His favorite event? Freestyle. His favorite food? Pizza. His favorite memory from the the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020? The final day, after the intense pressure was lifted, the chlorine rinsed from his 6’7” frame, when he and his fellow Olympians could finally relax. They ate all the desserts and indulgent foods in the dining hall; they picked up a rugby ball and let loose, no longer worried about injuries or the competition that was behind them.
And yeah, there were those heavy gold medals, too.
Zach Apple, his two Olympic gold medals in tow, came to Lander for a day-long swimming clinic for the Lander Swim Club last weekend. He spoke of his experiences as a world-class competitive swimmer to the mesmerized, eager young club. He offered advice, and shared the story of how the Trenton, Ohio, boy rose to swimming stardom, setting records and making friends along the way.
Apple joined a summer swimming league when he was seven or eight years old, but he wasn’t immediately all in. As a kid and teen, he played lots of sports: football, baseball, basketball, and track. But something happened his senior year of high school, when he said he “got his groove” for swimming.
He was originally set to swim at Western Kentucky after high school, but when the college suspended its swim program, Apple signed with Auburn. During his freshman year there, he qualified for the NCAA Championships in three individual events, finishing 19th in the 50-yard freestyle.
Watching the Olympic team be named during the trials spurred Apple forward, he said. “I thought to myself, man, I don’t want to see this from this side [of the podium],” he said. “I wanted more from the experience.” And in 2017, as a sophomore, Apple toppled legendary swimmers Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian in the prelims at the World Championship Trials in Indianapolis. He qualified for the 400-meter freestyle in Budapest with a fourth-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle. “And then there were all these headlines … ‘An Apple a Day Keeps the Competition Away,’” he said.
He was about to drive from Indiana to Colorado Springs for Olympic Training when Covid shut down the facility, and that year’s Olympics were eventually cancelled. Covid kept us all away from the things we love, and it kept Apple out of the pool for three months. He was itching to get back at it.
While Apple collected medals and set records across the world, it was the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo that he made waves in races broadcast globally. In the 4×100 free relay prelims, Apple led the team with 47.2. In the final, he swam 46.6, earning U.S. gold with 3:08:97. In the 4×200 free relay, he swam the third leg and helped bring home a fourth-place finish; in the 4×100 medley relay, he swam 46.95 and his U.S.A. team snagged the gold and a new world record.
“I have some incredible memories,” Apple said of his Olympic experience. “While you’re swimming, it doesn’t feel that much different,” he explained. The pool’s the same length, same temperature. But when you’re out of the water and facing a huge global media pack, “That’s when it kind of feels overwhelming.”
He and his teammates spend time together at the trials, then the training camp. “During those four weeks, it’s just all about that team coming together,” he said. “So when things don’t go great, you can be there for each other.”
That’s important, because once you get to the Olympics, “It is extremely pressure-filled,” Apple explained. It’s eight days of high stress, so having team members you can lean on means a lot, he said.
How do you stay motivated to train? Apple said sometimes, it’s not that fun, but sticking to your goals is important. “I’m motivated every day to show up and put in my best effort,” he shared. One tip is to break your big dreams into smaller milestones. “You have these big goals, and within that, you have to kind of make these smaller goals … small victories along the way as stepping stones to that big victory,” he said.
“One thing that helped me be successful was that my parents were super supportive, but in a hands-off way,” Apple explained. “They didn’t care how I did, they just wanted to make sure I was happy.” I’ve seen teammates whose parents put a lot of pressure on them to succeed, he said. “No matter what happened, my parents were just happy I was there.”
That kind of support is important, and Apple told swim club members that they can provide it to their fellow swimmers, too. “If your teammates are having a tough time, just be there for them,” he advised.
Lander Swim Club members took to the water, and soaked up some personal instruction from the swimming icon. With Lander’s excellent swim program, from the smallest kids fitted with water wings to the skilled athletes bringing home state medals, some may be well on their way to following Apple’s footsteps as they dream of Olympic gold.