When she’s not in the courtroom, water is the natural element for competitive swimmer Laurie Speed-Dalton.

Laurie Speed-Dalton’s youthful career ambitions ran more to sports journalism than the law. But she didn’t like football. So after college, she followed in her father’s footsteps and went to law school.

“As my father pointed out, I have a lawyer’s personality,” she said. “I don’t really like conflict, but I could never let a remark I disagreed with pass. Some things you just have to argue. I like being an advocate for my clients.”

Three years ago, Speed-Dalton started her own firm, The Speed Firm, which specializes in personal injury and medical malpractice law.

Deciding on a personal sport was easy, however. “I love everything to do with the water. Swimming defined me during my school and college years,” she said.

How did you start swimming competitively?

The story goes that I was swimming at the pool with my family when a children’s swim team came to practice. My reaction was, “Do you mean there’s a team for this, and you’ve been keeping it from me?” I was 4. After that I swam on community, high school and college teams.

Did you have a specialty?

I was a sprinter. The 50- and 100-yard freestyle were my best events. I had the sprinter mentality—get in and get it done. A short race is basically a one-breath-after-the-turn race.

But I was also considered a utility swimmer, and could compete in any stroke as long as it was under 500 yards.

You were All American in college. Was that the highlight of your swimming career?

Yes, I was All-American for swimming and All-Academic at Emory University. In my senior year I was the NCAA Division III for the 50 freestyle and swam my personal best of 24.92 seconds. It was a big deal.

What’s swimming like as a sport?

You’re on a team with men and women, so you train together and you compete together. You learn how to work as a team. But there’s also an independent element to swimming. Once you put your head in the water, it’s very isolating. You feel alone, and you know it’s up to you. It was good preparation for being a lawyer, because I’m comfortable working with a co-counsel or doing it myself.

When I watched the Olympics this summer, some of the swimmers seemed surprised they’d won after a race. Are you not aware of others in the pool or how well you are doing when you are racing?

Oh, you are totally aware of the fact that it’s a race. They put the fastest swimmers in the center lanes, and when you take a breath you look around to see how you’re doing. I still have an image of racing against this one woman. Every time I’d look up she’d be right there. I ended up placing second, but she pushed me to one of my best races ever. It was the first time I broke 25 seconds. Swimming against others pushes you to do better.

How do you train to be a champion swimmer?

You spend hours in practice. Starting at age 15, I would have practices twice a day—early in the morning before high school and then again in the afternoon. I’d be in the pool four hours a day and three hours on Saturday. You learn to manage your time and you give up a lot of things. I never got to go to summer camp or study abroad.

Emory coaches did a great job of designing our workouts depending on what type of swimmer we were. I did a lot of ‘dry land’ training, lifting weights to strengthen my arms, shoulders and legs and swimming with a weight belt. Then you work on your start from the block and your turn. You’d start half-way across the pool, swim three strokes and then turn—over and over again.

Did you continue swimming after college?

I didn’t get back in the water for 13 years. I was burned out. Swimming requires so much time in the pool and the gym, and then you have to shower and wash and dry your hair twice a day. I wanted to focus on law school.

But now you compete in open water races of a mile or longer. How did that happen?

When I was pregnant, it was the only exercise that felt comfortable, so I needed to find a way to get back into it. Emory had built an outdoor long-course pool, so I began swimming from April to November, after work. I changed my mentality from wanting to be the fastest, to swimming to stay healthy and fit. My brother and I started swimming together and he suggested we swim this 5-K open water race on Lake Chatuge. You start near Hiawassee and end up in North Carolina. It was fun to have a goal.

Was that your first open water race? Have there been others and how are doing competitively?

Yes, I swam the Hiawassee race in 2010, and came in third place in an hour and 29 minutes. In 2011, I swam a race on Lake Acworth and came in fourth. My best race was on Lake Lanier in 2011. It was a 2K race in two loops. When I got through the first loop, I could see a woman ahead of me, so I made that second half a full-on race and came in first place for women.

Afterward, I was hurting all over, but my 6-year-old daughter was cheering on the sidelines. My most important role is mom, but I think it’s good for her to see that her mom is also a lawyer and swimmer.

What’s different about open water swimming?

Everything. There are no lanes, no ropes and you can’t see your end point. It’s like switching from running track to cross-country—a whole different set of challenges. I train from our summer house on Lake Oconee on the weekends, but I always have to have someone with a paddle board swim with me. Distance swimming requires more upper body strength than sprinting, which relies on your legs. Weather is also a factor. I just ended my season because it’s too cold to get in the lake. And it’s a little bit scary.

What’s the scary part?

I can’t help but think about the fish and creatures that are below. I keep my eyes shut when I put my head in the water. The scariest race I swam was on Lake Crane in Orlando. Part of it was marshy and I couldn’t help worrying about alligators.

Did you have a plan?

To swim really fast. I figured the best way to avoid alligators was to swim faster than the guy next to me.

Does swimming make you a better lawyer?

Yes, it makes me a more confident person. Swimming in new environments and circumstances gives me more confidence and better coping skills when I enter the courtroom.