Shannon Vreeland going for more than just a gold medal

“Olympic swimmer.”

The words are written right there below Shannon Vreeland’s name in the 2003 Harmony Elementary School yearbook.

That’s what Vreeland, then a fifth-grader in Overland Park, said she wanted to be when she grew up.

Nine years later, Vreeland achieved that goal by bringing home a gold medal from the 2012 London Olympics as part of the United States’ 800-meter freestyle relay team.

Standing on the podium alongside Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt and Dana Vollmer was “pretty surreal” for Vreeland.

“It was fun to be able to experience that with people I know and look up to in the sport,” she said.

But that hardware represents a lot more to Vreeland’s success. It’s symbolic of the confidence she gained in training and competitions.

“There’s no question that her confidence accelerated tremendously year to year from 2008 to today,” said Pete Malone, former general manager and head coach of the KC Blazers, Vreeland’s former club team.

Vreeland’s mom, Connie, agreed, pointing to the moments when she made the national team for the 2012 Olympics and the 2013 World Championships as milestones in Shannon’s personal development.

“You saw her confidence grow and you continue to see it,” Connie said. “(The World Championships trials) brought to her some confidence (that) maybe that she can hold her own.”

True enough, that this Vreeland, the one who will this month compete in the World Championships in Spain, is a different Vreeland.

It wasn’t so long ago that she often slouched at the start of a race, attempting to hide the 6-foot-2 frame she grew into in sixth grade. Malone taught her to stand tall, to place her hands on her hips with one foot on top of the starting block. He said it would intimidate her competitors.

Although Vreeland doesn’t think she intimidates anyone — she says her competitors know her soft side — she made it part of her routine. And now, before every race, she stands tall.

Vreeland also credits her growth in confidence to attending the University of Georgia and the “instant friends” she made on the swim team.

Vreeland found her way to Georgia in 2010 after being recruited by several schools, including Virginia, Florida, Minnesota and Stanford. She visited all of them except Stanford, because once she stepped foot on the Georgia campus, she knew she had found the right school.

When Vreeland spoke with the coaches that first day, she felt a comfort in their friendliness, openness and approachability. She connected with the team. She found a respectable honors program.

She found a place where she could grow, both as a swimmer and a person.

“All of it clicked when I went there,” she said.

Entering her senior year this fall, Vreeland excels in the classroom, where Connie says she maintains a 3.9 grade-point average. She recorded her first B-plus this last year while studying economics, international affairs and legal studies.

In her spare time, Vreeland volunteers at elementary schools in Athens, Ga. She talks to children, reads to them and records audio books for students who are blind. Unsure of a career goal, she has considered numerous paths, such as pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs or business or law.

For now, Vreeland’s attention is trained on the upcoming World Championships in Barcelona. Although she’s unsure what to expect overseas, she knows her competitors are “out-of-control good.”

Vreeland will compete in the 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle, 800 freestyle relay and 400 freestyle relay. She might also race in the 400 medley relay, but that will be determined on site during the July 19-Aug. 4 competition.

Her focus at present is on the relays, where she hopes to contribute as much as possible, because she knows she has teammates supporting her and relying on her.

“This isn’t just for me anymore,” she said. “This is for the team.”