Sophia Herzog Gibb, two-time Paralympic medalist, on her swimming career, cultivating resilience and confidence, her dwarfism and a love story
(Publication Date: 5.2..23)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Sophia Herzog Gibb, a two-time Paralympic medalist swimmer.
Sophie retired from world competition after the Tokyo games were held in 2021. She grew up in Fairplay, Colo., at first with dreams of being a competitive skier. We talk about what led her from skiing to glory as a swimmer. We talk about her growing up with a disability and how that affected her life in a small rural school, and fueled her fire to excel at academics and athletics.
Sophie was born with dwarfism. She has said if she had a choice between being born with dwarfism again or of average height, she’d choose dwarfism. She shares why that is in this conversation. And plenty more insights and stories, including her love story with Paralympic cyclist (and now husband) Nick Gibb.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
Little People of America: lpaonline.org
Dwarf Athletic Association of America: daaa.org
Women’s Sports Foundation: womenssportsfoundation.org
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community, and wellbeing based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.
You know when you meet someone who carries themselves in just such a way that you want to have a bit of what they have, that inner shine? I think Sophia Herzog Gibb, who is today's guest on Looking Upstream, has that admirable balance of humility and self-confidence that I think we'd all feel happy to find and develop in our lives.
Sophie is a Paralympic swimmer who retired from world competition after the Tokyo Games were held in 2021. She grew up in Fairplay, Colorado, at first with dreams of being a competitive skier. We talk about what led her from skiing to glory as a swimmer. We talk about her growing up with a disability and how that affected her life in a small rural school and fueled her fire to excel at academics and athletics.
(01:13): Sophie was born with dwarfism. In a previous chat I had with her, she told me that if she had a choice between being born with dwarfism again or of average height, she'd choose dwarfism. She shares why that is. In this conversation, we talk about our motivations for being a world-class competitive athlete, and how she cultivated resilience and confidence to be so successful, and to develop her voice not only for herself and for fellow little people, but for all girls and women.
We talk about the Hollywood worthy love story between Sophie and her husband, Nick, who became a Paralympic cyclist after an accident occurred with a snow making machine at a ski resort many years before the two would faithfully meet and fall in love. Sophie also shared some insights into life at the Olympic Training Center and what it was like to face the Tokyo 2020 games being delayed due to the COVID pandemic. Among other things that we get into.
(02:04): Show notes with links in the transcript from today's conversation are posted at wearechaffee.org. If you are listening to this show on a podcast player like on Apple or Spotify, and you want to help us spread the good of what we're doing here, you can rate and comment on the show on your player. It really is helpful.
The We Are Chaffee Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority. And it's supported by the Colorado Public Health Environment Office of Health Disparities. Okay, here we go with Sophia Herzog Gibb.
[Instrumental guitar transition music]
(02:42): Sophie, it is great to have you in the studio with me. You are a two-time world champion, two time Paralympic medalist, six time world medalist. And I just think that's the coolest sentence that I could ever start a conversation like this with. Do you ever feel that? Do you wake up in the morning like, "I'm a badass two time world champion medalist in Rio, in Tokyo." Man, what does this feel like?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (03:11): Yeah, thanks for having me. In the heat of training, I was not feeling like a badass. I was pretty torn down from training. But post-retirement and post-career is definitely something I'm proud of that I was able to accomplish those.
Adam Williams (03:27): I'm just thinking that for the rest of your life, this is always a thing. You can remind yourself this is something that you have done. It's part of your story. It cannot be taken away.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (03:36): Yeah, For sure.
Adam Williams (03:37): Does that ever cross your mind?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (03:39): I think so. I think when I get older, 20 years down the road, it'll be something that I'm... It'll hit differently for sure.
Adam Williams (03:49): When and how did you come to swimming? How did that become your thing, especially that you would dedicate so much time and get to a world-class level with?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (03:58): Yeah, I grew up in Fairplay, Colorado. And I actually wanted to go for skiing to the Paralympics. They didn't have a classification for dwarfism, so we switched over to swimming. My mom put me in lessons when I was really young since now as an adult I can only stand in four feet of water. And I joined a club team in Bailey, Colorado with about five girls.
That was one of my favorite teams still to this day. And I showed potential. I was scouted through the Paralympics at a really young age. And then it was leading into the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. I was given the opportunity if I graduated high school early, I could live at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center leading into the Rio 2016 games.
Adam Williams (04:49): Okay. How young are we saying you were when you were being scouted for this already?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (04:54): I was about 10 or 12 years old.
Adam Williams (04:56): Oh, wow.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (04:56): Yeah.
Adam Williams (04:57): Okay. How do they do that? How are there people who are able to be so aware? Because I'm thinking it's small town, it's Colorado, it's rural. I mean, I know we have the internet. But what is out there that they are looking for and able to identify, "Wow, we should really be paying attention to this athlete?"
