Growth in Deep Waters: How U.S swimmer Natalie Hinds got her confidence back

Natalie Hinds hung up her swim cap and goggles after a disappointing finish at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials–an experience that left her burned out and nearly stripped her of all confidence.

Six years later, Hinds has three world medals to her name, including an Olympic bronze. On Her Turf caught up with the 28-year-old at the 2022 Golden Goggles, where she reflected on her journey to the Olympics, how she found herself again, the lessons she’s learned along the way, and the importance of exposure and representation within the Black community in the sport of swimming.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OnHerTurf: How did you get your start in swimming?

Natalie Hinds: I started swimming when I was 4. My sister Loren swam so I just wanted to do whatever she did. I realized I could be good at it at age 12 and that’s when I started to travel outside of my city and started swimming in more competitions across the state of Texas.

Did you grow up watching the Olympics? When did becoming an Olympian become a dream for you and when did you realize that you could make that happen? 

Hinds: I did. My fondest memory of the Olympics is when I was 14–the 2008 Olympics when Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals. I remember watching and thinking, okay I could go to the Olympics too. It became an actual dream for me in college but honestly, I don’t think I understood what it actually took until I became a professional swimmer probably around age 25, so pretty late in the game.

Take me back to the 2016 U.S. trials, you finished 40th in the 100m free and 55th in the 50m free…walk me through some of your thoughts and feelings from that experience 

Hinds: First and foremost, I was very embarrassed, just because I think I started off being seeded in the events somewhere within the top 20. I actually thought that I could have made the team and to finish in that manner, not putting up my best times and not even making it back for the semifinals was really disappointing and very embarrassing. Especially, because I knew I had much more potential than that. I couldn’t wait to get home after. Every negative emotion that you can feel, is pretty much what I was feeling.

Can you talk about some of the mental challenges you faced post-trials?

Hinds: I didn’t have any more confidence left and I didn’t really know how to get it. I would show up and I didn’t feel like I belonged. You know, you can have a dream and have a fantasy, but there is real work that you need to be putting in to achieve them. I think I also just didn’t understand that swimming is as physical as it is mental and I wasn’t working on the mental part. I also wasn’t working on my nutrition, I just was swimming and hoping that that was going to take care of everything when that’s not the case.

Mentally, I was just in a really bad spot. I was very burnt out. I had been doing college swimming for about four and a half years at this point. So I just wanted to go home and try something new. Just take a break. I didn’t know if I wanted to come back to swimming. I just knew I didn’t want to do it at that moment in time.

What led to your decision to retire? 

Hinds: I would say just the downhill spiral. Every meet was getting worse and it was just going at such a fast pace. I didn’t know what exactly was going on. I didn’t have the patience to sit down and figure out why things weren’t working for me. I also really wasn’t good at communicating my needs and I really felt like I could do it myself.

All of that led to burnout which led to me just needing to take a break to have a breath to myself–which is what I felt that I got that whole time I was away from the pool. I came back on my own time which I think was really important because nobody forced me to I just was like ‘okay, I’m ready. I’m going to try it again.’

What motivated your comeback?

Hinds: It’s an interesting story. I did not look at swimming or even speak to any of my friends in the sport. It was just something that I hadn’t gotten over until the summer of 2018. I was watching nationals and it was hard to watch but everyone just looked like they were having so much fun. At this point in my life, I was working a 9 to 5 job in operations at Turner, which I loved but I knew it wasn’t for me. I’m not a 9 to 5 kind of person so I decided to try again.

I got back in shape and didn’t tell anybody. I had set goals for myself that I was quietly working towards and decided if I met them I would go and find a team to train with, and that’s exactly what happened. I moved to the University of Georgia. When I started swimming again, the only people who knew were my parents, my coaches, and the teammates that I was swimming with. I think that was really important because it’s no one’s motive but my own. I kept that same mindset throughout my career up until trials, and still, even now, my motivation is mine only and nobody else’s.

What mental and physical challenges did you face during your comeback?

Hinds: Physically, I think is easier to talk about, because I was out of swimming shape. That took a shorter amount of time, I felt like I was back physically after 6 weeks. Mentally, it was really hard because when you leave something for negative reasons, it’s not like the reasons go away. So when I came back to the sport, all of those mental challenges were still there.

I had to find a different way to deal with fear and being scared to be disappointed and try to work through those types of feelings. I had to work on my confidence and learn that I do belong and prove to myself that what I do in practice is no different than what I do in a meet. It was a lot to work on at once. I think that’s why I always say that quarantine was one of those things that really worked out for me personally in the end, because I needed that extra year to prepare. I don’t think I would have made the team had we had trials in 2020. But that’s just my own personal opinion.

What did you do to gain your confidence back?

Hinds: A. LOT. OF. WORK. Like, a lot, a lot. Swimming aside, I did a lot of self-reflection and focused on working on myself as a person, that ultimately spills over into swimming. I worked with a confidence coach, Christen Shefchunas. I also did meditation, lots of deep breathing exercises, and a lot of just spending time with myself finding out what I like, finding out what makes me feel best when it comes to food, and finding out what activities I like to do. That’s where I found out that I love to weave and I love home decor. I had to basically relearn everything about myself without swimming so that when I added it back into the equation, it was just that much easier to assimilate everything into it.

