The Olympic Dream is alive and very well, judging by the reaction of the young swimmers at Buehler YMCA in Palatine Saturday.
They'd gathered for a clinic featuring Matt Grevers, the Lake Forest swimmer who won gold medals in the London Games in the 100-meter backstroke and 400 medley relay.
The event was co-hosted by another swimming luminary, Annie Chandler. She's a recent NCAA champion in the 100 breaststroke, and together Grevers and Chandler will make a formidable First Couple of Swimming. They're to be wed April 6.
After plenty of instructional time in the pool, Grevers and Chandler took time to share their insights about the sport they love before finally posing for photos and autographing all manner of swimming-related items for the participants.
And yes, Grevers brought one of his gold medals with him.
"It weighed about 5 pounds," said Sam Adame, 11, of Palatine. "That was pretty cool."
The basic message Grevers and Chandler had for the swimmers was to support one another, to strive for individual improvement and most importantly, to enjoy the journey.
In Grevers' case, that journey started only a handful of miles away. He excelled at Lake Forest High School before reaching national prominence swimming at Northwestern University and qualifying for the 2008 games.
Grevers finished second in the 100-meter backstroke in the 2008 Games and spent the next four years trying to reach his ultimate goal of becoming an Olympic champion. In London this year, just before the championship heat of the backstroke, he remembered something important.
"It's really intense," he said. "I'm behind the blocks, getting ready. I've got the fastest qualifying time, so I'm supposed to win. It's what I've worked for all these years, and on top of all that, I'm representing my country -- I mean, it's a lot of pressure.
"But I know one thing that really helps me in those situations is just to smile. Just doing that allows me to feel good about what's happening, and I know that's how I'm going to get the most out of myself. So I'd recommend you give it a try before your next big race: Remember to smile."
The young swimmers didn't need to be reminded Saturday. They ranged from 8 to 18 in age, and covered a wide ability range, from beginners to advanced competitors such as Fremd High School senior Breanna Anderson, who will be competing in the girls high school state championships in just a couple of weeks.
All of them got something positive out of it -- and it turns out they gave something back to Grevers, too. He and Chandler are on a Mutual of Omaha Breakout Swim Clinic tour with stops scheduled all over the U.S., including one in Washington on Sunday morning.
But the finest swimmer in Illinois history -- all 6 feet, 8 inches of him -- has a soft spot for his home turf.
"It's a big country, and people are different everywhere," Grevers said. "For me, there's just something about the Midwest -- I really relate to people here differently."
Chandler excelled on the collegiate scene at Arizona but retired from competitive swimming after the U.S. Olympic Trials, where she was a near miss for qualifying. She stressed the importance of individual goal-setting because, after all, not everyone can be an Olympian.
"I think it's really important for everyone to have what we call steppingstone goals," she said. "Strive for something that's within reach, then really commit to that -- and be proud when you attain it."
For Grevers, the next steppingstone would be rare indeed. His winning 100-backstroke time in London was an Olympic record, but that performance was a tenth of a second slower than the world mark held by American Aaron Peirsol. He continues to train in hopes of breaking the record.
"One of the things I said to the kids was how it's OK to let disappointment motivate you," he said. "The example I used was my junior year in high school. I didn't have a good state meet, and I really used that result to take the next step forward the following year.
"The thing you have to have is passion. Especially at the Olympic level, there's no substitute for that. You can't just show up at practice and kind of go through the motions."
Grevers acknowledged that Michael Phelps' retirement is a setback for the sport, but he said he's been thrilled by the swimming buzz created by the London Games.
The Olympic Dream lives, and the star-struck expressions at Buehler YMCA confirmed it.
"I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these swimmers," said Buehler Blue Marlins swimming coach Darby Brtva. "You can see how they responded -- they'll cherish this."