Sitting down with Matt Grevers for a video call, he’s happy and ready to go even though it’s 8am, an hour earlier than we planned to meet. Thanks to the recent clock change, he graciously agreed to meet early at the last minute. He’s smiling and relaxed and I can tell that’s his natural state. For someone who has accomplished what he has—two-time Olympian with four gold medals and one silver; multiple world champion in backstroke, freestyle, and team relays; and countless international medals (actually, it’s 28)—he is remarkably down-to-earth, easy to talk to, and settling into fatherhood. Well, he still hasn’t got that one completely figured out, he tells me.
Matt attended his last US Olympic Trials in June 2021. He fell short and didn’t make the Tokyo team in the 100m backstroke, his signature event; but, he left the pool to a standing ovation. Initially, Matt didn’t realize the roar of the crowd was for him. “To get a standing ovation even though I got sixth was amazing. It shows people appreciate not just me the swimmer and my performance, but me as a person and that means more to me than any performance I have had,” he said in an interview. That moment says more about Matt than his medals and it explains so much of who he was a swimmer and who he is now.
Businessman, partner, and father of two young daughters, Matt’s transition from professional swimming was something he had prepared for long before the day arrived. His first failure to qualify for the Olympic team back in 2016 urged him to restructure his life so it wasn’t entirely focused on swimming. While some saw it as a dilution and threat to his swimming performance, Matt saw it as a way to bring more joy and purpose into his life—and he went on to swim some of his fastest-ever times.
At the time, however, Matt struggled with how suddenly his whole life had changed because everything revolved around swimming.“Not making the Olympic team back then,” he pauses, “I was torn up for a long time. I was the defending Olympic gold medalist. I was medalling every year at international meets. Everyone thought I would make it. It wasn’t ‘if’ but ‘when.’ That was my identity,” he explains. Matt says his loss was reinforced everywhere he went. In public or at speaking events, people would ask him how he performed at the Olympics and he would have to explain why he didn’t even participate. At the most vulnerable moment of his career, Matt considered leaving the sport.
“But leaving the sport didn’t feel right,” Matt says, and I can see him reliving the turmoil. That’s the thing about Matt, you can see the emotion on his face. Not that he is an open book, but he’s honest and that’s something he credits to his upbringing.
His parents, who both immigrated from the Netherlands, raised him on the values of hard work, self-belief, and kindness, with a big side helping of Catholic guilt. “I couldn’t lie. If I secretly ate a cookie, it would eat me up inside,” he laughs. He explains how he had to earn his allowance doing chores— chores he would repeat until his parents were satisfied they were done correctly to the best of his abilities—a “Mr Miyagi situation.” Still to this day, Matt says he is a rule follower.“I’m intrigued by rule breakers but I can’t do it.”
“To get a standing ovation even though I got sixth was amazing. It shows people appreciate not just me the swimmer and my performance, but me as a person and that means more to me than any performance I have had,”
Matt’s ingrained tendency to follow more than lead is surprising for a swimmer who was known and beloved as a team captain for so many years. Following is something that came naturally to Matt. As the youngest of three, he was always hanging around his older brother and sister, constantly trying to keep up, and that disposition followed him into competitive swimming. As a junior swimmer and even in college, Matt would copy swimmers who he looked up to, right down to their stroke style and stretching routine. “Trying to be someone else is really preached against but I liked it. If you find a role model, it’s maybe not a bad strategy to do a little bit,” Matt says. “It took some hard lessons but later I realized I could tweak things to be more personal and advantageous to me.”
Learning how other swimmers were successful gave Matt a roadmap but his success in the pool thrust him into an unexpected role. Matt was first made a team captain on his high school team and it wasn’t a role he was totally comfortable with. "I was captain because I was good, not because of my leadership qualities. And I was charismatic. I lead by example by giving good effort.” Matt learned quickly, however, that his leadership role was more important than he thought.
“The hot tub story,” Matt smiles. I’m expecting him to tell me a story about the Olympics or Team USA but instead he starts to tell me about a swim meet from high school. It was one of his first experiences being captain and, sure maybe it wasn’t on the world stage, but it was still high stakes: if the team won the state championships, they would get a hot tub. “We had a chance,” Matt says, excitedly explaining how the points were so close. “If we won the last relay, we would win. I was the anchor on the relay team and I lost by eleven 100ths of a second. I felt terrible. I felt like I let the team and whole school down. I didn’t want to celebrate. I was so devastated that I brought everyone down.” Matt says his attitude put a cloud over the whole team. However, as his coach pointed out, the entire relay team had done a personal best time.
“It was solemn and quiet and everyone had done so well—so well. Not to celebrate those victories isn’t healthy because swimming is a difficult sport and if you don’t celebrate those huge achievements then you’ll never be happy. I realized the power of one person, the effect they can have on a team, and so I decided then to learn how to flip it and that’s when I became a leader.”
