Meet Maya DiRado, the 'late-blooming' phenom who could star for U.S. in Rio

Maya DiRado has lived her life on an accelerated timetable.

She skipped second grade because it wasn’t challenging enough. She was 13 when she went to high school, 15 when she got a perfect SAT math score and 17 when she entered Stanford. She got married at 22. Now 23, she has a high-powered job as a business analyst with McKinsey & Company in Atlanta waiting for her in September.

But this poster child for precocity is paradoxically behind the phenom curve when it comes to the one thing that could make her an American darling this summer: swimming.

The sport has long been a breeding ground for female teen stars. Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin were household names and gold medalists four years ago as high schoolers. Elizabeth Beisel, age 23 like DiRado, has made the past two American Olympic teams. Allison Schmitt was 18 when she swam in the Beijing Games.

DiRado? Not quite. Her swimming timetable was always a tick too slow.

Maya Dirado smiles as she looks back to the scoreboard after a 200 IM event at the Pan Pacific games in 2014. (AP)
Maya Dirado smiles as she looks back to the scoreboard after a 200 IM event at the Pan Pacific games in 2014. (AP)

“In age-group swimming there’s always some kid who is extremely fast, and everyone would go, ‘Ooooh, she’s really fast,’ “ said Maya’s father, Ruben. “She was never that kid. She was the kid who would lose to that kid.”

That was the story of her swimming life. Until now. At the ripe old age of 23 and poised to retire from the sport after the Olympics in August, it appears to be time at last to make room for Maya on the biggest stage.

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Heading into the pressure-packed Olympic Trials in Omaha June 26-July 3, Maya DiRado could be second only to Ledecky in potential importance to the American team. She is the top seed in both the 200-meter and the 400 individual medleys, the No. 2 seed in the 200 backstroke, and could be a factor in the 800 freestyle relay selections as well.

Only the top two individuals make the American Olympic team, which is why you probably haven’t heard much about DiRado before now. (Relays are a different animal, where as many as six competitors can make the team.) DiRado narrowly missed the Olympic lineup in 2012, finishing fourth in both the 200 and 400 IMs. Fourth place at the U.S. Trials means two things: You are an incredibly good swimmer, and you will remain relatively anonymous.

DiRado was OK with that. Her plan coming out of 2012 did not include another run at the Olympics. She would finish school at Stanford on schedule in 2014 with a degree in Management Science and Engineering, hang up the goggles and get on with her already accomplished life.

“I think she was comfortable where she was and didn’t really see herself as an Olympian, didn’t really see herself ever getting to that level,” Stanford coach Greg Meehan said. “She just thought, ‘OK, I’m really good, but I’m just going to be in this spot.’ "

That’s when Meehan sat DiRado down and encouraged her to think bigger. The top two American IMers, Beisel and Caitlin Leverenz, were medalists in 2012 and weren’t going anywhere – but Meehan believed DiRado could crash their party.

“Part of Greg’s talent is that he can talk you into something and make you think it was your idea in the first place,” DiRado said. “He helped me aim higher.”

For a lifelong planner, this required a rewrite of the script. It required a postgraduate professional swimming career, delaying getting a “real job” and committing to more training for the most difficult event in the sport (400 IM).

DiRado made the U.S. world championships team in 2013, the Pac-Pacific team in ’14 and then again made the world team in ’15. She earned a silver medal in the 400 IM last year in Kazan, Russia, while simultaneously planning her wedding to former Stanford swimmer Rob Andrews. She completed the race in 4 minutes, 31.71 seconds, the fastest time by an American since Beisel went half a second faster to win silver at the 2012 Olympics.

That success has carried over into 2016, putting DiRado in a position she had hoped for as a kid but not seriously considered as a young adult.

“Just looking at the data, she’s done everything possible to achieve her dream,” said her husband, Rob Andrews, a software engineer for Renaissance Learning. “Now it’s just a matter of execution.”

If it comes to pass and Maya DiRado represents the U.S. in Rio de Janeiro, it will be a classically diverse American Dream come true.

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Ruben DiRado was born in Argentina and his first language is Spanish – but his grandparents were Italians who immigrated to South America after World War II. His father, Nicolas, owned a tool and dye shop in Argentina, and when the economy faltered there he moved to the United States when Ruben was 3 years old.

Ruben attended Stanford, and within a Christian fellowship group there he met a woman of Norwegian heritage. Ruben and Marit got married and had two daughters, Sarah and Maya, both of whom would attend Stanford as well. (The family ties to that school don’t end there; Marit’s father and aunt are Stanford grads, and their daughters both married Stanford grads.)

Maya started swimming competitively at age 6. By 8, her analytical nature and maturity were evident. Ruben remembers Maya organizing her 8-and-under relay at one meet and telling them when they needed to warm up for the race.

Maya DiRado talks with media at the USOC Olympic Media Summit on March 8. (Getty)
Maya DiRado talks with media at the USOC Olympic Media Summit on March 8. (Getty)

“She thought everything through pretty sequentially,” said Ruben, a business analyst. “She took it kind of seriously.”

At another meet at a young age, Ruben was giving her some counsel on when to report to the starting blocks. Maya interrupted him and said, “Dad, this isn’t my first rodeo.”

Even from that early age, her motivation came less from competitiveness than from perfecting what she was doing. If that coincided with winning, great. If not, that was OK.

“She’s not really motivated to beat a person,” Ruben said. “She’s more like a musician who wants to master a piece.”

The clock told her whether she was making progress. She liked coaches who could explain why certain techniques and changes worked, as opposed to simply telling her what to do. It all clicked with her math brain.

But there is another side to the DiRado family beyond beautiful minds. There is something of a missionary zeal that flows from Marit.

She is an oncology nurse who traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help victims of that 2005 tragedy. Last year, after hearing heartbreaking stories on National Public Radio of suffering from the Ebola virus, she signed on with Partners In Health and went to Africa to assist.

“Patients were left on the street to die,” Marit said. “As an oncology nurse, you know what death is about. It’s not to be endured alone and as an outcast.

“I’m happy I did it. It was a wonderful experience.”

Marit made that journey at a time when American paranoia about Ebola was at a peak. While some people thought she was crazy, the family simply offered its support and encouragement.

“That made total sense to our daughters,” Ruben said. “[Marit] isn’t into the bumper-sticker method of saying what she’s about. She’s into doing it.”

The DiRados are devout Christians without flaunting their faith. That serves as the family framework, which helps keep even as consuming a task as trying to make the Olympics in perspective.

“I don’t think God really cares about my swimming very much,” Maya said. “This is not my end purpose, to make the Olympic team. My God is powerful and in control, but I don’t think he cares whether I win. It’s interesting theology you can get into when it’s a God of victory in your sport.”

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Sunday in Omaha DiRado will swim the race Meehan calls “her baby,” the 400 IM. The 200 IM will be contested next Tuesday and Wednesday, and the 200 backstroke July 1-2. If she wants to try and throw down a fast 200 freestyle time in the preliminaries for relay consideration, that would come next Tuesday as well.

It is an ambitious program, with as many as nine swims in a series of grueling events. She is not a lock in any of those events, but it would be a surprise if she isn’t an Olympic qualifier in multiple events. If all goes really well, DiRado could wind up on the medal podium in Rio four different times.

“It’s a story that’s been in the making for a couple years,” Meehan said.

And by mid-August, that chapter of the Maya DiRado story will be over. It will be on to the next task, using her brain more than her body. An accelerated, accomplished life will move on – after the late-blooming swimming piece fell into place at precisely the right time.

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