July 9, 2012
By Mae Margaret Davis
AUBURN - Among Auburn's list of all-time swimming and diving greats who have gone on to become Olympians, there is only a handful that has been able to bring home medals from the Games. Only six have won gold. Three have managed to do it more than once. Mark Gangloff is one of them.
Known for his success as a breaststroker, Gangloff began his career as a Tiger in 2000-01 and came in during a time when Auburn was dominating the breaststroke competition. With teammates such as Dave Denniston and Eric Shanteau, Gangloff was in good company as he plunged into his collegiate career.
"Auburn certainly had a hot hand in the breaststroke events when I was recruited to come to Auburn," Gangloff said. "Dave was one of the leaders of that. He was a senior when I was a freshman, so looking up to him every day and seeing how hard he worked, you wanted to be part of that group. You had Pat Calhoun, who was a 2000 Olympian, and many other breaststrokers I couldn't even mention because there were so many. You want to be part of an amazing group like that."
Despite missing out on an NCAA Championship his first two years at Auburn, Gangloff helped the men's team to the first two of its four SEC titles, part of the incredible 16-year streak, during his freshman and sophomore years.
While the team was proud of its accomplishments on the conference level, Gangloff and his upperclassmen teammates were hungry for more.
"By the time my junior year rolled around, the seniors that year hadn't won an NCAA Championship yet, and they were going to be one of the classes that was going to go out without having won one," Gangloff said. "We had extra motivation that year to try and get those guys that championship. That was one of those years I can remember the entire team working the hardest and all heading towards one goal. We wanted to send those guys out on a high note, so that was a ton of fun."
Gangloff and the Tigers won the national title in 2003, the first of a five-year NCAA Championship run for Auburn. In 2004, Gangloff was voted team captain and led his team back to the top. Having two NCAA Championships, four SEC Championships and 12 All-American honors to his name, Gangloff saw bigger and better things on the horizon.
"The year 2004 couldn't have gone much better for me," Gangloff said. "At NCAAs, we went there, and we basically dominated the competition. Our team scored more points than any team in NCAA history. I just tried to keep that momentum rolling.
"I had been training well all year for the NCAA season, and then I said, `Well let's keep this thing rolling, and who knows what can happen this summer?' I was the third fastest breaststroker at the time, and I had to beat one of the two guys that were in front of me. When we were in Long Beach, (Calif.), fortunately, I did, and I qualified for my first Olympics."
With his ticket to Athens punched, Gangloff wasn't sure what to expect heading into his first Olympic Games experience, but he knew his years spent training at Auburn would give him a good chance to compete.
"There is no larger stage than the Olympic Games," Gangloff said. "I was nervous, but I was really excited to be there. I had a little bit of flutter inside, but I felt confident about my preparation, and I felt like I was in a good spot to perform well."
Gangloff qualified in the 100 breaststroke and as a member of the 400 medley relay team and swam the preliminary race alongside a young American swimmer by the name of Michael Phelps. After helping the relay team qualify for the finals, Gangloff was able to watch as the U.S. team went on to win his first gold medal.
"It's always good when you get to swim on a relay with Michael Phelps," Gangloff said. "That guy is pretty good, and you feel pretty confident about your chances. ... To go to the Olympic Games and come away with a gold medal, it's not until after you get home and several weeks have passed that you kind of realize everything that's happened, and then you start realizing, `That's something I'll remember for the rest of my life.'"
While Gangloff wanted to continue swimming after the 2004 Games, he wasn't sure what direction his career would take. Despite not having successful years in 2005 and 2006, Gangloff bounced back in 2007 and by 2008, he was ready to get back down to business.
"In 2008, I'd been swimming well all year, so I was confident about where I was, but you can never 100 percent prepare for the Olympic Trials finals," Gangloff said. "No matter what you do, no matter how many times you visualize it, there isn't 100 percent preparation. There's a ton of nerves and a ton of pressure because that's your opportunity to make the Olympic team.
"In the finals of the Olympic Trials, I was pretty nervous before that, and I think the whole heat was pretty nervous before that. We had swum times faster in the semifinals than we did in the finals. Things turned out well, and I'm grateful for that."
Gangloff made the journey to Beijing with the cohort of swimmers from Team USA. The 2008 Games promised to be special as Phelps would be vying for eight gold medals, and Gangloff looked to be a part of one of them.
"Being part of Michael's experience was kind of like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter," Gangloff said. "You didn't really talk about it. You didn't mention it. You just kind of let Michael go on his way and let the ball keep rolling. When the 100 fly rolled around and he barely touched out (Milorad Čavić), you knew then that it was going to happen and that things were going to roll his way and he was going to get eight gold medals.
"It was a fun experience because you know you're part of history, and you know that more likely than not, that record's not going to get broken for a really, really long time."
Gangloff won his second gold medal, once again in the preliminary race of the 400 medley relay, and returned to the States having had the experience of a lifetime. Reflecting back, Gangloff felt the importance of having been surrounded by not just world-class athletes, but members of the Auburn family, as well.
"Having such a wide diverse group of swimmers that I have connections to, no matter where I go in the world or whatever swim meet I go to, I know somebody from Auburn," Gangloff said. ... "There's something to be said for having some level of comfort wherever you are, because going into a different environment you can feel a little uncomfortable, and that can affect your performance. Having those other people there, that support group helps you perform well.
"You can always find people that have a connection to Auburn, no matter where you are in the world, and the Olympic Games is no different. It's amazing, the community and the family and the ties that Auburn has, and you have a real sense of community no matter where you are in the world."