Achieving Personal Best: BJ Bedford Miller
“Everyone has their Olympics. Mine was televised. Your heart, your mind and your competitive spirit can shine in ANYTHING."
Back in the ‘80s when I had the privilege of attending The Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey, I had no idea I would be rubbing elbows with Olympians, among them two gold medalist swimmers. That’s right. Two students in the class below mine earned the preface “Olympic Gold Medalist.” One of these is the very humble BJ Bedford Miller who was on the Sydney Olympic relay team that set a world record in 2000.
BJ shared so many delicious snippets into her life that I feel it’s almost a disservice to edit what she wrote. I relished every word as I tried to figure out how she achieved her personal best, and how I, too, could get better from her advice.
Playing all kinds of sports and particularly loving gymnastics, BJ always ended up back in the pool where “my ability ended up being the shiniest.” At 5’9”, her body wasn’t suited for gymnastics. Instead, it was perfectly suited for swimming. “I have no butt, I have big shoulders and I streamline like a torpedo. Nature or nurture? Not sure, but it’s definitely some combination. I’m not sure if swimming since I was a little girl shaped me or I was shaped by the sport or just born this way, but I float like a cork and I am very hydrodynamic. I have a “feel” for the water. I can just move myself through it. Again, I’m not sure if that’s from growing up in it, but I always loved water.”
Even though it seems that BJ was born to swim and she excelled from a young age, it still took her a while to make the US Olympic Team. Of the progression, she states, “I started swimming and competing year-round at age 5. I made my first national team at age 16; Olympics at 27. “ Three years into the sport, she realized that she could be good, very good. “ I think I realized when I was 8 that I could be good when rankings came out and I was top 10 in New England. That was a big deal, and I think I kind of got hooked on the ranking thing and just how pure and clean it was. Time. That was it. All I had to do was go faster and I could beat everyone. So, that was it. I was in.” Rankings served as an ignition for her to put in the work. By the time she was at Peddie, she was top 25 in the world.
At Peddie, BJ trained under Chris Martin, a no-nonsense coach who did some Jedi mind tricks on his swimmers to get the best out of them. Folks had mixed feelings about Martin, but one thing was clear, he produced champions. “I was very talented. I didn’t train much prior to going to a Peddie, but I qualified for Olympic Trials. I mean 3-days-a-week not much. Chris Martin and the Peddie Swim Team taught me so much about what it is to be dedicated to the sport and what was available on the other side of that dedication. Everyone at the elite level (national team) is talented. But to be able to WIN at that level, you need not only talent, but the work ethic as well. I learned that at Peddie.” And what’s hard work? BJ sites some of her hardest workouts: 3 hour straight swim with shoes on; 10,000 for time; 100x100s. At the height of her season, she was training 28-30 hours a week.
On what kept her coming back to the pool: “I kept going because I love the water. I kept going because my friends and brothers swam. It was a family sport for us. After doing it for a while, I suddenly found myself good at it, and it became part of who I am, or who I saw myself as. But I kept going because you’re only as good as your NEXT race. There is always tomorrow and I always raced myself, which was the biggest challenge. And sometimes – just enough to keep me coming back – I would win (against myself, with best times, with good performances that helped the team, that kind of thing).”
On what drove her to compete: “One – I love to win. Two – I HATE to lose. Like tear-the-skin-off-your-face hate to lose. And swimming was a place where I could win most of the time. And I could compete against myself, the ultimate game of chess where I am the only winner (and loser).”
On what made her so good: “Being positive. I never quit. Quitting is the ONLY true failure. I never give up hope, not on myself or my teammates. And I’m totally OCD. So, if a coach tells me to change the pitch of my hand by 5 degrees – I can DO that.”
On her mental state on the start line: “If I focus on anything other than what I have control of, I am anxious. When I focus on what I have control over – ME – and what I’m capable of, it keeps me grounded and OK. It also depends on the level of competition. Olympic Trials were the worst – no matter what I was sick with anxiety at that meet. Any other meet, I was dialed into my own deal and fine. Trials killed me.”
On failure: “You only fail when you quit. But yes – I quit sometimes. On myself, on a race, on a workout. You just try to be better tomorrow.”
On sacrifice: “Everything and nothing. It depends on how you look at it, right? I didn’t REALLY give up much. Probably some partying in college. Maybe some trips to the Vineyard or wherever. But I got to travel the world. And I got to achieve my dreams. Sacrifice? I don’t know – I never looked at what I gave up, only what I got to do.”
On her view of herself as an athlete versus that of others: “Hard to say – I only can truly know myself as I see me. But from what they tell me, I think others view me and my accomplishments as more important, more amazing than I view them. As an athlete – I was one of the best in the world for a moment. It was a brilliant, beautiful, shining moment. But I can’t live in that forever. People who haven’t been there don’t understand that you don’t want to be the person trapped in and defined by one moment. So, I do my best to be humble and move forward in my life. I can’t think of myself as an Olympic athlete every day – I just try to fight and win whatever battle I’ve chosen for that day and the next.”
BJ closed with her advice to someone trying to achieve his or her best. I take this advice with me through my daily training and will hold onto it in big competitions. She said, “Everyone has their Olympics. Mine was televised. Your heart, your mind and your competitive spirit can shine in ANYTHING. Just carry your passion and race YOURSELF. That way, you always win, and you always have the chance to get better, too. And don’t quit. No one starts off good. You just don’t. Passion for the improvement will take you a long way.”
While BJ now lives in Colorado with her two children, husband, and dogs and has the regular duties of a career woman with a family, being an Olympian isn’t at the forefront of her mind. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking of my friend as all of the above AND an Olympic gold-medalist.
For more on Beford Miller, check out this video.