News & Politics

Crissy Perham’s Four Minutes of Fame

Crissy Perham’s trip through Olympic waters left her with three medals, some heartache, and life lessons for the kids she trains.

The medals are stuffed in a bedroom drawer with her underwear, brought out only for special occasions. And this one is special.

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School—a guppy among the sharks of area high-school swimming—qualified 17 of its 26 swimmers for this year’s Virginia private-school championships. The boys, who broke every school record, capped their season by shattering the 12-year-old state mark in the 400-meter freestyle relay.

So for the team’s year-end banquet, coach Crissy Perham promised to pull out her medals—two gold and one silver from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Only a handful of her kids have seen the hardware, and fewer still know the full story of her Olympic glory—and her pain.

Perham, then a 22-year-old senior at the University of Arizona, arrived in Barcelona as captain of a star-studded US swim team considered the best ever. The American women were expected to bring home a dozen golds in the 15 events. Though she had grown up in Iowa miles from a pool, Perham (then Crissy Ahmann-Leighton) owned the second-fastest time ever recorded in the 100-meter butterfly—and seemed a good bet for gold.

She skipped the opening ceremonies to rest, telling her father, “I didn’t come here to march in a parade. I came to win medals.”

The great expectations hit rough water early. The seemingly invincible Jenny Thompson—who held two world records and would dominate swimming for years—lost in the 100-meter freestyle. Janet Evans, the three-gold-medal star of the 1988 Olympics, cried after a second-place finish in the 400-meter freestyle—her first defeat in that event in six years.

Each night, the women gathered in the Olympic Village for instant oatmeal and pep talks. But the losses continued. Perham was edged out in her featured event by China’s Hong Qian, losing by a tenth of a second.

The defeat swamped her. Perham’s personal best time would have beaten Qian. Perham and the other Americans suspected that Chinese swimmers were taking performance-enhancing steroids—suspicions given credence by positive tests at later meets.

“I really struggled,” she says. “It took me six months to get over it and be at peace with the fact that that was the best that I could do on that day.”

The last day’s events gave the Americans sweet revenge. They won the 400-meter freestyle relay, which Perham swam in preliminaries, earning her a gold. And in the 400-meter medley relay, Perham and three teammates broke the world record. In the end, the women won five gold medals—one more than the Chinese.

After the Olympics, Perham, one of the few married women on the team, had a child and left swimming. Before the 1996 Olympics, she dropped 50 pounds from her pregnancy and mounted a comeback only to miss making the team by .04 second. Afterward, she settled into a life as a mother, wife, and celebrity swim coach.

She and husband Charlie, a civil engineer with the Air Force, moved to Alexandria four years ago. She teaches physical education at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Old Town, where her six-year-old, Ryan, is in kindergarten. Fourteen-year-old son Alex is a freshman at Gonzaga in the District.

Perham, 37, coaches with the Curl-Burke Swim Club, an elite year-round program, and at Army Navy Country Club. “Coaching is more exciting than competing,” she says. “Now I get to swim every race.”

She came to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes two years ago. The team has talent, but the swimmers say she’s nurtured it with tough love and an infectious passion.

“She says she didn’t bring anything out of us that wasn’t already there. But she’s wrong,” says junior Jennifer Lynch. “She knows how to be a coach and how to be your friend. It’s a fine line, but she knows the right time to be each.”

Perham worries that bringing her medals to the banquet will overshadow the kids. Nor does she like to be defined by her four minutes in the water at Barcelona.

But the medals are powerful symbols. Perham was a good swimmer in high school but not marked for Olympic greatness. It wasn’t until her sophomore year in college that she committed to year-round swimming. Still, she made the Olympics, and one of her kids could, too.

Says Perham: “I want them to know that anything’s possible.”