Those first-year questions from her Georgia Tech swim teams have pretty much ceased now. The Yellow Jackets know who their coach is, and was.
That, she said, has been by design.
“We make sure to say in recruiting letters,” Courtney Shealy Hart said from poolside in Atlanta. “That’s why I use (both) names, because it’s listed under Shealy in the records. And they told the team who I was when they hired me.”
If any of them missed the message, a trip this year to the U.S. Olympic Trials for five Georgia Tech swimmers took care of that.
Shealy Hart, in her second season as assistant coach at her former rival, was able to tell her young charges about her own trips to three Olympic Trials and to the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. She told them about sharing the pool with U.S. stars Dara Torres, Jenny Thompson and Amy Van Kyken, about the pressure and the nerves and the exhilaration.
And, of course, about winning two gold medals.
“(The trials) was a neat experience, and eye-opening for them,” Shealy Hart, 30, said. “Even though they’ve been to the ACC and NCAA meets, this was a whole other step up. I think it definitely will help them in the future.”
It’s also a personal reminder — as if she needed any — of what the former Irmo and University of Georgia swimmer accomplished two Olympiads ago.
In 2000, at age 22, she was the rookie on the U.S. women’s team that claimed gold in the 400-meter medley and 400 freestyle relay. The U.S. Trials were more ulcer-producing than the Games, though, she said.
“I went in 1996 and didn’t make it,” she said. “Once you do make it, you have nothing to lose; to make the (U.S.) team was more nerve-wracking for me” than the Games.
“The U.S. Trials are faster, top to bottom. It’s a one-shot deal: one day to make it. If you don’t, you’re done. But the pressure was off when I made the team.”
Then came the glory.
BORN TO SWIM
Every world-class athlete, it seems, can point to a moment in their lives that set them on course to accomplish great things. In Shealy Hart’s case, it was the day her late grandfather William Hastings took 2-year-old Courtney to a YMCA pool in Florence.
By age 5, she was swimming in summer leagues; by 7, she was in the pool year-round. At 11, an age-group champion, she was asked her long-term goals. The Olympics, she said precociously.
In between puberty and Sydney, Courtney Shealy was a dominant college swimmer. She led the Bulldogs to NCAA titles in 1999 and 2000 and was named SEC and NCAA female swimmer of the year. She won nearly everything at 50- and 100-meter distances and excelled in 400-meter relays. Her 26 All-America honors (plus two honorable mentions) are a Georgia record.
“(Georgia) had never won an SEC, never won an NCAA,” said her father, Herb Shealy. “At that point, we thought there was an outside chance for her to take this to the highest level.”
In 1996, at age 18, she reached the Olympic Trials but failed to make the team. She took care of that in 2000, finishing second in the 100 backstroke, and became the youngest member (by five years) on the women’s freestyle relay team. In Sydney, the U.S. foursome posted a time of 3 minutes, 36.61 seconds that obliterated China’s 6-year-old world record by more than a second.
What Herb and Dianne Shealy — who made the trip Down Under, along with daughter Paige — remember most vividly was Courtney’s monster third leg in the preliminaries, boosting the U.S. past the German team and setting the stage for her similar showing in the final. “She took out so fast, gave them the lead,” Herb Shealy said. “That had to be the real highlight.”
Of course, there were others. Such as meals in the AT&T-sponsored U.S. families center and being interviewed by NBC’s Katie Couric.
“I didn’t think about it until it was done,” Shealy Hart said. “Then it was, ‘Wow.’ To have (her teammates) as legends, keeping me calm, talking me through it; it was a wonderful experience.”
One that, eight years later, she shares with potential successors.
Shealy Hart retains reminders of 2000: a stash of Australia souvenirs, including an Aborigine boomerang and, of course, her medals. But reminders of the passage of time are more common these days.
In August, she watched this year’s Games from Beijing, where former teammate Torres, now 41, was the big story in women’s swimming. “I e-mailed her and said, ‘You’re crazy, lady,’” Shealy Hart said with a laugh.
Torres’ stardom did not tempt Shealy Hart to consider a comeback. “I don’t miss it at all,” she said. “I like being involved (as a coach), but in the water, I was all or nothing. I don’t want to train at that level anymore.”
Shealy Hart did attempt to make the 2004 U.S. team for Athens, but she finished seventh in the 100 backstroke and 10th in the 100 freestyle. Talk about bad timing: She was diagnosed with sports asthma after competing earlier in the Dominican Republic, where her lungs became irritated and inflamed by hot water temperatures.
“I knew why I didn’t (qualify), but I’m happy I didn’t give it up,” she said. “Soon as the trials were over, I got off my medicine and haven’t needed it since.”
Two years ago, she married Justin Hart, who was a Georgia law student when they met at a Bulldogs volleyball match (her other varsity sport). The couple later moved to California, where she played professional beach volleyball for a time.
“But it’s so expensive to live there,” she said. “We decided we could live check to check or move home and buy a house. The American Dream won.”
She then spent a year as an assistant coach at North Florida. Georgia Tech coach Stuart Wilson saw her team at a meet and offered her a job in May 2007. “It was an opportunity to get back to Georgia and a great move professionally,” she said.
“You’re in the ACC, and we have an amazing pool” where the 1996 Olympics held its swimming competition. “It was very exciting.”
Chances are, too, she would not have had the opportunity to be a “fashion model for a day” if she were not in Atlanta. The Journal-Constitution asked her to model swimwear for a recent photo shoot. “(It was) low-key, at a downtown hotel,” she said. “I had done some catalogue modeling for Speedo per my contract with them.
“But no, it didn’t pay anything,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t even get a free subscription.”
Shealy Hart can see herself as a head coach, though, passing along what she has learned. She enjoys the “other side of competitive swimming: the science, the mental part” — even the recruiting, which she does for Tech’s women’s and men’s teams.
Perhaps someday, too, she will put her own sons and/or daughters into a pool, the way her grandfather did. For sure, she will tell them about a special summer in Australia, for her and her family.
“It was expensive (for her parents), but they wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Shealy Hart said. “They got to go to my three days (of events) and to some others. Having them there the whole time made you excited and proud.”
She laughed. “That,” she said, “is with you forever.”
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.