Imagine playing a sport because you were told you had to for your health not because you wanted to.
That was the case for Olympic gold medalist Bowe Becker. Born in Chicago and raised in Las Vegas, Becker hyperextended his left knee playing lacrosse, which resulted in a torn ACL at age 11.
"I was super swollen after and it wasn't going down," Becker said. "So the surgeon told my parents I needed to get tested for rheumatoid arthritis because that's what he thought it was. And sure enough, I had rheumatoid. My rheumatologist at the time said, 'You can't run, you can't do any of these other sports that you like to play. The only sport that you can play is swimming.'"
Becker's parents, Chip and Barbie, enrolled their son into swimming lessons, but it wasn't an easy transition going from playing tennis and lacrosse, two of Becker's favorite sports, to the swimming pool.
"He hated it," Barbie said. "He hated it. But I'm, like, 'You got to swim for your health just a couple days a week.'"
Becker swam for the Sandpipers of Nevada, a prestigious youth swimming club in Las Vegas. After a year and a half in the water, Becker started to gain a more natural feel in the water and was faster than the average swimmer his age, especially as a novice in the sport. Still, Becker wasn't thrilled with swimming. The thought of quitting crossed Becker's mind all the time.
"Probably at least once a month," Becker said. "I would actually start thinking, like, 'I really want to quit.' I actually got kicked out of a group when I was swimming when I was 15, and I told my parents, 'I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore.' They're, like, 'OK, well, how are you going to get to college? You better go up and start studying.' I was not a school guy, so I was, like, 'All right, I guess I got to keep swimming.' So I forced my way back into it, but it was a long, long time where I just was on and off, liking the sport or hating the sport. I always tell people it's a love-hate relationship."
Becker's parents didn't force him to swim but they saw a potentially bright future in the sport and knew swimming will be good for his overall health.
"We always told him he could quit, but we highly recommended he didn't because he needs it for his health," Barbie said. "So it went from, 'You got to swim for your health' to 'You can go to college and do this.' It was essentially his choice, but we both, mostly me, really pushed for him to swim through college. But there were many, many times he wanted to quit."
Pushing through pain in his joints almost daily, Becker was a state champion at Faith Lutheran High and became one of the nation's top recruits in the 2015 class. But he didn't catch the attention of many college coaches, with Minnesota's Kelly Kremer being an exception.
A seven-time All-American and three-time Big 10 champ, Becker holds seven Gopher records, and is one of the best swimmers in school history. After college, Becker moved to Auburn, Ala., with former Minnesota assistant coach Gideon Louw to continue training professionally and had previously swam in the International Swimming League. He was going to train for the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closing the pools in Auburn.
Becker decided to move back to Minnesota because the pools there remained open. But two days after he went back to his college town, the pools there were shut down.
"I just ended up stopping swimming altogether and six months went by and I did not touch the pool," said Becker, who moved to Reno to live with his family during the pandemic. "I started working as a server or bartender. I was just ready to move on."
Ready to quit the sport, Becker received a call from Jason Lezak, an eight-time Olympic medalist and the general manager of the Cali Condors, which competes in the International Swimming League.
"He said the Australians could not go because of COVID," Becker said. "Their government wouldn't let them leave, so I ended up moving back to Minnesota and I got my chance to swim again, and the rest is kind of history. I was just in a much better mental place. My mentality was a lot healthier from all that time out of the pool because I was just kind of done with the sport after COVID hit. You train really hard, for nine months straight. It's your life, your full-time job and then all of a sudden, it's not happening. So it's very tough."
The return to the pool wasn't easy. He was out of shape and his times weren't great. But he kept working toward the U.S. Olympic trials, which had been pushed back a year due to the pandemic. Becker had qualified for the trials thanks to the 2019 Summer Nationals and made the cut for the 4x100 freestyle relay team in Tokyo.
"They came up to me after the last day (at trials) and said, 'Hey, welcome to the team. Congratulations," Becker said. "It kind of sunk in then, and I was just focusing on not tearing up. You don't take a six-month break or a seven-month break and then try to come back and make the Olympics, let alone medal at the Olympics. Not many people have ever tried that."
In Tokyo, Becker swam well enough in the preliminary round to gain a spot on Team USA's final relay where the Americans won gold, making Becker the first Reno resident to win Olympic gold in the Summer Games.
"There's a sense of pride," Becker said. "You're representing the U.S. and we're awesome. So, just the fact you can play your anthem over theirs, and everyone has to stand and listen to it, it's a good feeling."
Added Barbie: "Never in a million years had I thought (he would win gold). That just seemed so out of reach. It wasn't even reality, and I still can't believe it. It is so surreal, and I am the proudest mom in the world. I really am. I have three great kids, but yeah this was something very unexpected. "
Becker is hopeful his story is inspiration for kids around the world who suffer from a disease or illness to not give up on their dreams.
"I don't want to be known as the guy who has rheumatoid arthritis who made the Olympics," Becker said. "I want to be known as the guy who shared his story so people get out of bed in the morning to to pursue whatever their dreams are. That's why I like to share my story. I want to share with them anything's possible. You just got to put the work in for it and believe in yourself and surround yourself with good people that believe in you."