A former Gaucho swimmer will be making her Olympic debut this summer, but you won't find her on the pool deck. She'll be out on the water, but instead of sporting a swim cap and goggles, Maggie Hogan will be representing the U.S.A inside an impossibly narrow kayak and gripping a double-bladed paddle.
After a four-year swimming career as a Gaucho, Maggie made the improbable jump from being a distance swimmer to joining the U.S. national canoe/kayaking team, sports that don't even exist in NCAA athletics.
"In the U.S., kayaking is not like swimming where we're a powerhouse and we're producing athletes that are going through the collegiate system and the cream rises to the top," she said. "Our most successful athletes in the past have come from different sports and different backgrounds. They're learning that work ethic through different sports and they come in and apply it to kayaking."
For Maggie, that sport was swimming. Though just a walk on at UCSB, Maggie's grit and leadership qualities caught the attention of her coaches and teammates, as she was voted as a two-year team captain.
"Maggie was an exceptional hard worker," her former head coach Gregg Wilson said. "She wasn't our fastest swimmer, but she was an excellent leader and her teammates recognized that."
That signature work ethic paid off early in her career, as she penciled her name in the school record book as a sophomore with a 17:20.85 finish in the 1650 freestyle, which at that time was the seventh fastest time in program history.
"She's a tough kid," Wilson said. "She was always had this sense of determination in her training, but she was always very upbeat and positive. She was great."
The feeling was mutual for Maggie.
"I think Gregg Wilson really represents everything that a team could be," she said. "I was a military brat and Santa Barbara was the 13th school that I had be enrolled in, and it was just such a phenomenal opportunity to start over with a bunch of incredible people and I enjoyed every second of that. Gregg got really good people on board, people that work hard, and people that show up and do the little things right…There was a lot of hard work in my swimming career, but we had a blast."
Serving as a storybook ending to her time with the Gauchos, she was part of a women's team that won the program's first Big West Championship in six years.
"We made relationships there that will last a lifetime. The girls that I swam with back then are still some of my best friends."
Though she picked up kayaking later than those who she will face at the Olympics (internationally most athletes start training at around 12), Maggie proved to be a quick study in the sport.
"The World Championships in 2005 and that was just my third race in the sport, so it happened very quickly," she said. "Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of depth in the U.S., and I think that with my endurance background from UCSB I was able to get on board pretty quickly."
Like most Americans, Maggie wasn't introduced to kayaking at an early age. Her earliest memories of the sport only go back to 2004 when she was going through the San Diego Lifeguard Academy. At the time, the U.S. was trying to find athletes to compete in surf skiing at the upcoming Goodwill Games and against a field of more experienced athletes, Maggie went for it.
"It was like an ocean triathlon, but the whole thing is over in like 20 minutes."
The race started on the beach and the athletes would swim out to a buoy and back to shore then run to get a paddle board, which they would take out to the buoys and back.
"In Santa Barbara, a lot of people surf, so paddle boarding came easy to me," she said. "But running I couldn't help because, you know, swimmers and running…"
Though she felt like a fish out of water on land, Maggie found herself pacing ahead of everyone else midway through the race.
"It was my first time competing in this event and by the time I was done with the paddleboard, I was winning!"
Then came the final circuit when she had to take a surf ski out into the water. She might as well have been trying to run to the buoy.
"I fell off eight times and lost the race," she said. "And I was so upset because all I had to do was stay in the boat and I would have won…thank goodness I had a swimming background!"
Luckily for her, one of the guys in the academy was a coach for saltwater sprint kayaking who helped her learn how to keep a 20-centimeter wide kayak upright.
"To get the learning curve up a little bit, I got into the saltwater boat and learned the balance, and it took off from there."
Though she took to the sport easily, Maggie doesn't consider her situation to be considerably special.
"I keep saying for this sport that if the U.S.A. could get 10 swimmers to join, we could dominate the world in eight years," she said. "I think the discipline that you learn in swimming you definitely carry on, and these guys work tremendously hard and they are really good athletes. I think the two sports blend really well with each other."
It wouldn't be long until she was made an official member of the U.S. National Team in 2005 and started vying for her first trip to the Olympics. And while she did travel to Beijing in 2008, it was as a training partner not as a competitor.
"It was interesting because I was there, but at the same time I wasn't," Maggie said. "I obviously trained to be on the team and came very close, so I was heartbroken by the process, but you have to put those feelings aside and show up everyday with a smile on your face and give your teammate the best opportunity for her to succeed for the U.S.
"It definitely was an outsider's view on the games."
To keep things in perspective, Maggie was still a fresh face in what is largely considered a mature sport. Most athletes who compete at the Olympic level in canoeing or kayaking start by age 12 and don't really master the sport for at least 8-10 years. After all, they're working with what Maggie calls "the most unstable boats on the planet."
"And I think the fact that I was so close after only three years was a huge incentive for me to keep going."