Sophia Herzog Gibb (05:16): Yeah, it was just kind of who I knew. I knew Erin Popovich, who is also a dwarf, who's another multi medalist. And she saw me swim through an organization called DAAA, which is Dwarf Athletic Association of America. And I was scouted actually at that meet through the Paralympics.
Adam Williams (05:39): Okay. Were there other sports that were appealing? You mentioned skiing, was that something that you pursued even just for enjoyment or were there other sports?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (05:47): Yeah, I still ski to this day. And then I grew up horseback riding as well, which was a lot of fun.
Adam Williams (05:54): Did you do any competing with that?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (05:57): Very fun competing. Nothing super. My horse was not really interested in showing.
Adam Williams (06:04): Okay. So I'm always interested in what it is that draws people to the thing. Not that any of us are limited to just one thing we're really interested in. But with swimming, I mean that took so much dedication in your case because that was the path forward. Was there something in particular about that that just really resonated with you? Just really felt whether that was fun, or freeing, or some sort of way that you just got in touch with expressing yourself, or finding confidence, or whatever?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (06:34): Yeah, I think I was really lucky to start on a team with some really good people. And I just enjoyed it and had a ton of fun early on. And then I was able to see where could take me in life. The path was pretty clear to me and just to be able when I got older to push my body to limits, which is uncomfortable a lot of the time was really enticing to me.
Adam Williams (07:04): What do you think it is about that level of discomfort and that challenge to say, "How far can I go? What can I accomplish even though this hurts?" Or maybe because it hurts. What is it about maybe the broader human spirit, if you have reflected on what has been the appeal of that for you?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (07:24): I think there was a part when it got stressful just to know I did everything in my power to compete and when I stepped up on the blocks, everything was checked off that I could do. Which made me really proud and gave me a lot of confidence. I don't know, just a competitive spirit, being able to see what the human body is capable of.
Adam Williams (07:51): I'm thinking of trail running or endurance sports in particular because that's something that is of personal interest and something that I pay attention to. But of course, there are people out there, also we think of swimmers, or who maybe swim across the English Channel, or swim whatever, open water, amazing distances, or challenges, or go around whatever the island is.
I'm missing specific examples at the moment. I know those stories are out there because I've read them or watched something on them. And so that's the lens I'm looking through when I ask a question like that is, people do amazing things
Sophia Herzog Gibb (08:24): Yeah. I mean, it's crazy to think that lady swam from Alaska to Russia. I mean, I'm one of the world's best swimmers and swimming in open water is terrifying to me. So to have that accolade for her is just incredible. And it is incredible to see what the human body is capable and I was given a really incredible opportunity to be able to push myself to see what my human body was capable of.
Adam Williams (08:57): When you were swimming in the Paralympics and other events leading up to those special experiences. I'm wondering, if you can tell me some about how that works. You've mentioned dwarfism. Were you swimming against other athletes with varying disabilities? Or how do those heats and competitions come together in terms of those logistics or how the Paralympics use it?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (09:25): So the Paralympics is into classifications and there's 10 physical classifications. So when you get introduced into the Paralympics, you go through a classification process, which essentially involves a physical exam and then a swim test. Mine was quite easy because I have dwarfism, which is a skeletal.
So there's not a lot of percentage of question to what I can do and what I cannot do. It gets a little bit more complicated when it's a muscular disability. And muscles react different to different types of stress. And so I was competing in the S6 category. So I went through the physical exam and the swim test and they had a set of numbers that added up to six.
So one is the most disabled and 10 is the least disabled. So I competed all through my career with other S6s, which was majority of dwarfs, but there was some other disabilities scattered into it as well.
Adam Williams (10:30): So we're talking about the measured capability and putting that on a more or less level playing field. So it might be someone who has an amputation. But maybe is average height, maybe is six foot tall, somewhere close to my height. But they have an amputation, so, okay, they have a limitation they're working to overcome and you might have been competing against people in that way.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (10:30): Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Adam Williams (10:55): Okay. I'd like to talk about dwarfism. I'm sure there are things there for me to learn. This is genetic, is that true?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (11:03): Yes.
Adam Williams (11:04): But you have told me that your parents are what you called average height.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (11:07): Yep.
Adam Williams (11:08): So I'm curious how the genetics of that works and if that means that it's from further back in the family line or how does that work? I guess I don't have the basics of genetics and science in my understanding.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (11:23): So essentially what happened was my F34 gene miscopied. So I was a one in 26,000 chance of it occurring with both my parents being average height. There is no lineage of dwarfism in my family that's been tracked. So now if I were to have a child, my husband's average height, there's a 50/50 chance of it being average or dwarf.
Adam Williams (11:52): Okay. It just occurred to me that when we say genetics, I think a lot of times what we think is, oh, well, it's what comes from the parents. But instead on a more basic level, what we're actually saying is it's related to genes. And that those things are not necessarily perfectly overlapping.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (12:08): Yeah.
