UCSD Head Coach Corrie Falcon calls senior swimmer Beth Dong "the comeback kid," and it's safe to say few collegiate athletes have had to overcome what the Long Beach native has to get back to the top of her sport. After a stellar youth career, Dong, suffering from severe scoliosis, had surgery that included the placement of a metal rod in her back. All was fine until her sophomore season at UCSD when she developed continual pain in her back and sickness that was at one point considered life-threatening. Doctors eventually determined that her issues were caused by infection stemming from the rod. It was removed and Dong has been on an upward trajectory ever since, getting back to the NCAA Division II Championships last March and breaking a school record at last month's Arena Invitational. "Beth is an all-around dependable performer in almost any event and any stroke," says Falcon, "but she's also developed into a leader for us both vocally and by example. She has a wisdom about her that I think might have a lot to do with the fact that she's been to the bottom and has worked her way back up." A visual arts major at UCSD's Warren College, Dong spoke recently about her recent successes, what it takes to be a collegiate swimmer and her hopes for this year's NCAA Championships.
Q-On the second night of the recent Arena Invitational, you went 4:18.01 in the 400 IM, dropping more than five seconds off your previous UCSD best and bettering three-time NCAA champion Alex Henley's school record by two-tenths of a second. That seemed to take a lot of people by surprise. Were you surprised?
DONG-I was actually very surprised! But I had confidence going into the race just because I knew that I had done the training to succeed.
Q-At the same meet, you nearly broke the UCSD standard in the 1,650 freestyle, set by Sophie Levy in 2006. What has been behind your recent resurgence?
DONG-Honestly , I think that finally being healthy mentally and physically has been so important. Also I am a captain this year which has pushed me to be a leader outside and inside the pool. It has been an inspiring job and I really believe it has helped me succeed in my endeavors.
Q-You've had more than your share of setbacks during your UCSD career. Talk about what you've had to overcoming since arriving at UCSD and how, if at all, that makes reaching your current level more gratifying?
DONG-Well, I guess it started when I was 14 and found out I had really severe scoliosis and had to have spinal surgery to fuse metal rods into my spine. After that long ordeal I went back to swimming and came here, the lovely UCSD. Then, last year I learned that the rods had gotten infected and I would have to have them removed or I wouldn't live to see the next year. That was the point where I really had to sit down and make the decision to be strong and fight. I had the surgery to take out all of the hardware in August of 2011, got back in the water with the Tritons in December, and now here I am! I thank God every day for restoring my health.
Q-The last time you'd posted the kind of marks you did at the Arena meet, you were 14 years old. What were your emotions when you did it at 14? Two weeks ago?
DONG-I think at 14 you really never appreciate anything, especially your physical abilities to recover. I'm 21 now, so when I could get up and finally break that seven-year record I was completely overjoyed. It's definitely a lot harder now, but that's what makes it so gratifying.
Q-The 400 IM is generally regarded as one of your sport's toughest events. Run us through your approach to each segment of the event. Which is your favorite? Is there one that your dread?
DONG-It is definitely a rough one. My strategy is pretty simple - swim smart. I usually have to really push the fly and back in the first half because the third hundred is the stroke I DREAD- breaststroke! During the breaststroke I merely try to hold on for dear life and wait for the freestyle, my saving grace! And if I've swam a smart race I can bring it back fast.
Q-What is the single most important characteristic necessary to be a successful collegiate swimmer? How do you feel you stack up in that category? Who on your current team do you think best exemplifies it?
DONG-Perseverance! Swimming asks a lot of the individual mentally and physically, but if you have the gumption you WILL succeed. I have had the privilege to learn that throughout my life. I think Olivia Fountain is someone who I have seen that bursting through. She came from a background of very minimal swimming and dove right into the UCSD swim scene with fervor (pun intended) I don't think many people could have done what she has without an iron will to stay strong and carry on!
Q-The swimming season is a long one, basically six-plus months of training for what you hope is one perfect four-day stretch in March. What pushes you through the training?
