Sanders, Summer Elisabeth

views updated

SANDERS, Summer Elisabeth

(b. 13 October 1972 in Roseville, California), swimmer who captured worldwide attention in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics by winning four Olympic medals.

Born in a quiet northern California town, Sanders was one of two children of Bob Sanders, a dentist, and Barbara Sanders, a homemaker. Sanders's mother loved to swim, so by the time Sanders was two years old, her father had built a pool in their backyard. Her parents hired a swimming instructor for their children, and by age three Sanders could swim the width of the pool. Sanders said that her motivation came from wanting to do everything her older brother did. When her brother joined a swim team at the age of six, four-year-old Sanders wanted to join a team too. Soon she was swimming laps and competing in races against seven-year-olds.

Sanders joined a year-round swimming team when she was seven and immediately fell in love with the lifestyle. Other than competing, she loved the social aspects of the sport. She gloried in having a second life away from school and being able to travel. When Sanders was eight years old, her parents divorced, and she and her brother began moving between two different houses every six months. To the credit of her parents, their divorce did little to disrupt Sanders's swimming routine. Sanders quit swimming for short periods of time when she was ten and twelve, but apart from those brief hiatuses, she swam competitively from age seven. In 1988, at age fifteen, she went to the Olympic trials in Texas "just for the experience." It was there that her swimming aspirations caught fire. To everyone's surprise, including her own, in the 200-meter individual medley she came within .27 second of making the U.S. team that went to Seoul, Korea. Before this race Sanders had never qualified even for a national final. She was stunned but energized, realizing for the first time that the Olympics were within her reach. She came away with a new goal—to compete in the 1992 Olympics.

Sanders rose to the occasion. Her morning practices while in high school required her to get up just after 4 a.m. every day except Sunday. She was an honors student throughout high school, motivated by her desire to be accepted by a good college with an excellent swim team. Her hard work paid off. She won a full athletic scholarship in 1990 to attend Stanford University, where she was coached by Richard Quick and swam with the team widely regarded as the best in the nation. Sanders won three gold medals at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle and ended Janet Evans's four-year undefeated streak in the 400-meter individual medley. Sanders was named the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Swimmer of the Year in both 1991 and 1992, and she was the world champion in the 200-meter butterfly in 1991. As the 1992 Olympics approached, Sanders gave up her NCAA eligibility to pursue endorsement opportunities. At the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Indiana, in March 1992, Sanders established herself as the rising star of competitive swimming. She won the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys and the 200-meter butterfly and finished second in the 100-meter butterfly. She also qualified for the 400-meter medley relay. Sanders was only the third American woman in history to qualify for four individual swimming events.

At the Barcelona Olympics, Sanders was as popular with the U.S. viewing public as she was successful at swimming. At five feet, nine inches tall, Sanders was a pretty nineteen-year-old with long brown hair, brown eyes, and a beaming smile. Her personality was sweet, refreshing, and honest. Fans followed her through a roller-coaster week at the Olympics. Although Sanders started strong, winning a bronze in the 400-meter individual medley (IM), she won no medal in the 100-meter butterfly. Then she set a new U.S. record in the 200-meter IM but lost the gold by .26, placing second after China's Lin Li. Sanders was in tears after that loss but came back to win gold medals in her last two races—the 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter medley relay. She became the only U.S. swimmer to win four medals in Barcelona.

Sanders felt enormous relief after winning her final race and her first individual gold medal. After years of intense practice and an exhausting week at the Olympics, she gloried in realizing that no one expected her to do anything "great" the next day. However, making the transition from Olympic gold-medal swimmer to product spokesperson and motivational speaker was a jolt for Sanders. She immediately missed the camaraderie of team life and began to dread swimming for the first time in her life. In January 1994 she officially retired from swimming and began a broadcasting career, becoming a host on Music Television (MTV) and providing commentary at swim meets. Then, in April 1995, Sanders made a sudden about-face and returned to competitive swimming. She joined the U.S. Swimming Resident National Team training in Colorado Springs, newly motivated by the prospects of swimming in an Olympics in the United States. However, Sanders found that it was difficult to make up for her time away from training. Her rivals were new and younger, and Sanders could never match or surpass her earlier times. In March 1996 she failed to qualify for the Olympic Games at Atlanta.

With a second retirement imposed upon her, Sanders concentrated full-time on her television career. She was a swimming analyst at both the Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, hosted a children's game show on Nickelodeon called Figure It Out (1997), appeared on NBA Inside Stuff (1998), and provided sideline analysis for broadcasts of the Women's National Basketball Association games on Lifetime (1997 to 1998). In 1999 Sanders wrote, Champions Are Raised, Not Born: How My Parents Made Me a Success, with Melinda Marshall. The book answers questions she received from parents and children striving for Olympic success, and is full of personal anecdotes. Sanders's private life took a very public turn during the closing ceremonies at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when Olympic gold medalist in swimming Mark Henderson proposed to Sanders on his knees in front of thousands of athletes and a national television audience. She readily accepted, and they were married on 4 July 1997.

Although swimming started as a family activity and Sanders felt that she did not take the sport seriously until she was fifteen, she came to embody an ideal blend of tireless effort, innate talent, and a strong mental attitude that made her the best in the world in 1992. When Sanders looked back at her successes, she gave much of the credit to her parents, who never pressured her to compete. She would be the first to say that she never could have done it if it had not been so much fun.

Frank Deford, "The Butterfly Queen," Newsweek (27 Jul. 1992), gives insights into how Americans pinned their hopes and ideals on Sanders at the 1992 Olympics. C. W. Nevius, "Emotions Churn Olympic Waters," San Francisco Chronicle (1 Aug. 1992), chronicles Sanders's reactions to winning a gold medal. Karen Rosen, "Swimming Medalist Sanders Seeks Swan Song at Olympics," Atlanta Constitution (8 Apr. 1995), describes Sanders's change of heart that led to training for the 1996 Olympics. For updates on Sanders's life, see Karen Allen, "Swimmers Wed on July 4," USA Today (2 Jul. 1997), and Oscar Dixon, "Sanders Thrives in 'Real World'," USA Today (29 Sept. 2000).

Janet Ingram

About this article

Sanders, Summer Elisabeth

Updated About content Print Article