When I was a young girl growing up in Southern California, sports rocked my world. You name it; I did it -– or at least tried it. And not to brag, but I was pretty darn good. Swimming, soccer and cross-country became my pastimes. I was on swim and soccer teams and just showed up to cross-country races to compete with no real training besides the conditioning from my other two sports. I had no idea how tough sports really were.

Before I knew it, I was asked to fill in on a boys’ soccer team when its star player broke his leg. Then I was convinced to play on a boys’ water polo team before girls’ water polo even existed in my area. You could say I was a total tomboy, but I enjoyed wearing cute dresses and putting big bows in my hair. Eventually, coaches wanted me to commit to one sport. I always had a natural feel and love for the water. I wasn’t a star from the beginning, but swimming came relatively easy. So I hung up the cleats and running shoes and sported a bathing suit every day from that time on.

I didn’t ever really think I would become an Olympian. My mom and dad weren’t the crazy sports parents you’ve read about. They were laid back and almost clueless about swimming. My mom cared more about me having the cutest suits and my dad was proud, regardless of the color of my ribbon. Even though they didn’t force me into the sport, they bent over backwards to help me excel.

In 1999, I had my first international swim meet, at age 16. I won both of my events and broke a meet record. Other kids my age had been dreaming of the Olympics for a while, but this was the first time I thought of the potential I had to get there. I qualified for my first Olympics in 2000, and I came home to my senior year of high school with a bronze medal in the 800 meter freestyle, a 4th-place finish, a 6th-place finish and great memories.

But things were about to get very difficult.

My college swimming career at USC consisted of injury after injury, illness, weight gain and challenging academics. Fighting through those hard times shaped me into the person and athlete I am today. Those

challenges helped me win a gold, silver and bronze medal -- along with a world and American record – at the 2004 Games. The memories and experiences I had in Athens are still hard to put into words.

Then things got tougher still. I turned pro and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to train with some of the best male swimmers of all time: Michael Phelps, Erik Vendt, Peter Vanderkaay and Klete Keller, to name a few. In all my years of swimming, I have never trained so hard in my life.

Two months before the Olympic trials in 2008, I blew out my right knee. Two weeks out, I was diagnosed with a severe upper respiratory infection. Beijing just wasn’t meant to be.

Although my competitive career is now over, sports and fitness are still a big part of who I am. I don’t want to be the “out of shape Olympian.” I want to advocate how important it is to be physically fit and active -- especially in this generation. This is the only body we get, so take care of it.

Of course, I am guilty of not wanting to get out of bed to go for a run. I too have to fight my ever-present sweet tooth and love for fried foods. And I have definitely wondered, “Does my butt look big in these pants?” So consider me the Olympian next door. Let’s train together to stay in shape even with our busy, hectic schedules. Let’s use this space to meet some of the best trainers and athletes in the world, and learn from them. I want to familiarize you to workouts I feel get the job done in the least amount of time. I want to give you nutrition tips that amp up your workouts and help with recovery. And I want to debunk some myths and fads. (Shake Weight? Hello!)

Staying in shape won’t be easy. But I’ve learned that life sometimes gets better even when it gets hard. So let’s get moving!

1939 Dodge Still Runs -- As A Grill