Fast forward to U.S. Olympic Trials for Tokyo – can you take me back to what you were thinking and feeling on that day?

Hinds: I don’t wish that day on anybody. It was such a nerve-wracking day. I was a complete mess. The best way to describe it is I felt like I was walking a tightrope. I felt like I would sway over to one side mentally with nerves, but I’d bring myself back to the middle of the rope, with perspective, and then I would sway back over to the other side again. This happened all day long. I was so nervous. But at the end of the day, you just do what you’ve already rehearsed to do. Once I made the team, everything was pretty much a blur and I was just being whisked from one place to the other. My dad Melvin, was there to see it so I was really excited about that because he’s been there with me through everything. It was really nice that we could share that moment.

I felt like I was finally able to just let go and live up to the potential that I felt I could. I still wouldn’t want to do the day over even though I’m probably going to have to if I want to make another Olympic team, but it was well worth it.

I didn’t sleep that night. I was just replaying the whole race in my head and thinking about my whole journey but also keeping in mind that I had another race the next day. I was nervous for the 50m but knowing that I already made the Olympic team took a lot of pressure off. I felt much more confident that I belonged.

What was your experience like in Tokyo?

Hinds: It was definitely different, there were no fans. I didn’t have anything to compare it to so it was a special experience. I do remember thinking walking out for prelims ‘oh, this is just a normal meet.’ You make it so big in your mind. I think it’s harder to swim at Trials than it is to swim at the Olympics. The pressure is there but it’s just kind of different. Obviously, you want to get a medal for Team USA at a meet that only happens once every four years but you’ve already made the team and you’re already an Olympian, you know you’ve achieved what a lot of people haven’t before.

You see so many different journeys within the Athlete’s village–you see people excited to get a gold medal and then people who get silver and feel like they’ve lost so it’s definitely your own experience. I took the route of just being grateful every single day. Whether it was the ramen I was having–the food was SO good by the way–or getting to explore within the village–I found something I was grateful for each day.

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What comes to mind when you think about the 4x100m freestyle final? Do you remember what you were thinking during the race? 

Hinds: We were seeded fifth heading into the race. I remember we all huddled up before the race and said “Look, no one’s looking at us. Let’s just really do the best we can. We don’t really have to worry about anybody.’ I think that mentality really helped us because we just focused on having fun.

The night before the race I could not sleep. I only got one hour of sleep and was freaking out but my roommates really took care of me and told me that what I was feeling was normal and that I was going to be fine. I was caffeinated and ready to go.

SWIM-WORLD-WOMEN-2022
SWIM-WORLD-WOMEN-2022

How much does that Olympic bronze medal mean to you? 

Hinds: It means a lot but I will say that once you reach that pinnacle or you get something so amazing, like a medal, you realize that yes, the physical checkpoint is really cool but it’s all about the journey. When I look at my medal, I see the journey and I’m more emotional about that than the physical object. I know, if I didn’t have a bronze medal I’d be upset but I think my journey is a unique one and I’m glad that I have this bronze medal as a reminder that you can really do whatever you want to do as long as you put your mind to it. That was probably the hardest two to three years that I’ve ever had mentally and physically. I actually don’t keep the medal in my home so I don’t look at it often.

Swimming - Olympics: Day 2
Swimming - Olympics: Day 2

I know you have a very close relationship with your teammate Olivia Smoliga, how much more special was that moment for you doing it side-by-side? 

Hinds: Before the Olympics, we made the team together, and that was even more special just because she saw me when I was super out of shape. We actually used to be rivals back in college when I was swimming for Florida and she swimming at Georgia so making the team together–doing it right next to each other in lanes four and five– was such a full-circle moment for us. We were able to soak it all in afterward and that was such an important moment for us. Then to go to Tokyo and go through camp together having it be her second time and my first time, it was very cool to just be in that setting with her because that doesn’t happen very often.

2021 U.S. Olympic Trials - Swimming - Day 6
2021 U.S. Olympic Trials - Swimming - Day 6

Knowing everything you know now, if you could go back in time and change any part of your journey to the Olympics, specifically making that 2016 Rio Team…would you do it? 

Hinds: No, probably not. Everything happens for a reason. There are people that I met when I wasn’t swimming that I’m close with now and I wouldn’t have met them if I didn’t stop swimming. And I do believe it takes a village to get to the Olympics. You cannot do it alone. Whether it be someone helping you out monetarily, someone being your therapist, or even just picking up the phone to check in and see how you’re doing…it takes so many people for you to get there.

I’m super grateful for the people that I’ve met along the way and the experiences that I’ve had, because now that I’m almost 29 I’ve learned to deal with things better. All of these moments have been learning experiences and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m somewhat the same person, but I’m a completely different athlete. But that’s part of the journey. I’ll be 30 in 2024 so I hope that I can take all of my experiences from the last eight years and put them into trying to make my second team.

What advice would you give yourself back in 2016?

