – helped put Jaeger through grad school. Now, it is a way to stay connected to the sport he is otherwise leaving behind.
Late in the afternoon, the clinic now over, the No. 2 1,500 freestyler in the world sat on a picnic table at a playground outside the YMCA, and he recalled a conversation with his Michigan teammate Sean Ryan, also a U.S. Olympian, during Team USA’s training camp, just prior to their departure to Rio.
“I said, ‘Sean, I could go to the Olympics and swim really slow, and still have no regrets – no feeling like I still need to prove something to myself,’ ” Jaeger said. “And that’s how I feel now. Plenty of people have done greater things than me, obviously. But I feel really at peace with what I’ve done.”
The Baltimore Sun