Rebecca Soni (18 March, 1987) is an American swimmer and is considered one of the strongest breaststrokers in the world over all competitive distances (50m, 100m, and 200m).
Soni’s first major international medals came at the 2005 Summer Universiade (World University Games) in Turkey, where she won silver medals in 100m and 200m breaststroke, along with a gold medal in the 4X100m medley relay. The following year she underwent surgery to fix an irregular heartbeat, returning in 2007 at the Duel in the Pool in Sydney to win a silver medal in 200m breaststroke and a bronze at the 100m distance.
But Soni’s most emphatic statement came at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Even though she only swam the 100m breaststroke for the USA as a substitute for two swimmers who for various reasons were not able to attend, she pushed Australian Liesel Jones all the way, taking the silver medal. Three days later the world sat up and took notice as she not only upset the favourite Jones in the 200m breaststroke, but did so in a world record time of 2:20.22. She earned her third Olympic medal – a second silver – as a member of the US 4X100m medley relay team.
At the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, Soni continued her impressive form in the 100m breaststroke by winning the event, breaking the world record in the semi-final and becoming the first woman to swim the distance in less than 1:05 (1:04.84). In the 50m breaststroke, she was narrowly beaten for the gold medal, but like the winner, also eclipsed the existing world record in claiming the silver medal. She capped a phenomenal year by breaking the short course world records in both the 100m and 200m breaststroke at Manchester’s Duel in the Pool, becoming the first woman to swim under 1:03 in the 100m (1:02.70) and under 2:15 in the 200m (2:14.57). Her incredible achievements during the year earned her Swimming World Magazine’s American Swimmer of the Year award.
At the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, Soni continued her dominance with a gold medal and championship record in the 100m breaststroke, clocking the third fastest time in history, and the fastest ever in a textile suit. Two days later she won the 200m event by more than 2.5s from the silver medallist, and barely an hour after that swam the fastest breaststroke leg in the field as part of the USA’s gold medal effort in the 4X100m medley relay.
At the year-end’s World Short Course Championships in Dubai, Soni confirmed herself as the world’s premier women’s breaststroker by sweeping the 50m, 100m, and 200m events, breaking two championship records in the process. As a result of her extraordinary results in 2010, she was named Swimming World Magazine’s World Swimmer of the Year as well as American Swimmer of the Year.
Soni’s dominance continued in 2011 with three gold medals and a bronze at the World Championships in Shanghai, earning her a second consecutive World Swimmer of the Year award and a third consecutive American Swimmer of the Year award. In her 100m breaststroke victory, she swam the sixth-fastest race of all time (of which she owns five), having produced an all-time textile best in the semi-final (1:04.91). Her 200m gold atoned for her meltdown in Rome in 2009, while her 50m breaststroke bronze was her personal best in a textile suit. Soni’s third gold medal came in the 4x100m medley relay, in which she swam a blistering 1:04.71 breaststroke leg, her fastest of the season, eclipsing her title-winning times in the individual 100m breaststroke.
Not satisfied to rest on her laurels, Soni had an outstanding 2012 Olympics in London, winning two gold medals and a silver, and breaking three world records. Her standout event was the 200m breaststroke, winning in a new world record of 2:19.59, and breaking the new world mark she had set the day before in the semi-finals (2:20.00). In the 4x100m medley relay, she swam an incredible breaststroke leg of 1:04.82 – eclipsing the fastest textile time in history – as she and her teammates broke the world record in taking gold. Soni also picked up a silver medal for 100m breaststroke.
For someone who doesn’t follow sports – including swimming – Rebecca Soni is a shining example of what can be done with focus, hard work, and a simple desire to have fun with what you’re doing. In fact, swimming wasn’t even a favoured activity when she was growing up – she preferred gymnastics – and only joined her older sister Rita’s swimming club because it was a better option than the alternative of having to wait for her to finish her class … and of course the fact that she wanted to be like her sister. It was the beginning of a distinguished future, along with a unique breaststroke style that coaches have scratched their heads at, marvelled at its results, and – thankfully – tinkered with rather than try to change.
Obstacles like an irregular heart beat haven’t managed to derail her meteoric rise either. Until her medical procedure in 2006, Rebecca was prone to episodes when her heart would beat very rapidly during exercise, on occasions up to 400 beats per minute. The procedure applied electrical energy to destroy the abnormal tissue in the heart that was causing the rhythmic disturbances, and since then her heartbeat’s been normal.
With parents that hail from Hungary – or Transylvania to be more precise – Rebecca is fluent (or “almost fluent” according to her) in Hungarian, and still harbours close ties to her parents’ homeland. But New Jersey is where she was born and grew up, and these days she lives and trains in Los Angeles under coach Dave Salo, along with rival and friend Jessica Hardy.
Beyond the pool and competitive meets where she’s obviously recognized as the famous swimmer that she is, life is relatively “normal”, with travelling and shopping amongst her favourite things to do, and to relax, cooking and enjoying the sunset on the beach. At University she studied communications, but at some point would like to get back to her long-standing interest in science and mathematics.
In 2010, she joined the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign in its “for girls, by girls” movement to improve the lives of the world’s adolescent girls. Through her outreach activities, Rebecca hopes to mobilize American girls to raise awareness and funds for United Nations programs that protect, educate and empower the world’s hardest-to-reach girls.
Down-to-earth, focused, and with a healthy recognition and love for what she does, Rebecca’s philosophy – for now – is all about swimming. “It’s a complete lifestyle in itself, it defines what you do, it’s who you are – you’re a swimmer.” If only everything in life could be so clear.