Bobby Finke made his first splash by reaching an Olympic Trials final in 2016 at age 16. Now with two Olympic gold medals and two world championships medals, the 23-year-old has taken the swimming world by storm. Earlier this week, Finke, a proud product of the University of Florida, took home multiple honors, including Male Athlete of the Year, at the Golden Goggles — the Oscars of U.S. swimming.
Finke reflected on his remarkable last two years, his experience in Tokyo, what he’s learned from teammate Katie Ledecky and much more below.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: What do your Golden Goggles nominations — Male Race of the Year and Male Athlete of the Year — mean to you?
Bobby Finke: I think I read somewhere that if I win the Athlete of the Year award I would be the first distance swimmer on the men’s side to get it, so I’m really hoping that I can be honored and snag that award, especially for coach Anthony Nesty and the University of Florida. I’m up against some pretty incredible so it’s just an honor to even be a part of that list.
Editor’s note: Finke was right. He became the first distance swimmer to win Male Athlete of the Year.
For more highlights from the Olympians, Paralympians, and world champions on the Golden Goggles red carpet, see below!
You are a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a two-time world medalist and a pro athlete. If someone told you four years ago that this would be your life, would you believe it?
Finke: No. Four years ago I was just trying to make an Olympic team. I started the journey of trying to make an Olympic team when I was 16. That’s when I knew I first had a shot and started working towards the Tokyo Games. I wasn’t looking for a medal or anything. I was just trying to make an Olympic team, and then once I got on the team, I was just trying to make the finals. It’s been one step at a time.
How old were you when you first fell in love with swimming?
Finke: My whole family has been involved in swimming in one way or another. My mom, Jeanne, actually swam for Ball State and my dad, Joe — who didn’t know how to swim until he started dating my mom — is actually a swim coach now. I grew up racing my two older sisters, Autumn and Ariel, in the pool and would always ask them what their times were and would compare them to mine so I could figure out how to beat them. That’s all I cared about. Growing up with that competition around me really shaped how I swim my races and how I go into practice. Competing with people is what I love most about the sport.
Did you grow up watching the Olympics as a kid? What swimmers/athletes did you look up to?
Finke: The first Olympics I remember watching was in 2008 with Michael Phelps. He was someone I looked up to. I was 8 years old at the time. I was just cheering, but I didn’t truly realize the magnitude of what he accomplished. The swimmer I really idolized growing up was Robert Margalis. He had a tough journey, and I admired his determination. He was my main inspiration. I actually know his sister, Melanie, pretty well and would race with her whenever she came home from college for breaks.
Let’s fast forward to the Tokyo Games. Walk me through your experience.
Finke: I didn’t know what to expect going into the Games. There were no fans there, which I think affected other swimmers since they were used to having an atmosphere with a ton of people, but since it was my first Olympics I didn’t have anything to compare it to. So I felt like that gave me a bit of an edge. Overall, Tokyo was great. They put on a great Olympics, and the whole experience was incredible for me. I think I did pretty well, and I’m hoping that I get to make it another one.
You definitely did “pretty well.” To walk away with two gold medals at your first Olympics, winning them both in a very dramatic fashion, what was that like for you? Do you remember what you were thinking and feeling mid-race?
Finke: Coming back on the last 50 [meters], I’ve never really done that before. I’ve never had great closing speed in the 800m or 1500m. It kind of just happened. I knew the Europeans were really good at coming home, and I knew going into the last 50 I was behind them significantly, especially in the 800m. I felt confident going into the 1500m, but I had no idea what was going to happen in the 800m.
During the 800m, I just saw that I caught up a little bit. The last 50 felt like forever, and I was gradually trying to catch more and more of Mykhailo Romanchuk, who was next to me. Once I passed him, I could see across the whole field, and I realized Florian Wellbrock fell back, and then Gregorio Paltrinieri was right there with all of us. At that point, with just five meters left, I knew if I got out-touched I would not be OK with that, so I made sure I put every ounce of energy I had left into that race. I’m so happy that I did.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from training with Katie Ledecky so far?
Finke: Confidence. She can go fast ALL. THE. TIME. It’s crazy. It’s something I want to be able to do, too, and Katie has told me that I just need to believe that I can get there. So that’s something I’m working on. I’m learning a lot from her, especially with seeing how she carries herself, the confidence she has in herself and her training and her work ethic.
Are you doing anything differently in terms of training to prepare for Paris?
Finke: We are just sticking to the formula that works. We add some things in here and there, but we’re not changing the foundation of our training. Nesty comes up with ideas all the time. The most recent one was swimming with surgical gloves on to remove the feel of the water. I think he came up with that idea when he was cutting chicken at home. The next day he came into practice, and he had us all swimming with gloves on with rubber bands around our wrists.
Switching gears, I’ve got some rapid-fire questions for you. Are you ready?
Finke: Yeah, let’s do it.
I know you’re a big Marvel guy. I’m going to name a couple of your U.S. teammates. Name which super hero they are most like and why.
Finke: Hmmm. I’m trying to think of the best one. There are two parts to this. Who is the strongest Avenger and who is the best one. I consider Thor to be the strongest Avenger so for Katie, I’ll say Thor.
Finke: Iron Man. He’s got charisma, so I think Iron Man pairs well with him.
Finke: Hmmm. Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. I guess Captain America. Just the charisma and the way he carries himself and the team leadership Ryan has. He does a really great job at being the captain of our team.
Finke: Captain Marvel. She’s strong, incredible and funny.
Finke: I’ll go with Thor again.
Which Avenger would you be?
Finke: I would say either Captain America or Thor, not because of my personality but just because those two are my favorites.
I know you don’t listen to music pre-race, so how do you get locked in? What do you think about? Any affirmations?
Finke: I kind of just sit and stare waiting for my name to be called.
If you could only listen to one artist for an entire workout, who would it be?
Finke: Queen or Elton John. I really enjoy music from the ’70s and ’80s.
What’s something you wish more people knew about being a swimmer?
Finke: We have really early wake-up calls and very long days. During the pandemic, I was getting up at like 3:50 a.m. for practice, but now I get up at 4:55 a.m. every day.
Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without …
Finke: The first thing that came to my mind is pizza. After every meet I always have pizza.
Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?
Finke: “Take me out to the Ball Game.” We had a karaoke machine growing up, and that was the only song I could do.
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