Matt had tapped into something powerful. “I knew how to lift people up—that was my strength. I realized one person and one comment could change your day. You could give a swimmer confidence and that can build,” he explains. Matt honed his leadership style over years as captain in high school, college, and eventually for Team USA. Whether it was noticing someone was putting in extra gym sessions, if they had a great practice, or even small things like noticing a new shampoo, Matt says he became more and more observant, looking for something positive someone did. “I started getting addicted to it. I would watch the change that would occur from one simple comment.”
“That leadership strategy ended up being hugely successful for myself because I’m not looking at people and seeing their flaws, I’m looking at people for their attributes. Just seeing the world through that positive outlook made it positive for me.”
Matt had years of incredible success. From NCAA titles and international competitions to world championship and the Olympics, Matt made his mark in the 100m backstroke and team relays. In the height of the Michael Phelps era, Grevers was an integral member of the relay team, helping Team USA win gold over France in the famous 400m freestyle relay with a world record setting preliminary swim. He helped the team medal twice again at the London 2012 Olympics and win his first individual gold medal in the 100m backstroke. He saw equal success at world championships, winning his first medal in 2006 and his last in 2019 in individual backstroke events and team relays.
At the top of his game, Matt proposed to fellow swimmer Annie Chandler from the podium at a swim meet—a video that went viral. His success and charisma had landed him sponsorship deals and other business opportunities and life was good. “I had it all,” Matt beams, “until Olympic trials in 2016.”
The top two swimmers of each final at US Olympic trials qualify for the team. Matt was the defending Olympic champion, it was his signature event, and he was “supposed to” and expected to win. Seeing the dreaded three next to his name on the result board, Matt’s world changed in an instant.
He had gone “all in” for all of his career and suddenly everything had fallen apart. With a baby on the way, sponsorship dollars immediately in question, and a huge question mark over what life would be like post-swimming, Matt struggled to get a handle on the situation. When he talks about “that dark time,” it’s clear there is still a scar there but it’s also clear there was a triumph after. Most swimmers in Matt’s situation would have probably retired. Especially given his “old” age for a swimmer, 31, and his already successful career, it was almost expected that he would retire and Matt seriously considered that it was the end. But he wasn’t ready to walk away and, perhaps for the first time, he was left without a road map to follow.
Motivated by the jarring defeat, Matt decided he was no longer going to go “all in”. “I like that I was all in and I like that I had ‘all in’ experiences,” Matt tells me, “but I didn’t want to feel like that again.” He would commit, do everything he could in training, but he pushed himself to diversify his perspective.
Cultivating life outside the pool meant jumping into the business world with real estate investment and embracing his role as a new father. Parenting and high performance sport aren’t exactly symbiotic but, despite the day-to-day challenges, it gave Matt the balance he was searching for. In a previous interview, he explained how parenting actually helped his swimming: “If I don’t have a great practice, it’s awesome to have an opportunity to come home and be a great dad and succeed that way. And the same that swimming helps parenting. If I’m not doing great at home, like my patience is a little thin…I get to go swim and have a great practice and then I can have a reward there. So the balance of the two in trying to find a win is definitely helpful.”
There is a tone of wisdom when Matt talks about how he responded to his watershed moment and how he came back to the water and swim faster than ever—clocking a personal best of 24.53 in the 50m backstroke at US national championships in 2018. He had found a new love for swimming, one that didn’t come with 100% pressure and that reset put him on a successful path. He continued to represent Team USA, medal at international competitions, and competed in the ISL for the LA Current. But things were different, he wasn’t following anyone else’s lead except his own.
Matt eventually stepped away from competitive swimming in 2021 and this time he was ready when he saw a six next to his name at Olympic Trials. Walking off the deck to a standing ovation, it wasn’t the medals people were remembering, it was Matt’s superpower to raise people up and that included his teammates, fans, coaches, friends, and family. “I look back on my career and it looks great. I made a positive impact when I could. I’m still the most consistent fast backstroker in history and I know I’ve been good for so long because I enjoyed the sport.” He stops, segueing into a quick story about how he would race those fated 2016 trials differently, but, he smiles, “I’m proud of what I accomplished. The results and times will always look worse but I made a positive impact as a leader and I’m proud of that.”
Now, Matt continues to pursue several different business ventures, including a swim school, but his biggest role is as a father. Applying the skills he developed as a swimmer has helped him in business but, he laughs, it doesn’t always help him as a father. “I’m too soft,” he smiles. “I never thought I’d be a soft parent. I know it’s not good for them. But they just look up at me and…,” he sighs with a smile.
All at once a rule follower and risk taker, both seemingly superhuman and relatable, and a leader who defined his own style, Matt will be in the history books for his medals but he will be remembered for his humanity.