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Changing Lanes: Coca-Cola Helps Olympians Transition to Life After Sports

By:  Jay Moye Feb 12, 2014
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Like many Olympians, Alyssa Anderson felt a bit directionless upon returning home from London in August 2012. A 16-time collegiate All-American, she had just reached the pinnacle of the swimming world by winning a gold medal as part of the U.S. women’s 4x200 meter freestyle relay team.

At 22, Anderson decided it was time to make the leap from the swimming pool to the talent pool, but after competing in a sport with no off-season since she was 7 years old, the Granite Bay, Calif. native was uncertain where her path would lead next.

“I was lost,” she recalls.

Weeks later, she got an email about an opportunity to intern at Coca-Cola through the International Olympic Committee’s Athlete Career Program. Anderson had studied marketing in college and saw the Coke job -- which would entail supporting the company’s sponsorship of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi -- as a perfect fit.

Alyssa Anderson

Qualifying for the OIympic swim team, June 2012.

“I told myself, ‘this is what’ I’m going to do,’” she says. “Coke was the company we’d always talked about in class, and they’re the longest-running Olympic sponsor. I knew I couldn’t pass it up, so I applied that day.”

She got the job and began her 12-month assignment in March 2013. Since then, Anderson has worked with Coke’s worldwide sports and entertainment marketing team on a range of projects for the Sochi Olympic Games, including targeted communications highlighting Coke's 86-year legacy of Olympic support and a dedicated activation in the Olympic Athletes Village.

Different strokes

Anderson is the second Olympian to intern at Coke headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. through the IOC's Athlete Career Program. Mechelle Lewis Freeman, a World Champion track star, held the job leading up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. The company is currently searching for its next Olympic athlete intern and plans to expand the program to a dozen countries by the end of 2014.

“I’ve experienced first-hand why these types of programs are so important in helping athletes transition to a professional career,” notes Anderson. "I've learned so much."

Successful athletes often struggle with going from being at the top of their respective fields to essentially starting from scratch.

“We thrive on success; it’s how our brains are wired,” Anderson said. “I got a lot of confidence from swimming, so it was quite a leap to come to Coke and work among the world’s best marketers for the world’s top brand.”

She adds, “Now I’m exhausted from an eight-hour workday, but it’s a different exhaustion. Before, my body would hurt after a day of training. Now my brain hurts.”

‘The harder I worked, the more I won’

Growing up, swimming came naturally to Alyssa and her younger sister, Haley. Their mom swam in college, and the mild California climate enabled them to spend most of the year outdoors and in the water.

Alyssa Anderson's first win

A natural swimmer, Alyssa started competing at age 7.

The beginnings of Anderson’s Olympic dream traces back to 2004 when she watched Natalie Coughlin win gold in Athens. “I remember thinking it would be so cool to represent my country,” she says. “I loved to race and was really competitive. The harder I worked, the more I won.”

Anderson made her first international team when she was 13 and won her first national championship at 16. Her initial shot at Team USA -- and the world swimming spotlight -- came in 2008 at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb.

“I’d only competed in front of small crowds before, but I looked out and saw 16,000 people in the stands,” she said. “I was so nervous.”

After narrowly missing the cut, she shifted her focus to returning to Omaha four years later, faster and stronger. She went to college on a full athletic scholarship, choosing the University of Arizona over a few East Coast schools so she could continue to train outdoors.

“In 2012, I was ready,” Anderson said.

She qualified and immediately headed off to training camps in Tennessee and France before reaching London. Anderson immediately connected with her teammates both in and out of the pool. Their camaraderie can be seen in their lip-synched cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”, which went viral just before the Games.

“It was a really intense few weeks,” she said. “It’s a bond I share only with them.”

Alyssa and Haley Anderson

Congratulating her sister, Haley, after she won the silver medal in marathon swimming.

Despite winning the gold, Anderson says her most cherished memory from London came a week later when she watched Haley take silver in marathon swimming, a grueling 10-K event in the open water.

“It gives me chills to think about it,” Alyssa says. “Seeing her achieve her Olympic dream and sharing this journey with her was so cool. I swam for two minutes… she swam for two hours.”

After the Olympics, Anderson considered taking a job as an assistant swim coach and taught a series of swim clinics across the country. “It was a way for me to give back to a sport that has given so much to me,” she says.

But, ultimately, she wanted to begin a new chapter. Once her internship at Coke wraps up next month, she’ll go to work for Misfit Shine, a San Francisco-based manufacturer of activity-tracking wristbands and Coca-Cola partner.   

“As athletes, we set and pursue goals,” she concludes. “This program at Coke has given me another goal.”