Shannon Vreeland is coiled up, ready to explode out of London’s Aquatics Centre.
She’s trying to contain her energy, and the photo shows her eyes so wide they might fall out as she waits in disbelief for the official clock to show her some proof that, yes, what she was witnessing had really happened.
It’s one of those magical moments caught on film, the kind Vreeland, a junior Georgia swimmer, had watched so many others go through as their fates played out at the world’s grandest competition.
Growing up in Kansas, she had seen the events on television from thousands of miles away. Finally, in the closing fractions of a second in the U.S. women’s gold-medal-winning 4×200-meter relay, she was part of one of those emotional images that burns itself into the brain, pulling the heart strings of people who may never experience that level of joy.
“I’d been watching the Olympics forever, both summer and winter,” Vreeland said. “And I’d always watch people going up to the podium, and I would cry along with the people on the medal stand from home. To be able to do that was a dream come true.”
Vreeland’s look is different than the ones her teammates wear as they watch for their time to appear on the clock. The two standing next to her — Dana Vollmer and Missy Franklin — had already won gold medals that week, and even Georgia teammate Allison Schmitt, still in the pool, had already won three of her five medals, including one of her three golds.
There’s no denying that winning medals probably never gets old, but for Vreeland, this was her first and only chance.
She had a summer of breakthroughs, and in May broke the two-minute mark in the 200 freestyle, an achievement that had eluded her since she first reached the brink of it as a high school swimmer.
That’s when Georgia swimming coach Jack Bauerle, a former Olympic coach, took her aside to let her know she had a chance to make the Olympic team in June.
“I think you’ve sort of got to change your aspirations here,” Bauerle said he told Vreeland. “I said, ‘You’re in the perfect situation because no one thinks you’re going to do this. No one is going to be bothering to tell you that you should.’”
If there’s ever a time when Vreeland shines, it’s when there is some doubt.
She pushed herself as an eighth-grader to beat out her high school teammates. She had trouble making Georgia’s relay team when she arrived on campus before working her way the first of her two NCAA championship with the Bulldogs’ 4×200 freestyle relay team by the season’s end.
And at the U.S. team trials, she had an outside shot of making the team in her event, the 200 freestyle. Her fifth-place finish there didn’t guarantee her a spot, but it did open a door for her to compete on the 4×200 relay team as an alternate. As she likes to do, Vreeland made the most of her chance when it appeared she hardly had one at all.
“I’ve always really enjoyed being in that position,” Vreeland said. “I really like surprising people, and I’d felt like I had been able to do that before.”
With just a few weeks of training before the games, she set about whittling precious tenths and hundredths of a second from her time, and she learned she would be competing in the final the morning of the competition.
For hours, she bided her time, unable even to get in her nap. When it was time to race that night, Aug. 1, it all went by so quickly that Vreeland hardly had time to understand what she was wrapped up in. She finished the third leg of the race in 1:56.85, and the team won gold with an Olympic-record time of 7:42.92.
For weeks, she’s been pulled one way and another by reporters, family members, old friends at home and new friends on the bus. But it wasn’t until Saturday, when she saw the line of fans at Georgia’s picture day at Sanford Stadium, that she finally realized her moment on the podium was one of those that transcended television and had the power to awe and inspire.
“Just seeing everybody lined up because they wanted our autographs was crazy to me,” Vreeland said. “I remember getting into lines like that when I was a kid, and there I was at the Olympics, on a team with Brendan Hansen, Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps. These are the people I’ve looked up to since I was 8, 9, 10 years old. To be on the other side of that now, to be the one people want to get autographs from, it’s just crazy. I never thought I’d be here.”