Adam Williams (12:09): Okay. Okay. I'm learning already. So then what I'm wondering is at what age did you notice that there was something that was different about the way your friends or classmates might have been growing or might have been developing and yourself?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (12:25): Yeah, I think I always kind of knew. I was involved with... We have LPA, which is Little People of America right at the beginning because it was a really good avenue for my parents to learn a lot, since this was their first experience with someone with dwarfism, and they were trying to raise someone with dwarfism. So I had a whole community from the get-go of growing up of people like me.
Adam Williams (12:57): Do you remember having a conversation initially with your parents at any point where there was just more clarity around this is what's going on, this is what we've learned, this is what we understand from the science, and this group that we're going to go be part of, learn even more, and have community I assume?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (13:16): Yeah, I think so. I couldn't peg an age. But I remember my mom was always telling me that I was perfect and there was this one time in first grade where the teacher was like, "Not everybody's perfect," and I raised my hand and was like, "Well, my mom says I am." And so I was just always in a really good place having that community, figuring out as I was growing up how to deal with certain situations, whether it be physical or social. And I had people to bounce it off, whether it be older mentors or kids that were my age going through the same thing. It probably didn't socially hit of the challenges I was going to hit until I got a lot older, like middle school and stuff, when some humans are not the nicest, but that's okay. But that was probably when I was really realizing the wedge that it could create or the bridge I could make over the wedge.
Adam Williams (14:27): Okay. I think you experienced bullying, is that right?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (14:30): I did, yep.
Adam Williams (14:30): Was that middle school, high school?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (14:34): Started middle and then was in high school.
Adam Williams (14:36): You went to such a small high school in such a small town, that I guess it shouldn't surprise me. But it feels like it caught me off guard somehow that growing up with these people, and being surrounded by such small community, and these people who know you as a human being would then reach that age where those sorts of behaviors of middle schoolers kick in and they still are going to be a bully to someone who they've grown up with.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (15:03): Yeah, I was the first person to stick out in the crowd, so I was the easiest target. And it toughened me up. I mean, I figured out how to be okay with sitting at lunch by myself as a high schooler.
Adam Williams (15:18): Right. I guess when it comes down to it, everybody is trying to figure out things for themselves. So as kids...
Sophia Herzog Gibb (15:27): Yeah.
Adam Williams (15:28): ... I guess even though they might've known you it's, "Let's go for what's easy to do."
Sophia Herzog Gibb (15:34): Yeah, I was the easy target. Which is fine. I mean, I wouldn't take it back because it fueled my fire to get out of there quicker to move to the training center. And it taught me some hard lessons at a young age.
Adam Williams (15:49): If I'm really honest with you, I feel like you have this strength and that's great. And at the same time I don't think you think bullying felt so good at the time and was a good way to go, right?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (16:00): Yeah. I mean, I-
Adam Williams (16:01): Is there some masking going on there for you?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (16:04): Not essentially, because now as a mid 20-year-old, I see kids in my situation, and I get invited into classrooms, and I lay it out on the line of what it is. So if I could go back, I probably would like to have a friend. I'm now in my mid 20s, finally making connections that are real and legit.
But I am also grateful for that opportunity of learning those hard lessons for sure. But would I ever wish what I went through on somebody, especially with the dwarfism? No way.
Adam Williams (16:48): I think something that we learn when we get to be adults is that the people we decide are nerds or whoever in whatever categories we place them in high school, if you have those typical categories of the cool kids, the jocks, the whatever, those, I'm thinking 1980s movies, classics, that highlighted all that so much. We get to be adults and we realize as humans it's not about that.
And as we meet people as adults and go throughout our lives, we have no idea who was picked on in high school and who was the cool prom king, prom queen, whatever. It's just such a different relationship to life. So I think probably what you're describing is actually the experience in its own way for so many of us.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (17:40): Yeah, for sure. And it's good to put a light on it that not everybody's high school experience was sunshine and roses.
Adam Williams (17:48): I think a lot of people's. If we're really honest about it, yeah, probably almost nobody's was. But if you look back at that, there's a resilience, and strength, and confidence in you that is clear. And you use that as motivation, and fuel, and fire to become this world-class athlete. I wonder where that came from. Was that something that your parents helped you cultivate? Was it something you feel like was innate? How did you have that strength?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (18:19): Yeah, I think it was a little bit of both. To be able to graduate early, I had to double my course load from four years into three years. So I was quite a busy kid academically, just trying to stuff in a ton of high school in a short amount of time, while still trying to train to maintain some kind of fitness. So when I got to the training center, I wasn't so far behind the game. So there wasn't a ton of time to feel super bad for myself because I was swamped in homework.
Adam Williams (18:54): And I suppose success is stacking up as well. You were really young when the Paralympics are saying, "You've got something."
Sophia Herzog Gibb (19:01): Yeah, and I was really hungry too. So I was going to do whatever it took back then to make it.
Adam Williams (19:07): Was that for yourself or was that... Or maybe both here, because you wanted to show anybody who had picked on you or anybody who might think to pick on you, "No, this is what I'm capable of. I'm not going to just sit here and let you squash me."
