Gold medalist Maya DiRado visits Santa Rosa alma mater for Olympics celebration

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Maya DiRado stepped from behind the podium into the spotlight in the darkened high school theater and the crowd gasped, then burst into applause.

Her four Olympic medals, spread in a perfect arc across her stomach, sparkled in the lights, while their owner — Santa Rosa’s most accomplished Olympic athlete — beamed with the pride of a nation and her hometown.

DiRado, 23, returned to Santa Rosa Thursday for the first time since etching her name into the Olympic history book in Rio de Janeiro a week ago.

She visited her alma mater, Maria Carrillo High School, and then Piner High on Thursday morning, showing her medals, hugging former teachers and coaches, offering life advice to teenagers and basking in the adoration from a hometown that swelled with joy at her Olympic successes.

“This is a very special place for me,” she said. “I’m really proud to be from here.”

Wearing a blue USA shirt and her long brown hair in a messy bun, she embraced former teachers at Carrillo, including her advanced chemistry teacher, whom she thanked for preparing her for the rigors of Stanford University classes.

“It is legit college level,” she told the current Pumas. “You are in great hands.”

On just the second day of the school year, the 1,600-member student body gathered in the Pumas’ gym to hear DiRado, a 2010 grad, speak of her Olympic experience and what it was like to take home two golds, one silver and a bronze medal in Rio. Only three athletes ­— swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ladecky and gymnast Simone Biles, pictured together on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week — won more medals at the Rio games.

DiRado, considered the greatest all-around swimmer ever to emerge from this region, was a star swimmer at Carrillo, the Neptunes Swim Club and Stanford before putting her mark on these Olympics.

She swam her best times in the past year, peaking at the most opportune moment, the ancient international competition of the best athletes on the planet.

Still, she has vowed that this was her first and final go-around in the Olympic pool.

She and her Stanford swimmer husband, Rob, are newly married and the couple is set to move to Atlanta later this month, into their new home and where her job as a business analyst awaits.

Again Thursday, she confirmed she has officially retired from competitive swimming.

“I’m sure about it being the end of swimming, in terms of the actual competing and training,” she said. “There will be things I will miss … but I’m so excited for the next chapters.”

After taking the unexpectedly heavy medals from around her neck and placing them next to her, DiRado reflected on her Olympic journey.

She thought she’d quit competing after college. But it was 2014 and she was swimming the best times of her life. Her family and friends convinced her to shoot for the Olympics.

“I’m so glad they did,” she said, laughing. “They knew much better than I did at that point.”

DiRado, like her former Neptunes coach Dan Greaves, tried to keep things in perspective. “It’s just a swim meet,” she’d say.

“Why do I have to do the Olympics? I’ve been to the World Championships. ‘It’s just a swim meet,’” she said. “Now that I’ve been there, that was idiotic.”

Living among the other Americans in their village and rubbing shoulders with other countries’ athletes was life changing, coming at the perfect time politically, she said.

“You see the Syrian team passing through the dining hall, and it just hits you,” she said. “This is one of the coolest things humanity does.”

DiRado “won the trifecta,” as the message board in front of Carrillo touted, medaling in all three places on the podium.

She won a bronze in the 200-meter medley, silver in the 400-meter individual medley and golds in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and the 200-meter backstroke.

“To see your flag rising up while the anthem is playing for you is pretty special,” she said.

As her family and friends gazed down at her after she’d won her individual gold in the backstroke, DiRado said her feelings were impossible to contain: “For my gold, I was a blubbery mess. It was really emotional. You’re thinking of so many different weird things in that moment — all the people that helped you, the meets I went to as an 8-year-old.”

DiRado beat Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú, whom she’d competed against many times. Hosszú won three golds in these games and it seemed the 200 backstroke would be hers for the taking.

“I knew it could be close. That was my only expectation,” DiRado said.

After trailing the Hungarian virtually the entire race, DiRado picked up ground in the final few meters, and a last burst put her sixth-hundredths of a second ahead. DiRado’s joy showed, as she smiled broadly — while her family, friends and fans back home cheered her victory with her.

“I felt like I was gaining on her because I heard the crowd get really loud, but I honestly didn’t know if it was at her hip or her shoulder or even,” she said Thursday. “I was working as hard as I could. I tried to go to a faster tempo those last couple strokes and spin and turn over and throw my arm back against the wall — and it worked out.”

Did she let herself believe she could beat the Hungarian?

“Maybe like once or twice for a half second that day. Like, maybe,” she said. “It doesn’t do any good to think about that. You want to prepare yourself so you’re ready to go in the moment. But winning or losing, I just wanted to be fighting for a gold.”

With the Olympics mostly behind her — she still has a few obligations and appearances to make — DiRado has turned the page. She moves to Atlanta soon and will begin her career as an analyst for McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting company.

The company has been generous with her, allowing her to defer her job offer for a year for the Olympics. It also recently offered her another few weeks to decompress before she starts.

While her swim family might want her to keep competing, DiRado seems at ease with her decision to finish her time in the pool on the highest possible note.

“It would have to end sometime. I don’t think I have the motivation or drive, or that my body could handle another four years,” she said. “So why not go out with the Olympics? It’s not going to get better than this, in terms of swimming.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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