Tall, muscular swimmers walked down a red carpet in New York City, posing for photos and speaking with reporters. The week of Thanksgiving, the best swimmers in the country — part of the winningest U.S. Olympic swim team in history — gathered for the Golden Goggles Awards and also to give back to their swimming community by raising money for the USA Swimming Foundation.
For the fourth time, Katie Ledecky received the Female Swimmer of the Year award, and Michael Phelps earned Male Swimmer of the Year for the seventh time.
Cullen Jones, an ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation, spoke about how the organization has given him opportunities he might not have otherwise received.
“It’s been an outlet to give back to my sport and to give back to my community,” said Jones, who won three medals at the 2012 Games. “Being African-American, it’s been my way of teaching other African-Americans how important it is to learn how to swim.”
Continued Jones, “Seventy percent of African-Americans don’t know how to swim, and we can change that just by taking swim lessons. It’s important we teach that.”
Swimmers at the event also had important advice for youth swimmers who hope to one day make the Olympics. Ledecky, who came home from Rio with five medals, said, “Dream big. Set some big goals.”
She talked about her own personal path to make the Olympics. “When I was  and younger, I had no idea how you qualified for the Olympics, and I would always watch the Olympics and think, Oh I’ll never get there, I have no idea how you can get there,” Ledecky said. “But the more I started working towards swimming faster, I got to a point where qualifying for Olympic trials was my next goal, and then all of a sudden I started realizing that it could happen. I would encourage young swimmers not to be afraid to dream that big and to fully believe that it’s a real possibility. It’s not something out there in space.”
In Rio, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win individual Olympic gold in swimming. She took home the award for Female Race of the Year following her win in the 100 freestyle.
Said Manuel, “I would just say have fun and never give up. Work as hard as you can to reach your goals and dreams. No dream is too big, so just go for it.”
Paralympian Jessica Long, who has won 23 medals over her career, said it is important to push through difficult practices. “Never give up,” she said. “You know you have to practice to be a good swimmer, but there are going to be those practices that are tough and hard, and that’s when you have to never give up.”
Said Ryan Held, who won 4 x 100 freestyle gold in Rio and was part of the team that earned Relay Performance of the Year, “There’s no real secret ingredient; there’s no special training program. As long as you have a positive mindset, set your goals high, then always make decisions to [help you] achieve those, then there’s really nothing else that can stop you from achieving what you want.”
All the Olympians emphasized the importance of working hard and dreaming big.
They also spoke about their favorite Olympic moments.
Said Allison Schmitt, “Every time the national anthem plays, the American flag is raised, it brings tears to my eyes. No matter if I am on the podium or watching my teammates on the podium, that’s a special feeling that I can’t really ever explain.”
Manuel said that just being on the team representing her country was her favorite part of the Olympic experience. And Nathan Adrian, who was also on that 4 x 100 relay team, doesn’t have a favorite Olympic moment. Said Adrian, “There’s too many.”
Photographs by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images