Hinds: Consistency, patience, and perspective. Especially perspective. There can be so many people in your corner who want the best for you but I really started swimming better when I realized I’m the one swimming and no matter what anyone suggests, I’m the one doing the work so it’s okay to trust and be honest with myself about how I feel.

Paris 2024 is quickly approaching, what would having the opportunity to compete at your second Games mean to you?

Hinds: Oh, it would mean everything if I were to make it again. There was so much pressure around the Tokyo Olympics. It’s harder to make an Olympic team the second time just because once you’ve reached it, you know what it takes to get there, and it’s really hard, not only physically but mentally. It’s a full-time job to just stay engaged nutritionally and to keep swimming first. But I think it would mean that much more to know that I was able to do it twice. I’m grateful that swimming is my job and the opportunities that I’ve had because of it is really, really special.

Are you doing anything differently in terms of training to prepare?

Hinds: Yeah, I’m not with Georgia anymore. I moved back to Gainesville, and I’m swimming with the University of Florida. I made that change before worlds this past summer and it’s working out well. I really love it. I’m back with some of my old teammates, and I’m having a great time, and we’ve got a really good pro group. I’ve also changed my weight training program.

Let’s talk about USA Swimming’s Team BLAC. Are you still a part of it and what does it mean to you?

Hinds: I was with Team BLAC when we started it in 2020 and there was a lot of emotional charge when it was created surrounding the George Floyd situation and the animosity around the Black Lives Matter movement. I have personally stepped away from it for now while I’m swimming because I learned through my experiences that it takes so much energy emotionally for me and I don’t have the flexibility to be involved with it as much as I would like to.

I try and help in my own capacity with my own platform. I’m a member of Sigma Gamma Rho and they have a partnership with USA Swimming, called Swim 1922. They recently celebrated a ribbon cutting for a pool in the inner city, of Indianapolis. Going to events like that, talking to the kids, and doing swim clinics, are things that I can help with that work better with my schedule and align with my strengths.

Editor’s note: Swim 1922 works to increase swim participation and decrease drowning rates in the African American community.

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You’re in a sport where there aren’t a lot of Black athletes, can you talk about any burdens or pressures that you’ve dealt with being a Black woman in swimming? 

Hinds: I have a unique experience, I’ve never felt too much pressure I think because I was so wrapped up in competing that I was never distracted by what or who was around me.  Even in college, I was still around such a diverse group of people that I never really felt it until I went to the NCAA championships in 2015, where Lia Neal, Simone Manuel, and I swept the podium in the 100m freestyle. My eyes were opened that day to the fact that Black athletes sweeping the podium in swimming never happens.

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I do remember at age 12 when my Dad and I would travel to Dallas for meets no one would speak to us until the second day because I would be doing really well and I think that they felt less threatened by us. Now that I’m older I feel more of a responsibility to do what I can to get more exposure for kids of color–having them come to meets like the Pro Series and clinics–once my swimming career is over I will be able to focus on that a little bit more.

What do you think needs to change to create a more viable environment for Black swimmers, from the early stages up to the elite level? 

Hinds: Exposure. I was very fortunate growing up to have parents who had the resources to take me to whatever meet or camp I qualified for. That’s been the common denominator between Simone, Lia, myself, Cullen Jones, Reece Whitley, and any other Black elite swimmer–we all had the resources. People of color don’t always have the resources or the exposure. There’s a lot of great talent in inner cities but a lot of people don’t know what else is out there. Elite swimming is so expensive the better you get–you have to pay for hotels, your suits, and food–it all adds up, and the higher you get the fewer Black people you see. I want to be able to be part of that solution and provide resources and exposure when my career is over.

What advice would you give to a young Black girl who wants to swim? 

Hinds: My biggest piece of advice would be your journey is unique to you. Everyone is so different. Do what works for you.

I love that! …Switching gears, tell me about Loominary Design, are you still weaving?

Hinds: It’s taken a step back because I’ve been so busy with swimming. I weave when I need to get away, I’ll just make something random. I get one-off requests here and there to make something for someone but Loominary is definitely my baby and I can’t wait till I’m able to give more of my energy to it. I was able to donate two pieces to the USA Swimming Foundation for auction which is something I’ve never done before so I was very excited about that.

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Wow, that’s incredible… Okay, are you ready for some rapid fire questions?

Hinds: Yes!

Meet day hype song?

Hinds: I like jazz so anything by Charlie Wilson.

If you could only listen to one artist for an entire workout who would it be? 

Hinds: Hmmm. That’s actually really hard. Probably Chris Brown or Drake but their old stuff.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without… 

Hinds: My foam roller. Now that I’m older I need to stretch and warm up.

What was your embarrassing AIM screenname back in the day?

Hinds: NattyBaby93. 

You’re singing karaoke for your life…what song are you picking?

Hinds: Crazy in Love by Beyonce. I know every word.

Post-workout meal? 

Hinds: A burger and fries or tacos.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Hinds: Gymnastics. I’m too tall but I would try it. I just think flipping in the air is super cool and the core strength is unbelievable.

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Growth in Deep Waters: How U.S swimmer Natalie Hinds got her confidence back originally appeared on NBCSports.com