When you earn three Olympic gold medals, a nice display case doesn't come with them. St. Petersburg resident and 1992 Olympic swimmer Nicole Haislett Bacher knows all about that.
"They just graduated from a really, really beat-up small Bed, Bath and Beyond bag," she told a crowd Wednesday at retirement community in Sarasota. "This morning, in fact, I upgraded it to a Pottery Barn bag."
At 39, Bacher is the community life director at a sister community, in South Pasadena, where she has held that position for four years.
She came to speak to The Fountains residents in Sarasota about her Olympic achievements, as Americans are transfixed on a new generation of Olympic swimmers, including Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.
Bacher recalled the Barcelona games, just as the London Olympic games are wrapping up.
It wasn't too hard for The Fountains to land Bacher, whose husband Ricky Bacher works as the Dining Services Director. Nicole Bacher also works as the community life director at a sister community, in South Pasadena, where she has held that position for four years.
She brought all sorts of Olympic goodies, ranging from the official U.S. Olympian warmup jacket, a custom leather jacket provided to athletes, her Pan Pacific Swimming Championships medals, the Olympic Torch from when she ran the relay for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics down The Pier, and of course her three gold medals.
One medal came in the 200-meter freestyle, another in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, which included ageless Olympian Dara Torres, and the third in the 4x100-meter medley relay.
Those medals did come in a velvet pouch, but one of those were lost, too, so a Crown Royal bag became its replacement.
"They don't lead a very glamerous lifestyle," Bacher joked.
Her career started when she was not even 2 years old just as a way to be "water safe," when she first could swim on her own will underwater. Then by the time she was 5 years old, she could competitively swim, eventually hanging out at the with the . Bacher went on to swim for the University of Florida Gators where her Olympic career took off.
She credits her "perfect sports parents" for pushing the right buttons and sending the right messages that swimming was her choice.
"I never thought I was doing it for anyone but myself," said
One time when Bacher was 6 or 7 years old, she didn't want to swim for her new coach, who was also a truck driver. It was time for practice, and her mother asked why she wasn't getting her bag ready for practice, and Bacher explained to her that she didn't want to swim for her new coach.
"She said, OK. And she walked away," Bacher said. "About five or 10 minutes later, I came sneaking around asking, 'Well, mom, aren't you going to call the pool and tell them?'"
Instead, her mother left that up to Bacher to call the pool if she didn't want to practice. Bacher caved.
"I disappeared, and then about five minutes later, she saw me sitting in front of the door with my little bag waiting for the car pool," she said. "Even though I was so young then, it was a good message to me that, 'Hey, if you don't want to swim, you don't have to swim.' It was really my choice."
And her parents proved to be her biggest supporters, as they appeared with a crowd at the Tampa International Airpot gate with a crowd screaming for Bacher, donned with "Go Nicole" shirts and posters.
"I was so humiliated. I just want to crawl under a seat," Bacher joked. "In hindsight it was awesome."
And once she arrived, she soaked it all in.
"The Olympics itself is just wild. It's fun, it's overwhelming, it goes so fast," Bacher said. "You want to take it all in, but you're trying to focus on your races and what you're trying to do."
When she won her individual gold by 1/100 of a second, a huge relief, she said.
So what's it like to be on that podium with a gold medal? A little deja vu from visualizing herself winning the gold all those years, and a little rushed from the race to the podium.
"I was really thirsty, my mouth was super dry. The sun was shining directly into our eyes from behind the flags. I'm trying to watch the flag, and the sun is just beaming, my eyes are watering," Bacher said. "I'm trying to keep my eyes open, and it looks like I' crying, but I really wasn't. It was crazy as it's all happening."
The life of the Olympian has its perks and downsides. First, there's the perks of tons of free Olympic gear and clothing, some support from the Olympic committee, but most of it comes from the family and fundraising, she said, to help pay the way as endorsement deals can kill college athletic eligibility due to NCAA regulations.
Swimming can also be a short career since they only come around once every four years. Bacher was 19 when she participated in the '92 games and 23 when she retired, a year before the Atlanta games.
"My intention was to try and make that team, but I just knew it wasn't there for me," she said. "I wasn't as mentally committed. I didn't feel as good physically."
She had a chance to make a relay team, but it was the individual gold she was out for.
"I didn't want to do it half-way," she added.
For that, she appreciates the veterans competing in this year's Olympics and is rooting for Brenden Hansen, who at age 30, is considered in the twilight of his swimming career.
"I've been rooting for them because, I guess I'm older," Bacher said. "The new kids are always going to swim well and they're going to have future Olympics, probably."
Nowadays, she stays away from doing laps in a pool. In fact, she doesn't even know the last time she swam other than a dip into the Gulf of Mexico. She met her husband Ricky while the two worked in sports nutrition at the PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens.
Instead, she's watching her daughter Blake, 6, take an interest in swimming. Blake's taking lessons and "is a great swimmer" so far, she said.
"She is a fish," she joked.