Her next opportunity was London in 2012, but again Maggie was left on the outside looking in.
"It got political as sports can sometimes be."
Two years later, after competing against top-tier competition for nine years, Maggie felt she had plateaued and was contemplating retirement. But one decision gave her career a much-needed second wind.
"I think as you get older and more mature as an athlete, you need a more scientific approach to your training," Maggie said. "I was in a slump and I decided to switch coaches."
For her new coach, she chose Michele Eray, a 2008 Olympian for South Africa. Eray helped Maggie make history by winning a bronze medal at the World Championships, making her the first U.S. citizen to reach the podium in over 20 years.
"The last time the U.S. citizen won a medal at the World Championships, it was in the men's K2 200 in 1995. I'm not sure the last time a U.S. woman had won."
That's because Maggie was the first American.
But despite the early success, an Olympic berth was never promised. Earning a spot in the games required her to compete in two rounds of competitions. The first was at the World Cup last August, but her partner suffered an untimely injury, sinking her chance of qualifying for the K2 races. This left Maggie no choice but to compete as a K1 athlete. Where the K2 competitions featured two paddlers in each kayak, the K1 was an individual event, reserved for only the top athletes in the sport.
"For a swimmer, the 500 meter in kayaking is like doing the 200 meter free or sprinting 800 meters," she said. "It's right in between the power and speed events, so I really had to work on my strength and power, but my endurance came pretty naturally to me because of my background as a distance swimmer."
Because of the limited number of spaces the Olympics has for canoe and kayak, athletes have to be among the best in their region, not just their country, to earn a spot. For the U.S., that's the Pan American region, thus making April's Pan Am Championships a make or break event for Maggie. And at age 37, she knew it would be her last race on U.S. soil.
"The lead-up to that was so stressful," she recalled. "I knew that my ultimate goal was to make the Olympic team, so I didn't peak 100 percent for that U.S. trial which was a huge risk that we took. Instead, I wanted to be 100 percent ready to go in May, but I knew that I would be facing girls that would be 100 percent ready to go in April, so that was very stressful.
"And my parents already bought tickets in May to watch me at the qualifiers, so if I didn't get through that first step, my whole season would have been over."
Maggie's risk paid off and she won the U.S. Trials by 1.736 seconds.
"Thank goodness that worked out."
With the Pan American Championships just three weeks away, Maggie felt the nerves early.
"I usually feel nervous a day or two before, but this happened like two weeks before."
To make matters worse, news of an athlete dropping out of the K1 500 fostered more nerves before the race.
"We had to race nine lanes with nine women, which means we didn't have a heat or a semi to test the water against the other girls. It was one and done.
"So I went in there thinking that I can't beat myself. I can't get in there so nervous that I beat myself. And I was really worried about that."
Anxious or not, Maggie came into race day with a clear idea of how things would go. She noted that the athletes from Mexico and Chile were always quick off the line and knew that she would be trailing them for the first 100 meters.
"It's a little disheartening when you see someone ahead of you," she said. "But I didn't want to get upset about that."
With that in mind, Maggie knew her best shot would come in the final 250 meters, which traditionally is the part of the race where athletes start to struggle as their already overworked muscles begin to fatigue.
"Being a mile swimmer, I knew that I could handle that pain better than anyone. I just kept telling myself that I could do this."
Sure enough, Maggie's strategy came to fruition, as she made her move in the final 250 meters and climbed her way into the front of the pack with only Canada's Lisa Bissonnette - a 25-year old who has been paddling since she was 10 - to beat.
"I was closing in on her, but I just ran out of lane space."
Maggie came in second, losing just by .47 seconds, but since Canada had already qualified for Rio at the World Championships, the quota spot was passed to the highest finishing country that had not qualified yet, meaning Maggie was Rio bound.
"Crossing the line, knowing that I won the berth was the biggest weight off my shoulders," she said. "When I got to the dock, my mom was there, my coach was there, and I got to share it with my dad. It was one of the best moments of my life for sure.
"My coach is doing this without a salary and we haven't been earning all year, so we've really risked so much to get things right this year. And when it happened, it was so incredible."
And how couldn't it be? It was a long, 12-year journey to get to this point, but she never lost the same imposing grit and vigorous work ethic that turned her from a walk on to a two-year team captain in college.
"She was always a tough kid, and I'm so impressed that she stayed with this," Wilson said. "And you know she's really going to go for it in Rio because she's already been going at it for a long time."
With the Olympics less than a month away, Maggie will continue training at the Newport Aquatic Center where she will go through as many as four training sessions per day whether that's paddling, conditioning, or lifting weights, a commanding regiment that is hardly new for the former walk on turned team captain.
Maggie's long wait to compete in Rio will come to an end in a little less than a month, as she will take to the water one final time at Lagoa Stadium starting on August 15.
Story and pictures courtesy of UCSB Media Relations