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Rebecca Soni has heard it all her life: You shouldn't be that fast. At 5'8", Soni is small for an elite swimmer. Her pull isn't notably strong and neither is her kick, and when she puts them together her stroke doesn't look anything like that of other world-class breaststrokers. When Soni was an age-group swimmer with the Scarlet Aquatic Club in Piscataway, N.J., one official at a premeet meeting declared to the others, "The girl on Scarlet does an illegal breaststroke. I can't put my finger on it, but girls can't swim that fast, so it must be illegal."
Illegal? No. Unusual? Without a doubt. Where others surge through the water with long glides, Soni skims along the surface like a water skeeter, her abbreviated pull and narrow snap kick giving her a quick tempo few swimmers can maintain. Her coach at USC-based Trojan Swim Club, Dave Salo, calls the motion she creates "teeter-tottering," and it is a study in timing and efficiency. "After she's kicked and before she's pulled, that part where people don't think anything is happening, she's still moving forward," says 2012 U.S. Olympic women's coach Teri McKeever. "That's where Rebecca is better than everybody else."
Unlike Mike Barrowman, the Olympic champion who revolutionized the stroke back in the late 1980s and early '90s with his more up-and-down, "wave-action" stroke, which many breaststrokers do some version of today, Soni is not attracting legions of imitators. "I think if you were to explain her stroke to most swimmers, they'd say that's not going to work for them," says breaststroker Eric Shanteau, a 2008 Olympian. "I know it wouldn't work for me. But for Rebecca, it works."
It has worked so well for Soni that, at 25, she is the owner of a gold and two silver Olympic medals, six long-course world-championship medals (including four golds), a raft of endorsement deals and the title of Breaststroke Queen. At this summer's Olympics in London, she'll be the favorite in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes.
Friendly but reserved—"Quiet but always processing," says her sister, Rita—Soni isn't inclined to make promises about her performances. Aside from her racing, she does little that draws attention to herself. In her free time she likes to cook, read (Ayn Rand is a favorite author), listen to country music, study nutrition, play with Kody, her black chow mix, and hang out with her boyfriend, 2008 4 × 200-freestyle-relay gold medalist Ricky Berens. In her role as volunteer assistant coach at USC, she serves as the team's spin class instructor twice a week. She spends a lot of time choreographing music "so it'll be fun for them," she says, but very little time chewing out laggards. "Rebecca," says friend and fellow U.S. star Dana Vollmer, the reigning butterfly world champion, "is the sweetest, kindest person I know."
But behind that cheerful, calm facade is a fierce competitor, says Salo. "Someone asked me what animal I would characterize her as, and I said a lioness," he says. "There's that quietness, but you know if she wants to strike, you're going to get full bore."
As for that Olympic double, "if it happens, it happens," says Soni. "The focus for me is getting there, having a good time. I had a great time in Beijing; I want to enjoy the experience again."
Favorite status is not yet a comfortable fit for Soni, though she handled it well at last summer's world championships in Shanghai, where she swept the 100 and the 200 and was part of the first medley-relay gold medal for the U.S. women at a major competition since 2000. "She tries to downplay her stardom," says Berens. "She hates being in the spotlight. She just likes to mind her own business, do her own thing. She'll pay attention to what swimmers in other countries are doing, but she doesn't say, 'That's slow, that's slow.' She'll say, 'Oh, they're coming up, they're coming up.' She doesn't like being the favorite."
Soni rarely gets to feel like one in her daily practices at USC, where she trains with a large postgraduate group that is predominately male and includes some of the world's best breaststrokers, such as Japan's quadruple Olympic gold medalist, Kosuke Kitajima, Shanteau and Jessica Hardy, the world-record holder in the 100 breast, who is also a top freestyle sprinter. Soni often trails the group in practice, especially in kicking sets. "She is working as hard as she can, but she's not an impressive trainer," says Salo. "But when she steps up on the blocks to race, she has a different mind-set. She goes into a gear that most people are unwilling to sustain."
In the last leg of a 200-meter race, the water skeeter morphs into something else. Jack Bauerle, the 2008 Olympic women's coach, recently watched a clip of Soni's world-record-setting 200-breaststroke race in Beijing. "On that last 50 she's like a freight train," he says. "She gets more momentum, more momentum.... It's like she's going downhill while everyone else is swimming up."