Bringing Home Silver

(Clockwise from left) 2004 BHS graduate Emily Silver poses with the silver medal she won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August; Matthew Spence holds Silver’s medal; Silver greets Sophie Holzer at Wilkes Elementary, which she herself attended. - Emily Silver photo courtesy of Pete Saloutos
(Clockwise from left) 2004 BHS graduate Emily Silver poses with the silver medal she won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August; Matthew Spence holds Silver’s medal; Silver greets Sophie Holzer at Wilkes Elementary, which she herself attended.
— image credit: Emily Silver photo courtesy of Pete Saloutos

It’s rare that someone gets a standing ovation on her birthday.

But Emily Silver received that honor on her 23rd birthday Thursday, when a nearly full Paski Gymnasium crowd rose as one after her ex-swim coach, Greg Colby, introduced her to the crowd, cheering wildly for 30 seconds. All the while, Silver simply waved and flashed that brilliant, beaming smile that’s a constant in nearly every photo taken of her.

“That was crazy,” she said afterward, marveling at the ovation she received.

And thanks to the persuasion of her mother – Bainbridge High School athletic secretary Mary Sue Silver – she took part in the teacher’s skit for the assembly, decked out in ‘70s attire and her Olympic silver medal, and shaking her groove thing to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” while everyone went crazy again, singing and dancing right along with her.

It brought back memories of time she spent at the pep assemblies as a student at Bainbridge, taking part in class skits all four years.

“I’ve always been involved in school and (being a part of) school stuff,” said Emily, who was ASB treasurer and a nominee for Homecoming queen her senior year. “Walking into the gym, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember all of this.’

“It was just fun to step back and look at it in another person’s shoes,” she continued. “I remember what it was like to be a part of it and to be in the stands and feel that school pride, but looking at it now, I have such a different perspective.

“But I’m glad I came back and did it. It was a lot of fun.”

She came home Wednesday night to be feted at the school’s Homecoming assembly and honored at halftime of yesterday’s Homecoming football game.

Silver also took time to visit students at Wilkes Elementary and – between the constant demands of her presence – slip away to Four Swallows with her parents for a “low-key” birthday dinner.

But she almost didn’t make it, after experiencing her first car accident Monday in California.

While Silver was driving through an intersection of a two-way stop, a woman, neglecting to yield to oncoming traffic cut in front of Silver’s car, forcing her to slam on her brakes. But it was too late to avoid a collision.

“It was pretty scary,” she said.

Both women were unharmed, which goes to show not much can keep Silver down.

A 12-time state champion at BHS, Silver holds numerous high school records and is the only swimmer – male or female – to win a state swim title all four years in two different events.

At the University of California-Berkeley, she was a three-time All-American and won three NCAA titles in three different relays. Silver also won two relay titles in the U.S. Summer National Championships and a bronze medal in the 400 free relay at the 2005 FINA World Championships. And she was part of the winning 400 free relay at the World University Games last year.

But the crowning achievement in a stellar career was the silver medal she won in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August as a member of the U.S. 400 free relay team.

She swam the third leg of the relay in the preliminaries in a time of 54.81, helping the team take the third seed into the finals. The foursome of Natalie Coughlin, Lacey Nymeyer, Kara Lynn Joyce and Dara Torres took it from there, setting an American record of 3:34.33 in capturing second place behind the Netherlands, helping Silver achieve her goal of an Olympic medal.

Silver said winning the silver hasn’t changed her, but she has noticed the change in everyone who comes in contact with her.

“When people come up to me, they have this huge grin on their face,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so exciting to see you! Congratulations!’ I know that they’re so happy for me and it’s genuine.

“When I take those experiences and let them sink in, that’s when I know that it really means something special,” Silver said. “To be an Olympian and be part of that competition and to come home with a silver medal, it means so much to everyone here.”

She said she tries her best to stay grounded and not have the medal constantly around her neck, but the attention can be overwhelming.

“I feel like I’m all over the place,” she said. “My head is spinning. But I try to keep things under control and relax when I can.”

Along with taking a full course-load at Cal toward her degree in American Studies, Silver is also making some appearances.

She’ll be at a gala for Heroes of Hope in November, then she’ll travel to New York after being nominated for a USA Swimming Golden Goggles Perseverance award.

Silver earned the nomination after going through some tough times when she broke a hand during a preliminary heat for the 50 free at the U.S. Olympic Trials – one day after making the team.

She had surgery on her hand the following day, but continued to work out with the team despite having a cast on her arm.

While she tried to keep a brave face in public during the ordeal, she was having difficulty dealing with the possibility of her dream dying. Eventually, she had a breakdown during the third week of recovery because of the what-ifs plaguing her mind.

“I was just so scared,” she said. “I was so scared of not knowing whether I was going to be able to swim. I was scared of not knowing if I was going to be as fast as I used to be. It was really scary.”

That fear intensified when she was told by U.S. coaches she would have to do a time trial at the Beijing National Aquatics Center – a.k.a. the Water Cube – in order to show she could still perform.

With the first race 48 hours away and with a time to beat of 55 seconds, Silver swam 100 meters in 54.8 as several of her teammates cheered her on.

“It was a huge relief,” she said. “That’s when my Olympics began.”

It also helped settle her mind and do the one thing she knows best – swim.

“How else are you supposed to look at it?” Silver said. “You have to stay positive. If I got down on myself I don’t think I could have done it.

“I laughed, I smiled, I made light of the situation because there’s nothing else I could do.”

That allowed her to take part in an “incredible” experience, albeit one where she wasn’t in the finals like she’s been for most of her career.

Silver said she was the third swimmer on the list, but she wasn’t upset over sitting out the final.

“I wanted the best team to be out there and if I wasn’t fast enough, that’s fine,” she said. “I’d rather have my teammates who are in that spot to be on that relay.

“To be able to swim was enough for me – I didn’t even think I was going to be able to.”

With her goal intact, Silver could relax and enjoy the rest of her time there – from meeting members of the Dream Team to seeing the Great Wall of China to being around the collection of world-class athletes, some of whom would sit right next to her in the cafeteria.

She was also happy to not only see Michael Phelps’ performance, but her ex-Cal teammate Natalie Coughlin’s performance. Coughlin won six medals, a first for any American female athlete, yet she earned only a fraction of the accolades given to Phelps.

Silver felt for her teammate.

“Yeah, they weren’t all gold but it was still an incredible feat,” she said. “She should have been recognized more than she was.”

While recognition isn’t Silver’s objective, she enjoys any ovation she receives.

She’s also excited for the future and whatever that may bring. She’s ambivalent about a possible trip to the 2012 Olympics in London to compete one more time at the Olympic level.

“Right now, I’m satisfied,” she said. “You always have to pick a time when you have to retire, and I’ve pretty much done everything I can in swimming.

“I’m happy with my career and I don’t look back with any regrets, but maybe a year from now I’ll think differently,” she continued. “I’ll miss the competition, I’ll miss racing, I’ll miss swimming and I’ll want to come back.

“But I haven’t made that decision yet.”

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