From the time she started treading water as a 3-year-old, Shannon Vreeland was the girl who stayed in the water until her lips were blue.
She was the one who just had to be first in the neighborhood pool when it opened every year — and essentially has been immersed in it since.
Not long after she started competitive swimming with the Kansas City Blazers as an 8-year-old, she put on a cap and goggles and dressed as an Olympic swimmer for Halloween, completing the getup with the first of a zillion medals she would win over the years.
In a middle-school paper, the future Blue Valley West graduate wrote of her Olympic aspirations — which were fulfilled in London in 2012 as part of the Olympic-record-setting women’s 800-meter freestyle relay team.
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That was the first gold medal won by a Kansas City-area athlete since the 2000 Sydney Games.
Swimming has been her ticket to every continent but Antarctica. And somewhat to her embarrassment, the spoils of her remarkable journey lovingly have been put on display by her mother, Connie, in Shannon’s bedroom at the family’s Overland Park home.
In “the shrine,” as she playfully calls it, you can see many of the 21 All-America trophies and the Southeastern Conference female scholar-athlete of the year award she won at the University of Georgia.
Here is a letter from The White House, along with a picture from her visit there, and a proclamation from the Kansas governor’s office and a box brimming with special medals — including two for world championships and the Olympic gold itself.
Elsewhere in the house is the U.S. flag her winning team wrapped itself in after striking gold in London, a gift to Shannon from the teammates who all had one of their own for individual victories … and then in turn a gift from Shannon to Connie.
And now, suddenly, the rest of her life beckons.
Vreeland, 24, will begin law school at Vanderbilt in the fall, and as she gets ready to move from Georgia she wonders about things like how many of the 30 swimsuits in her drawers she should keep and how many she ought to give to friends.
“There are so many ‘lasts’ now,” she said by telephone Friday, “when a few years ago it didn’t seem there ever would be one.”
As she enters her anticipated final U.S. Olympic Swimming trials June 26-July 3 in Omaha, Neb., she does so knowing there is no assurance she’ll qualify for the Rio Olympics in August.
The trials are exacting enough in themselves, but she also is contending with a shoulder popping in and out of its socket from the punishing cumulative effects of years of relentless dedication to the sport.
“Not exactly an ideal time,” she said, managing a laugh and later adding that she doesn’t have “a lot of confidence going into this.”
Maybe, she said, something “miraculous” would happen and she’ll be on at the right time.
In truth, she often performs her best when she expects the least, a habit friends have teased her about over the years.
That includes 2012, when she “wasn’t even really in the conversation” to make the Olympic team, only to finish fifth in the 200 at trials because she hit her taper to perfection … partly because she was contouring it to later meets.
While she also seems at peace with the possibility of not returning to the Olympics, she also wants to finish with a flourish so that the last few years of training don’t seem to have been for naught.
A “pride” thing, she calls it.
Her parents, on the other hand, wonder whether another Olympic berth would be best for her for the very reason many families of prospective Olympians have to have on their minds:
The looming threat of the mysterious Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects and has an indeterminate life.
That’s why her father, Dan, jokingly urged her to make sure she aggravated her injured shoulder when it was in a sling.
“He’s not about the whole Zika thing,” she said.
That’s why her mother wonders if Shannon’s shoulder injury is “a blessing in disguise.”
“It’s scary; you just don’t know how long (Zika) is really in the system,” Connie Vreeland said, noting that there is disagreement among experts about the safety of going to Rio. “Who do you believe? Who do you trust?”
The family already has determined that if Shannon qualifies for Rio, her recently engaged twin sister, Michelle, ought not to go.
After all, being infected by the virus could be “life-altering,” their mother said, and Shannon can’t bear the thought of something happening to her sister because of her.
As for Shannon herself, well, she figures her parents will be rooting for her on the outside … but deep down hope she doesn’t make it.
“They’ll, like, high-five (in the stands), then just look really sad for me when they see me,” she said, laughing. “That’s how it’s going to go do down.”
Considering she doesn’t plan to have children for some time, though, if she does qualify Vreeland said, “I don’t think there’s any way I wouldn’t go.”
Many others could come to feel differently, and Vreeland said if she were an open-water swimmer “you couldn’t pay me enough” to risk going in the hyper-polluted waters.
And since it’s the nature of athletes to compete as long and far as they can and secure a spot before having to make a decision — “when it becomes realistic,” as Connie Vreeland put it — stay tuned for more developments in the weeks after the swimming and track and field trials (June 30-July 10).
Even if there is no second Olympics for Vreeland, who is scheduled to compete in the 100, 200 and 400 freestyle races in Omaha, she already has indelible memories of a lifetime from London.
Even if — or was it especially because? — it came with a queasy moment as she stood on the block waiting for Dana Vollmer to come in and take the third leg:
Her legs were shaking.
“You can see it on video,” she said.
Then when Vollmer took what Vreeland called “a little bit of an extra stroke” near the wall, Vreeland went in the water so fast that friends later told her a broadcaster said she had disqualified the relay.
She wondered that herself for about 50 meters.
“No, you’re fine — she totally touched the wall,” she tried to assure herself, over and over.
As it happened, she was so consumed with that it was almost a welcome distraction as she got in sync.
She finished her leg in 1:56:8 to cut into what had been a half-second lead by the Australian team.
Georgia teammate and dear friend Allison Schmitt, the individual 200 freestyle gold medalist, anchored the victory — which Vreeland treasured all the more because of her affection for Schmitt, Vollmer and first-leg swimmer Missy Franklin.
In fact, if she had her choice she’d rather win as part of a relay than individually – and her times on relays typically reflect that.
“I can get excited to swim for myself: I can,” she said. “But it doesn’t really compare to being up there with other people.”
With the national anthem playing and the flag going up, she remembered thinking about all she’d invested and the stops along the way and how it had been “100 percent, totally worth it.”
She thought she would cry, and others think she leaked some tears, but she remembers it differently.
“I think I was smiling too big,” she said. “I think it might be impossible to cry when you’re smiling that much.”
So while she’d rather go again than not, and she hopes her parents root for her in Omaha, she also is ready to start a new time in her life.
“If it doesn’t work out,” Connie Vreeland said, “it’s been a great ride.”