Sophia Herzog Gibb (19:23): I think back then as a high school girl, it was probably just for myself just to personally know what I was capable of.
Adam Williams (19:30): I think that's an amazing place to be.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (19:33): Oh, thank you.
Adam Williams (19:33): To live for ourselves is something that so many of us struggle even well into adulthood to take hold of and say, "You know what? I'm going to create this thing in the world or go after this dream in the world for me, not for approval."
Sophia Herzog Gibb (19:47): Yeah.
Adam Williams (19:48): So you had mentioned to me before we started recording previously that if you were able to choose a life of dwarfism or otherwise, you would still choose it. You would still choose the life that you know and you have. I wonder if you could elaborate on that.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (20:06): Yeah, I mean, it's given me so many opportunities. It's given me a whole community that wouldn't have been possible being average height. It let me compete in the Paralympics. I met my husband through there. And it's just given me a different outlook on life for sure.
Adam Williams (20:32): I want to talk about self-confidence. Because I listened to the Flame Bearers podcast that you did. And your husband, Nick, was also on there for different comments. And he described having met you at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. And that when he first saw you and what he first was attracted to about you was this incredible confidence. And I'd have to admit that that's what I have seen in you as well.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (20:58): Oh, thank you.
Adam Williams (20:59): And I think it's so admirable for any human, because again, I've already sort of alluded to, so many of us struggle with all these inner aspects of ourselves regardless of what our challenges in life might or might not be. And you have and exude, I think, this level of confidence. So just again, where that comes from and how do you see yourself in that light, when your husband says that or when I say that?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (21:25): Yeah, I'm really appreciative that that's what comes off. I think I've always been under the impression I've had to work 10 times harder than anybody else just to be considered on a level playing field in adulthood now professionally. So I'm just constantly intensifying whatever skill or craft I'm doing just to be considered an adult, and looked at, and respected at that level.
Adam Williams (22:01): Okay. I'm wondering if we have a kind of chicken and egg situation in terms of success as a swimmer coming because of the confidence or if confidence came about because again, you were younger.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (22:11): It certainly, definitely gave me a ton of confidence.
Adam Williams (22:13): It fueled that.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (22:15): Yeah.
Adam Williams (22:16): Okay. I have also played sports. I have not played anywhere near the world-class level of anything. And so the idea of having the Paralympics say, "We see you." Do you remember what that felt like and the confidence boost that might have given you at the time?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (22:30): Yeah, I think it actually wasn't quite a confidence boost because I was three spots off of the London 2012 team. So I was coming off a big hit. And they were like, "Well, if you do this for us, we can save you a bed." So I was still really hungry. And I mean, swimming saw me at my lowest lows and my highest highs. And I could never fake it to make it in swimming. Whatever training I put into that meat was going to show up in that race. So if I was dogging it at practice, I was not going to perform well. But if I put my head down, did everything right when it gave me confidence,
Adam Williams (23:17): I like those kinds of activities, whether that's professionally or in whatever lane where the results speak for themselves and it shows who is bringing what to the table. It can't be about just, well, "How many hours did I punch on the time card? How many hours did you... Oh, I guess we're equal." It comes out in the efforts that we put in our training or our practice, in whatever sense of life, it comes out in those results. I love that too.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (23:42): Yeah.
Adam Williams (23:44): So again, if I can bring up your husband, Nick, and I'm curious about the two of you meeting. Because he also was a Paralympian as a cyclist. And I know that it's not uncommon for a world-class athlete to partner up in life with another world-class athlete.
And yet the life of being a world-class athlete in itself is so extraordinary, that there's got to be kind of a small community of how many people really understand what it is you're doing, what it is you're putting yourself through, and your training, and your focuses, and the sacrifices. But then there was your husband. And I'm wondering about the two of you going through that together and what that kind of support system provided for you, what that experience has been like.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (24:27): Yeah, I think our love story is just incredible. Just to be able, like, "Oh, where did you meet your husband?" "Oh, at the Olympic Training Center." To have a companion through one of those times where it's pretty lonely because nobody really understands what we're doing.
What Nick and I used to do at the training center is we'd go to the movies every Tuesday night because that's literally all our bodies could do. And it was a way for us to spend time together was to sit on the recliners in the fancy movie theater, and eat some popcorn and watch a movie together. Because we couldn't go on hikes because we were tired and we were recovering from our sports and we were on an athlete income, so we weren't have a ton of money to spend on each other.
So just to have a companion through that, and be able to now be married to him, and have all those one in a lifetime experiences shared with him as something special.
Adam Williams (25:31): How many years was that that partnership prior to getting married, which came after both of you were already retired from that level of competition?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (25:41): So we actually started dating end of 2017. And then we moved here to Salida in 2019. I was looking for a change in my training and he was looking to actually retire, so that what's brought us here. And then it was cool to have that difference. We were able to put that into our relationship of...
