Jessica Hardy was five years old when she watched her first Olympics, and she was 21 when she learned that after qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Games that her lifelong dreams of becoming an Olympian would remain a dream when she withdrew from the Summer Games.
This a story of greatness, and the path to greatness begins with encouragement. As a child watching her first Olympics, the swimming events in particular, Jessica was in awe of what she saw. “I thought they were the coolest people,” to which Jessica’s step-father replied, “Why can’t that be you?” But it was Jessica’s mother who transformed ambition into action when she took Jessica to the local Southern California pools to learn how to swim. What started as a mother’s safety initiative quickly revealed a competitive spirit when a local swim team would come to practice. Jessica “wanted to beat them, not practice with them, beat them!”
By her sophomore year of high-school Jessica had won at the state level. In her junior year, she had won at nationals. Loving the water and the California lifestyle at age 18, Hardy matriculated at The University of California Berkeley, and as an undergrad made the national team. A four-time NCAA champion in only two years, Jessica relinquished her eligibility and turned professional so that she could train with Dave Salo, one of the most successful breaststroke coaches in the world, at The University of Southern California. Within a year Jessica had broken her first world record in the hundred meter breaststroke with a recorder time of 106.22.
Dedication and hard work paid off for Hardy, who in 2008 qualified for the Summer Games in Beijing. However, the feelings of elation and jubilation quickly gave way to utter disbelief when on July 23, 2008 Jessica was informed that drug tests from her Olympic trials came back positive with trace levels of clenbuterol, a banned substance. Jessica to this day maintains that she had “never even heard of clenbuterol” and persisted that she must have “ingested a contaminated substance.”
Subsequently, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that “U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy, of Long Beach, CA, tested positive for the prohibited substance clenbuterol at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 4, 2008, and [she] has agreed to withdraw from the 2008 United States Olympic Team in the best interests of the team.” Furthermore, and compounding the situation, Jessica was banned from the sport for two years.
“It was the lowest point of my life, “ Jessica said. “Looking back on it, [I] don’t know how I got through it.” Suffering from depression and post traumatic stress disorder Jessica sought refuge with a sports psychologist. “I had trained so incredibly hard to achieve such outstanding heights and fell victim of something I didn’t even do.”
But this is not a victim’s story. This is, in fact, is a story of greatness.
“The ordeal made me a stronger person and athlete, stronger than I knew I could be,” Hardy noted. With her sports psychologist, Jessica began to train her brain in the same fashion she had trained her body, with stamina and endurance. Mapping out “weakness, anxiety, pressure” through neuro-agility exercises Jessica took on the job of staying calm and focused, along her daily workout both in and out of the pool, and staged her comeback.
And with the 2012 Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha Nebraska, Hardy removed all doubt about her abilities, as well as her character. Jessica won heats that qualified her to compete in four Olympic events at the 2012 London Games including the 50 and 100 meter freestyle and 4x100 meter freestyle and medley relays.
On July 29th, Hardy along with her teammates, Missy Franklin, Lia Neal, and Allison Schmitt, swimming in the 4x100 meter freestyle race finished in a total time of 3:34:24, an American record, and won herself an Olympic Bronze Medal in the process.
“I am grateful for every day I’m able to participate in my sport. Every day I get to do what I love and I really enjoy the experience and this process. I’m more excited because I’m allowed to do it, and that wasn’t always the case.”
Why can’t that be you? Even when faced with major obstacles, Jessica Hardy has shown us that it can be.