DONG-The team is honestly why I still sit here today. I would probably say that the fact our sport is almost solely based on our training is the hardest part. We have to push our bodies to the physical limit every day in order to be better, faster swimmers. This is truly only possible if you have people to share that responsibility and struggle with and I would not like to do that with anyone but this amazing team!
Q-How did you get your start as a swimmer? Did you have anyone you emulated as a young athlete? What do you remember from your first competitive experience?
DONG-My siblings, who are much older, swam, therefore, as a young kid who looked up to her siblings I naturally chose to swim as well. I began swimming competitively at the age of five but one of my first memories of the pool was earlier than that. At three, I swam one crooked lap of backstroke across the pool and my mom gave me a medal. She's amazing.
Q-Your brother, Jake, had a solid swimming career at UCSD? Was he part of your reason for coming to La Jolla? What else attracted you to UCSD?
DONG-It's funny because I actually wrote off UCSD completely at first just because my brother had gone here and I wanted to be "different." But then I came on a recruiting trip and I fell in love with the team and the coaching staff. Something special was going on here and I wanted to be a part of it.
Q-You initially swam at UCSD for Coach Scott McGihon. Now, Corrie Falcon and Matt Macedo are co-head coaches. What are the strengths of those three coaches?
DONG-Scott was awesome, he was never afraid to lighten the mood with a not-so-funny joke but also knew when to get down to business and focus. Corrie and Matt were both VERY respectable swimmers in their time which has given them the experience and passion to become top tier head coaches. Throughout these experiences they have gleaned important knowledge and techniques that they have shared with us today. But don't be fooled by their tough façade, they are a pair of goofballs just like anyone else.
Q-UCSD, unlike many college teams, does not separate its men's and women's swimming programs. Do you think that is a positive?
DONG-Absolutely. I don't know where I would be without our men's team. We are such a big dysfunctional yet loving family. Having both genders together allows us to grow closer as a team and push each other in different ways, even if that means pushing each other's buttons sometimes. (which happens more frequently than not J) But I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Q-Is there a member of the current team that you find inspiring? Incredibly funny? The most intelligent?
DONG-Someone who inspires me every day is my teammate and roommate Casey Adams. She is the best combination of smart, compassionate and hard-working and she helps me get through every single day. If I want to laugh I go to Paul Guzman, a long time friend and satirical whiz kid. As for intelligent, Natalie Mouzooni is one of the sharpest gals I know. Some would even call her a genius.
Q-Aside from swimming, what are some aspects of college life at UCSD that you enjoy most?
DONG-I find myself really enjoying the location - sunny and beautiful! The people - down to earth and focused on what's important-and the academics. I'm proud to be a Triton.
Q-You're a visual arts major, hoping to get involved in post-production of films. Assuming you have more than just a passing interest in that area, what are your three favorite movies and what recent movie would you recommend?
DONG-Ooooh. Now we are getting to the serious questions. Hmm... I don't like to play favorites but I would have to say The Princess Bride, Coraline, and Bright Star are on the top of my list. I recently saw Life of Pi and I would recommend seeing it in 3D because it was visually incredible with an accompanying story that will leave you breathless.
Q-The 2013 NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships are set for Birmingham, AL in March. Are you excited about competing in the South?
DONG-I am extremely pumped. Mostly for the sweet tea, barbeque and hush puppies!
Q-How does the NCAA meet differ from the average invitational? What do you remember most fondly about past NCAA experiences?
DONG-Nationals is simply on another level. You compete with people from all across the country, even the world sometimes which is something in itself. My favorite part of Nationals is looking up into the stands on the last day and seeing all of the alumni and parents en masse clothed in Hawaiian shirts, a UCSD tradition. It's great to see how supported we really are.
What would make the outcome of this year's meet a success in your mind?DONG-If this team swims with all the courage and heart that we have built together throughout our time here in San Diego I will see that as pure SUCCESS! But if we're getting technical, a national championship would be pretty cool too.
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