Then he retired, started his professional career up again, and I was still training. So it was a good test to see how we were going to do outside the athlete world if we were going to be able to survive. And then moving together to a new town, relatively new town in the start of the pandemic was also a great test because we were each other's only friends at that point, because we didn't have an opportunity to meet anybody here yet. So we have a really cool story.
Adam Williams (26:38): I think that there are plenty of stories out there that talk about the pandemic having been a make or break kind of thing for a lot of relationships of whatever kind. I don't know of that personally, but it sounds great that the two of you went through this big test of an experience, something extraordinary that none of us have gone through before. And you said, "Yeah, this works. Let's stick it out."
Sophia Herzog Gibb (26:59): It was interesting because I was at home doing nothing because I couldn't train and he was starting his career. So it was like I was just hanging at home bugging him and he was trying to work. But just to be able to have that, like how Andrea Carlstrom said that once in a lifetime experience, whether it be good or bad to live through together is something... Yeah, it made or broke people.
Adam Williams (27:31): Yeah, we got into that spirit of optimism with Andrea on a previous conversation on this podcast, and I think that's such an admirable quality. But of course, an athlete at the levels of where you have been, I would have to think that a positive attitude is a significant piece of how you have to approach everything. So including a pandemic, right?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (27:56): Yeah.
Adam Williams (27:57): Did you see correlation there at all with, if we go back to what we'd brought up with endurance and pushing ourselves, practices like this, experiences like this in our lives translate. Well, if I can go run a hundred miles in the mountains or if I can swim at the top level, something hard comes along in the form of a pandemic, I know I can grit this out. I know my toughness, my inner toughness.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (28:23): Yeah, the pandemic was a little bit different in the sense of it was out of our control. Running a hundred miles and swimming a million meters a day, that was in my control. And I could evaluate how hard I needed to push myself. But when the pandemic hit, that was something completely out of my control of safety, health, people making decisions, the world shutting down, and yeah.
Adam Williams (28:56): Was that a tough break? Did it feel like an emotional break for you when you realized that the Tokyo games of 2020, that wasn't going to happen the way it was expected because of the pandemic?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (29:09): Yeah, I think it was hard because the media was releasing information before it was official. So I was seeing stories of the chance of it getting postponed, getting canceled before we were hearing any word on our end from it. That was hard to stomach of what my career was going to look like for the next year. And then once it did postpone, it was relieving because then I could stop making makeshift trainings up and give myself a break for a little bit.
It was hard because I was in the best shape of my life leading into that when it all shut down. And then it was sad that they weren't able to allow fans. Since that was my last games, my parents and my partner couldn't see me compete for the last time in person, but it was also, I was so grateful that Tokyo did the games too. I mean I so happy just to get on that plane, and land, and test negative, and be able to step up on those blocks. So a mix of extreme emotions.
Adam Williams (30:28): Yeah, the emotional roller coaster, I would imagine, especially as you're saying with the media putting things out that might have at least felt somewhat like speculation because it wasn't the official word from within from the Olympic organization. And I wonder what that does to training, because I suspect that people who are not necessarily aware of how training works at this level or for people where they're essentially professionals are dedicated to this all the time.
These things happen in blocks. There's ramp up, and you back off a bit, you do things for recovery. How did that affect? Was there emotionally when that hit and you're like, "Okay, this thing that I've peaked for, I know I'm the fittest I've ever been. I'm ready for this and now it's not going to happen." Did you feel a letdown, and just go to the couch, and I don't know, cry, and eat candy bars, or whatever is your food comfort, and just watch movies, or what?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (31:27): When we were open and closed, that kind of scattery time where it all depended on the levels. I just started trying to put in the miles in the pool. And it wasn't a huge ramp up because Tokyo was a year away and there was nothing really to be training for at that point. So I was just putting miles in the pool at that point, because I was in the best shape of my life, and then I took about a four-month break, and I lost it all within two weeks. So then once the pool started opening for blocks of time, I was just swimming.
Adam Williams (32:07): So much of this is mental.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (32:09): Yep.
Adam Williams (32:10): Yeah. Okay. Well, I am curious with Nick having been, like we said, a Paralympic cyclist. But his disability, he was not born with it. It was an event that happened when he was a young man. And I was thinking about this and I realized that that, of course, changed his life in a very significant way. He does end up becoming this Paralympic athlete. But then ultimately he meets you because of that. Without the disability, I mean, I tend to be this sort of sentimental dude who reflects-
Sophia Herzog Gibb (32:42): Our paths would've never crossed.
Adam Williams (32:44): It is quite possible.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (32:45): Yep.
Adam Williams (32:46): So you've thought about that?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (32:47): Yep. We've discussed that too. Our past would've never crossed if his accident didn't happen.
