Paige and her parents (Michael and Ellen Madden)
Photo | Tommy Hicks
Her smile — more a full-fledged grin, really; wide and unapologetic — told the story, not only of the moment, but of the entire summer, and then some. Standing with Allison Schmitt on her right and Katie McLaughlin and Katie Ledecky to her left, Paige Madden was the picture of joy and pride.
And for good reason. The four women swimmers had just taken part in the medal ceremony shortly after teaming together to win the silver medal in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday, July 28. They couldn’t have been happier if they had won the gold medal, a fact that was evident on their faces.
It would be the culmination of a “crazy” summer for Mobile’s Madden, the former UMS-Wright and City of Mobile Swim Association standout.
“It is special. It’s crazy,” Madden said in a phone interview following her return home from Tokyo. “I feel like ever since March I’ve just been going, going, going. We had the NCAAs, then graduation, then going to (Olympic) Trials and then the Olympics. You know, there were a lot of big life events — I graduated college, moved out of my house, I also got COVID. It has been a crazy, crazy year, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
Madden led her University of Virginia swim team to the Atlantic Coast Conference crown and the NCAA national championship, collecting wins and meet honors along the way. She contracted COVID-19, which forced her into quarantine and out of the pool and training, but she got well and made it to the Olympic Trials, finishing second to Ledecky in the 400-meter freestyle and placed third in the 200-meter freestyle, finishes that earned her a spot on the Olympic team. In Tokyo she raced in the 400-meter and joined Ledecky, Schmitt and McLaughlin in the silver medal-winning relay.
Huge accomplishments all. Now, Madden just wants to take a nap.
“I’m happy to be home, it’s been a while,” Madden said. “The Olympics were so cool. I had a lot of fun. It was a little overwhelming at times because there was so much going on. Being in the (Olympic) Village, there were just so many people — I think there was something like 11,000 athletes in the Village — there was just so much going on at any given time. You walk around outside and there were people skateboarding, there were wrestlers trying to cut weight, and that was all pretty cool to see.
“And from a swimming perspective it was a cool thing because we had to spend five weeks together. We trained in Hawaii beforehand for about two and half weeks and that helped us get to know each other and get accustomed to one another. We spent another two and half weeks in Tokyo. Swimming and spending all the time together really helped us get closer as a group and I think that helped me a lot with all the chaos that was going on and going to the pool, especially when it came to the relay. The girls I was on the relay with I’ve kind of known for a while, and it helped me out with that. That was a good experience.”
In one of the more memorable moments of the swimming competition, Madden, Schmitt and McLaughlin could be seen cheering and encouraging Ledecky during the last 50 meters of the final leg of the race, Ledecky chasing the Chinese swimmer, chasing history. When the race was complete China finished first at 7:40.33, with the U.S. team at 7:40.73 while the favored Australian team took third. All three teams finished ahead of the previous world record.
“We just really expected the Aussies to blow it out of the water, as everybody else did, because they were the world record holders — or the previous world record holders,” Madden said. “They were supposed to smash (the previous record). So, we really expected if we could get silver that would be incredible and if we could get bronze that would also be incredible.”
Schmitt raced the first 200 meters, followed by Madden, whose swim moved the U.S. team into third place. McLaughlin was next, keeping the U.S. team in third, while Ledecky produced a strong finish and moved the U.S. team to second.
“Me diving in after Allison Schmitt’s leg, I kind of knew how everyone else was doing, so the girl from Canada was in the lane to the left of us and I knew if I stayed on the hip of the girl next to us and drafted off of her that I could catch up to her by the last 100, and I did that,” Madden said. “I had a really good swim. Then Katie McLaughlin, who came in after me, would also have a really good swim and we knew that Katie Ledecky would come up with something good because of her resume and her grit. Just watching, that was exciting. … Being able to be in the hunt like that kind of shocked everybody and it shocked us too.
“I don’t know if you watched it on TV, but my face, that look on my face on TV, that showed it all. That’s exactly how I felt.”
Madden said competing to be a member of the relay finals team had its moments.
“So for the prelims relay you’re kind of competing for a spot in the finals relay, so that’s a little bit of an interesting dynamic because you want to beat the other girls (on your team) so you can get a spot, but you also want the team as a whole to do really well, so you’re pulling for each other,” Madden said. “You’re trying to do the best that you can do for your respective part, so once we got through that it was like, OK, we’ve earned our respective spot and there’s no hard feelings.
“The two alternates (Brooke Forde and Bella Sims) were still ready for the (finals) race just in case there was an accident or something. I competed against those girls and I competed against them for a spot on the Olympic team back in June (at the Trials). We just put our differences aside; we knew we had a job to do and everyone was pulling for the other and we had a good time doing it.”
That led to the medal stand and the celebration there.
“It was awesome,” Madden said of the ceremony. “I was next to Allison Schmitt and she is 31 and I’m 22, so I have looked up to her for a long time. I got to hand her her medal and she got to hand me mine. It was really special because it was her last Olympic race and she was crying and it was just a really, really proud moment for me.”
The entire Olympic adventure had its moments of wonder and exhaustion, Madden said.
“The coolest part was maybe getting to know people,” she said. “I met a lot of people that I knew through the grapevine or knew through the media. Getting to actually really know them and how my perception of them changed was really cool to see. How the media might portray someone is not how they really are, and just learning that first-hand was a really cool experience for me.”
Attending other Olympic competitions wasn’t possible because of COVID-19 precautions. The U.S. team didn’t take part in the Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. athletes watching it on TV instead.
“A lot of us were vaccinated but (U.S. Olympic officials) still didn’t want people to go because there was still the possibility of getting (COVID). So we just celebrated in the Village,” Madden said. “We ran around taking photos and we watched the opening ceremonies as a group, and honestly I think watching it on TV was more than I would have seen there because we would have been waiting in line (to walk into the stadium) the whole time. Plus, I was pretty tired so I wasn’t too upset about it.”
Madden’s parents, Ellen and Michael, as was the case with all family members of the U.S. athletes, were not allowed to attend the Olympics, and that was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of her first Olympics, Madden said. She noted her parents have always been very supportive and she wished they could have been there to watch her compete.
“Facetime (on their iPhones) was really our only option,” Madden said. “It was cool. It was hard because of the time difference. When I was going to bed the Americans were waking up, or vice versa. So after the silver (relay) we got pulled into drug testing and the media, so I didn’t get to talk to my parents for a while. Once I did, they were really happy and really proud of me. I wish they could have been there in person and I was disappointed about that. They were able to be there for the Olympic Trials, which was pretty special. So we did the best we could.”
She is going to take a few days off and rest and reconnect with her family and friends before jumping back into the pool.
“In late August I’ll be off to Naples, Italy, for the International Swim League,” Madden said. “I am part of the Tokyo Frog team; I know, it’s a funny name. I’ll be there for pretty much the whole month of September. I’m looking forward to that.”
The competition is a series of events and Madden said she’ll likely compete in her better events, the 200-meter free and 400-meter free and 200-meter backstroke. She will join other Americans on the Frogs team, as well as swimmers from other countries, the teams competing against each other at the various events that make up the tour.
It seems a good bet that, during her time off or while traveling, perhaps three years down the road, Madden will reflect on the Summer of ’21 and that moment on the medal stand, and she’ll probably break into a huge grin.
“What stands out most? I think probably standing with those three other girls — me, Katie McLaughlin) and Allison — watching Katie Ledecky swim the last leg of the relay,” she said. “That was a special moment for me and I think at that moment I just felt pure joy and excitement and I was just so proud to be there with those girls and have the (American) flag on my (swim) cap, I think that’s what was going through my mind. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
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