By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - A high school swimming star in Huntsville, Ala., Margaret Hoelzer knew Auburn was the school for her even before her official recruiting visit.
"I knew without a doubt on my unofficial trip," Hoelzer says. "The official trip was kind of like the formality, but I knew on the unofficial trip. I just fell in love with it.
"Seeing the facility, and seeing how amazing Auburn swimming was throughout my childhood. That was obviously a school that I had been interested in ever since I was little."
Hoelzer's impact was immediate. The SEC Freshman of the Year in 2002, she helped Auburn win its first three women's NCAA swimming & diving championships in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
"My entire swimming career was so special," she says. "Everything at Auburn, everything at the Olympics."
After her senior season at Auburn, Hoelzer finished fifth in the 200-meter backstroke in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
Four years later, in the 2008 Beijing Games, Hoelzer won silver medals in the 200 back and 4 x 100 medley relay, and a bronze medal in the 100 back.
"When I was at the Olympics, I had so many friends there," Hoelzer says. "My teammates on the U.S. Olympic team and so many international friends of mine who I'd trained with in college who were representing different countries. The Auburn family was still there and I just felt right at home, and was basically still with teammates."
Returning from China in post-Olympic glory, Hoelzer shared publicly for the first time how, between the ages of 5 and 7, she had been sexually abused by a friend's father.
"I felt it was really important to use that platform in a positive way," Hoelzer says. "I realized that I could make an impact and it wasn't just this one-time thing. That it was something I could continue doing."
As the spokesperson for the National Children's Advocacy Center, which served Hoelzer as an 11-year-old after Margaret told her mother of the abuse, Hoelzer travels nationwide from her home in Seattle, speaking at conferences and fundraisers.
"I've never done a talk where I haven't had someone disclose their story to me," she says. "There are always victims and survivors in the audience."
Once, after sharing her survivor's story at an event benefiting an advocacy center, an audience member made what Margaret calls an "astronomical donation" to help the center reach its goal of constructing a new facility.
"I was really proud of the fact that I helped in some way this organization and the amount helped them get to their goal of 100 percent," she says.
Other times, Hoelzer's impact is more personal than financial.
Years ago, a counselor told Hoelzer a teenage girl she counseled had been in the audience, determined to hear the Olympic medalist's story firsthand.
"'I just want to be able to see her in person because she's been through it,'" Hoelzer says the counselor told her, relaying the young girl's words. "'Because she's the light at the end of the tunnel and she's on the other side.'
"I never knew who that little girl was. The counselor told me that story after the fact. She said, 'It was really important for that little girl to be here tonight, because she's in the thick of it.' I was so grateful that she could tell me that. That one always stands out."
More than national championships and Olympic medals, Margaret Hoelzer's greatest victories have occurred outside the pool, bringing hope to hurting kids.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer