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