Adam Williams (32:52): What was his accident and how did that impact his body to this extent?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (32:58): He was injured in a... He was shutting down a snowblower at the end of the day. And a hose came loose and hit him in the shin. And it was like a shotgun point blanket into his shin and it shattered his leg. Then he was rushed to the hospital where he suffered compartment syndrome. So that killed all of his muscles in his leg.
Adam Williams (33:24): Oh, wow. Okay.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (33:26): So he has dropped foot. So he wears an AFO. And-
Adam Williams (33:33): I'm sorry, I don't know what that is.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (33:36): It looks like a shin guard and it goes in his shoe and it helps, so he doesn't drag his foot.
Adam Williams (33:42): Okay.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (33:42): You'll have to look at [inaudible 00:33:43].
Adam Williams (33:45): Yeah, we can Google for that. No problem. So he was able to have his leg and it wasn't amputated or anything.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (33:52): Yeah, there was a question if it was going to be amputated or not. And at that time he decided to keep it.
Adam Williams (34:00): If we can go back to the way you described classifications, then what was the classification for Nick as a rider, as a cyclist?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (34:08): So it's a little different for each sport. But if he was a swimmer, he would've been classified in as a 10 because you could look at him and he could have a pair of jeans on and you'd never guess it. But if he didn't have his AFO on, one foot kind of drags a little bit more than his other leg.
Adam Williams (34:30): Is an S10, for lack of a better word at the moment, does that mean it's less severe? It's the easier?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (34:38): It's the least severe of all the disabilities in the classification system.
Adam Williams (34:44): Okay. So if you get to what S1, is that the most severe?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (34:44): Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Adam Williams (34:47): Okay. That's good for context. And I'm glad we came back to that because I probably in my mind had it going the other direction, even though I didn't know how high it might go. Well, let's go back to the love story. Okay, so this was the accident. Nick ends up then at the training center, the Olympic Training Center in the Springs.
The two of you meet, you have your Tuesday movie nights, and you end up getting married. So you have talked about this. What are those thoughts there? Maybe, if you don't mind sharing, what does Nick express to you about, "This thing that happened in my life, it was such a big change."
(35:23): And I would have to imagine that when he had been so, I assume, fully able-bodied before that, that's going to bring some emotional, and mental, and physical changes in your life that are going to be probably feel negative for a while while you're trying to overcome it. I mean, not to put things on him. But then when you come into his life, it's like, "Oh, wow. Now I get it. There was a whole thing here that was leading me to this."
Sophia Herzog Gibb (35:46): Yeah. I actually came in kind of way later in his story. His accident happened when he was in his early 20s, early to mid 20s. And I came into his life in his mid 30s. So I was-
Adam Williams (35:59): But you did. That's my point. Even though he had to take a lot of years maybe to get to that place with you, right?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (35:59): Yeah.
Adam Williams (36:08): Now you have this life together. And I guess I must just be a sucker for a Hollywood tale, and I see these things play out in life, and I'm like, that could be a movie.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (36:17): Yeah. Yeah, our story could definitely be a movie. It's just to find each other at the training center when it's such a lonely place. And you're not training at the training center looking for love. We met each other through a mutual friend. And I was actually really crazy about him, and he was like, "I'm here to train, Sophia, not to date you." And I was like, "You're going to date me and we're going to get married."
Adam Williams (36:17): Well, and that's the way it went.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (36:17): Yeah.
Adam Williams (36:52): Well, I want to talk about those sacrifices. And loneliness at the Olympic Training Center is not one of the things that, I guess, I ever would've thought of. I think I would've thought, wow, you have community. You were all here as these athletes at such a high level with similar goals. And so there's loneliness. But also what I'd wanted to ask was having heard again on the Flame Bearers podcast that I listened to with you where Nick also was part of it. He said 90% of Olympic and Paralympic athletes are at poverty level or below.
And I want to point that out as a key sacrifice for these top level athletes, because I suspect an awful lot of the public has no idea. And I think it probably looks like these are people who are up on pedestals. And we have this correlation in our minds. I think that's easy to say, oh, well, professional athletes. And we see basketball players, especially football players in the NFL, making maybe tens of millions depending on who you are, what position you play. But that's not the case for Olympic and Paralympic athletes in general.
(38:00): There's hardly anybody there that makes money. Well, not even on the same stratosphere. But it's still, there's a real road of sacrifice and challenge to make it all happen. Can you share some of what sacrifice, whether it's the money or not, in whatever ways that showed up in your life and what that meant to fight through that for these dreams of Olympic competition?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (38:24): Yeah, the loneliness comes kind of from everybody is going for the same dream. But at the end of the day, everybody's competing for that bed or that spot on the team. So there's a little bit of, everybody loves each other and wants the best, but there's also some competition of livelihood. People put their lives on hold for this dream. So it can get intense pretty quick.
And then the money, yeah, people don't realize that we were living below poverty level. We were lucky enough to both Nick and I live at the training center where our room was covered, our food was covered, our coaching, training was covered to a degree. So all we needed to focus on was literally pushing our bodies and recovering our bodies every day.
