Jilen Siroky was 14 when I met her. She was bubbly, smart and blessed with exquisite timing. In the biggest race of her life at the time – the 1996 U.S. Olympic swim trials – the Charlotte eighth-grader swam the best race of her life.
By closing like a champion race horse in the final 50 meters of the women's 200-meter breaststroke, Siroky finished second and made the Olympic squad by an eyelash. She was the youngest Olympian on that 662-member U.S. Olympic team.
Now she's 26. With her athletic career wrecked by injuries, Siroky hasn't swum laps in a pool in four years. Her life turned out much differently than the other 14-year-old who finished first in that race in 1996; Amanda Beard has since posed for Playboy and will swim in her fourth Olympics in Beijing.
Here's the good part: This isn't another story about an athlete who doesn't know what to do when the cheering stops. Siroky, in fact, never much liked when the cheering started. I remember how she would duck her head, embarrassed, every time people started applauding her (and that happened a lot to her in Charlotte in the summer of 1996).
“I never wanted to be famous,” Siroky said. “I always wanted to be just Jilen.”
A dozen years later, that's exactly what she is. And Jilen Siroky (pronounced JILL-en sih-ROAK-ee) is doing just fine. She's got a degree from Notre Dame, a great job in Chicago and a fiancé she is scheduled to marry in November in Charlotte. She's a small fish in a big pond and happy about it.
Siroky isn't one of those athletes who feels used up and thrown away by her sport. She didn't like the way it ended – her collegiate career at Notre Dame was not nearly what she wanted, because of a severe shoulder injury – but she holds no bitterness.
“My career didn't end on my own terms, and I didn't like that,” Siroky said. “But I have exactly what I want now. My whole life I wanted to be normal. I accomplished something great by making the Olympic team. But that was a long time ago. That chapter is closed. Now I look forward to everything else.”
Siroky's father and mother, Jerry and Helen, still live in Charlotte. Jerry works at Wachovia. He said he told his daughter a long time ago: “You can be a world-class athlete for a short time, but you can be a world-class person all your life.”
She's trying. Siroky was always one of my favorite athletes to write about – honest, self-deprecating and sweet. When I met her, she didn't drive. Or date. Or receive an allowance. In her room, she taped up a homemade shrine to “Superman” TV actor Dean Cain.
And even then she came across as a generous soul to most everyone she met. Ricky Berens, a 2008 U.S. Olympic swimmer who is also from Charlotte, remembers how much he admired Siroky and how important she made an 8-year-old Berens feel when she spoke to a group of younger swimmers at Mecklenburg Aquatic Club before the 1996 Games.
Siroky peaked at 14 – at those Olympic trials, actually. She finished 15th in the 200 at the Olympics.
And after her body went through puberty, she never again reached the level she did in the 1996 Olympic trials. She was still plenty good, but no longer great. She spent her final year at Notre Dame as a student assistant coach – the school allowed her to keep her scholarship – after shoulder surgery had ended her career prematurely.
Now Siroky works at KPMG, the mammoth accounting firm. She's an IT auditor, which I got her to explain to me twice and still didn't quite understand. It sounded very complicated and computer-ish.
“Swimming has really helped me from one perspective,” Siroky said. “I've turned my swimming drive into my work drive.”
She doesn't work all the time. She met her future husband, Jason Bouwer, at an adult kickball game in Chicago.
“We definitely want to have a family one day,” Siroky said. “I can already see my priorities changing. I'm the more responsible Jilen now – about to be the good wife and hopefully one day the good mother.”
As for these Olympics? She'll watch when she has time. She's gotten far enough away from swimming to appreciate the athletes for what they do without any pangs of jealousy.
“I'm not an Olympian anymore, you know,” Siroky said. “I'm just Jilen.”
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org.