(39:21): But you hear athletes stories of athletes living in their cars trying to figure this out. And the discrepancy is the Olympics and the Paralympics come around every four years. So it's forgotten about for three years. Where football is every fall, every winter, and it's on primetime television. We could walk down the sidewalk and ask somebody what the Paralympics are, and there's a good chance they wouldn't be able to correctly define it.
Adam Williams (39:51): Right. Sure. Okay. Well, that makes sense. You did speaking gigs as kind of a side, I guess, hustle as a way to supplement. Is that right?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (40:05): I did, yeah.
Adam Williams (40:05): What kinds of groups were you speaking to? I mean, were these corporate type situations, schools? Where were you able to do that for earning? But also I'm really interested in, what were you talking about? What did they bring you in and want to hear from you about?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (40:19): Yeah, I did a wide range from classrooms to corporate and everything in between. And it kind of ranged from when I was talking to kids about dwarfism, and disabilities, and differences, and where hard work takes you. And then to corporate, what my story was also being disabled in the room, being able for people to see someone with dwarfism succeeding in their craft, their career. And talking about hard work as well, just a different level from kids to corporate.
Adam Williams (41:09): Did you by chance, encounter any kids who also have dwarfism?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (41:10): I did. And through LPA with my community, I would also go to their schools and specifically talk about dwarfism. Once kids were having hard times going in there and telling them that difference is okay.
Adam Williams (41:26): It has to be just such an amazing moment for them. An experience to meet you, to have your story as, "Okay, this is a big thing that maybe hints at what I can accomplish. Somebody is out there like me doing this big idea." Did you get any of that sort of feedback or connection that was obvious with you? Or is it just one of those things where you hope, "Hey, I hope they took something from this and that I was of use that will shine later in their lives?"
Sophia Herzog Gibb (41:56): Yeah, I think so. And it doesn't always have to be sports. Sports spoke to me. I was good at it. I was able to push my body to be uncomfortable. But I mean music, and arts and crafts, and all different types of hobbies. To find something like that to get you through the hard times is absolutely incredible.
And to hopefully make those kids with dwarfism's lives through school just a little bit easier that their classmates were able to see another person with dwarfism, and what they were able to accomplish, and that they're a person just a little bit smaller, is huge.
Adam Williams (42:38): That's a great point that those other kids getting to see and maybe if they are picking on a classmate with dwarfism that they might see in a new light and be like, okay, maybe there's not such a difference here. This person is-
Sophia Herzog Gibb (42:55): And that was my main voice and point was that this kid is just like you, just a little bit smaller.
Adam Williams (43:04): Okay. You have also, I think, used your voice on behalf of girls and women in sports. Is that right?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (43:10): Yep.
Adam Williams (43:11): How has that shown up? What has that sort of... I don't know if you call it activism, if you go that far with the word or not. But what has that been for you?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (43:19): So I work with the Women's Sports Foundation, which was founded by Billy Jean King. And so it ranges from... Earlier this year we went to Capitol Hill and advocated for girls' rights in sports, to going into lower income communities and bringing basketballs, and lacrosse, and bringing in teams to help teach these girls the skills and the confidence what sports brings.
Adam Williams (43:52): What is it that is important to you about that? Why make those efforts and be that voice out there?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (43:58): I think it needs to happen for individuals to have opportunities like that to find what they're passionate about and to find their voice as well. I found my voice through swimming. It gave me a lot of confidence to be able to talk about dwarfism and open up to people about what life is like at four feet tall. But to give those opportunities to girls that might not have opportunities to maybe potentially get a basketball scholarship and a full ride to college.
Adam Williams (44:35): I think a lot of us probably take accessibility for granted. And we're talking about girls and women, but it's people of color, it's people with disabilities, it's whatever that experience. So again, if we go back to one of my areas of personal athletic interest at this point in my life is trail running. And that is an ongoing thing there with access to trails, access for, again, people of color who are less likely to encounter those opportunities maybe.
And so I think we all need to hear that message and really understand. And that's part of what these amazing human conversations we get to do on this podcast are about is shine some light on some areas and have a chance to learn and maybe understand someone else's experience, and not take it for granted. And the idea of girls and women in sports, I think is also so easy to take for granted. Well, why can't... There's school teams, there's normal things, just like the boys have. It's not necessarily that easy, is it?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (45:37): Yeah, and I mean, there's percentages. Women's Sports Foundation just released a study they did through COVID. And they lost over a million girls playing sports during the pandemic because just the access to sports. So I think it's just really incredible that I'm in a position to be able to give the access to girls to play whatever sports they like. And if they don't ever pick up a basketball or a volleyball again, but to be able to have that experience, meet friends, and teammates, and learn how to work together at a young age is just incredible to see and watch.
Adam Williams (46:15): When you were really young and you were starting with swimming, and let's put it to an age that maybe was before the Paralympics told you, "We see you." Did you have these kinds of grand dreams of being on the world-class competitive stage, of being a speaker who's using her voice to encourage such things?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (46:36): I don't know. I think pre getting scouted, I was just having so much fun swimming. I mean, it was five girls and we would do sleepovers before every meet and not sleep. And eat junk food, and run around in costumes at the swim meets, and just have a ton of fun. And my coach at that time was able to adapt my workouts to be able to still hang with those girls and not make me incredibly exhausted and burn me out on swimming at such a young age. So I was just so lucky to have that experience to start off.
Adam Williams (47:18): If we broaden this question out a bit, do you remember when you were younger what your dreams might have been, might been included? And does this reach them? Does this exceed them?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (47:29): Yeah, I think it probably exceeds them. I don't completely remember what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Adam Williams (47:29): I don't either.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (47:36): I probably wanted to be a doctor, and a chef, and an astronaut all at the same time, but I think it exceeded for sure. I didn't picture myself where I am now, for sure.
Adam Williams (47:49): Okay. So having learned that you can accomplish, and receive, and earn amazing, huge things in life, you mentioned you're in your mid 20s, there's a lot of years ahead. You've now retired from this competitive swimming. I wonder what it looks like for you to transition to the rest of your life and what dreams you might hold for, "Well, I've already done this and I didn't see this coming. What else might I do?"
Sophia Herzog Gibb (48:16): Yeah, I think another kind of quirky thing with the Paralympics and professional athletics is, another semi sacrifice is if you don't compete in college, you need to figure out your college education, which I did online. But I missed out on a ton of work experience.
So I've been applying or when I finished, I was applying for jobs that were asking for five plus years of experience, and I didn't have it on my resume. But I was a professional athlete and I know how to work hard, communicate with team members. And so it took some really special people to be able to see that, "Oh, she doesn't have the work experience. But she has the qualities and we can create her success in the professional world."
Adam Williams (49:08): I wish that more companies and organizations would hire based on who it is they see in front of them and what they see as so many more qualitative, I guess, aspects of a potential employee rather than just, "Well, let's tick down the list of this resume."
And do you check these boxes from some sort of... I don't want to say it's arbitrary, but they are things that have been written in as rules as if they can't be bent for, wow, that shows, one, commitment, a willingness to drive and to accomplish goals. What all might she be able to bring to our organization? And so much of what we learn in any job is done on the job, right?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (49:47): Yeah.
Adam Williams (49:48): So what kinds of things? Do you have any sorts of, I don't know if it is career goals necessarily or just life ambitions ahead?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (49:59): Yeah. I actually, I work in public health, so I'm under Andrea Carlstrom, which is just absolutely a dream to work for. I'm currently getting my MBA right now. And I just hope to move up in public health. I really enjoy that line of work, being able to help our community.
But I wouldn't say I have a pinpoint goal because it's also new. But I'm able to work with this team that's absolutely incredible. That's challenging me every day where I'm actually not a professional at this. And I'm at the bottom of the totem pole, and it's really cool to feel kind of uncomfortable again and challenge myself every day.
Adam Williams (50:43): It is an interesting semi-sacrifice that you brought up, which I'm sure I wasn't thinking about, so probably a lot of listeners weren't either. You spent your time developing in the ways that you did, which are extraordinary, and that meant you weren't building a resume. So to be in this situation where you also are now maybe a little uncomfortable, but learning.
And this also is just the start of whatever's ahead, and ultimately, I think... Well, let me ask you this way rather than put my thoughts on it. Do you feel like it'll be a good trade off that ultimately you didn't have maybe some work earlier in your 20s, or as a teenager, or whenever you might have started building that experience instead, you did what you did?
Sophia Herzog Gibb (51:24): Oh, for sure. I wouldn't take back what I did in a heartbeat.
Adam Williams (51:28): Absolutely. I would think, again, you know what, this circles us back to the very beginning, two-time world champion, two-time paralympic medalist in Rio and Tokyo, six world medals. It's a heck of a sentence to be able to start, and I guess now basically end with. Nobody can take that away.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (51:50): Yeah.
Adam Williams (51:50): That shine is going to be there. So every morning that you can wake up for the rest of your life and say, "Yeah, I did this thing." That's amazing to me.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (51:59): Thank you. Yeah.
Adam Williams (52:00): Don't want to overwhelm me with my enthusiasm. But I just think that's so great.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (52:00): Yeah.
Adam Williams (52:05): So I really appreciate, Sophia, you coming in, sharing your insights, your experiences and stories. It's been wonderful to meet and get to hear these things from you and chat about it.
Sophia Herzog Gibb (52:15): Yeah. Thanks for having me.
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Adam Williams (52:20): That was my conversation with Sophia Herzog Gibb. If what Sophie shared here today sparked curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about The Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.
Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM Community Radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado.
(53:07): To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design. To Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment. And to Lisa Martin Community Advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority. And it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook @WeAreChaffee. Lastly, thank you for listening. And remember, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, be human, share stories.
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