Meg Stanley swam at Illinois Wesleyan University in the 2013-2017 seasons and was a National Champion in the 500 Yard Free. She now teaches 8th grade and is the head coach in a prominent summer swim league in Kansas City. She shares her perspective on being a D III athlete and what really makes a team.
“Wait. You swim?”
Although I’ve heard this many times throughout my life, one particular instance left me dumbfounded. In a green cap and gown at my college graduation, a fellow student, friend, and former athlete asked me this question.
“Yeah, actually,” I responded.
I wasn’t about to confront him about how ridiculous this was, him being a friend and all, I just look back on this and I laugh. A situation that athletes, especially those at small schools, know too well, will forever be a part of my final day as a college student.
Being a swimmer and a college athlete has been a defining part of my identity.
Like many college athletes, I trained my twenty hours a week (alright, probably more), but spent countless more hours thinking about training.
Call it an obsession, but I chose to live in the water and breathe in chlorine for about six months a year. I’ve recently reflected on what drove this addiction, an addiction that I can’t seem to accept is in the past.
Swimming at a small, Division III university came with its frustrations.
My scholarship to school was purely academic, and, referencing the graduation anecdote, “glory” wasn’t exactly what I was chasing in my athletic career.
At my senior signing day in high school, less people had heard of the school that I chose than have stepped on the moon.
Yet, there are thousands of college athletes around the country who sacrifice hours of their weeks and the “typical” college experience to better themselves. These athletes will never be featured on Sports Center Top 10, or gain national recognition. In my opinion, this does not diminish ones athletic accomplishments at all, because I don’t believe that the media reflects the reality of the athlete experience.
The media often shows scenes of team excitement.
You can picture it- the celebrations and pregame rituals that kids across the country mimic with their friends. It’s intriguing and inspirational, and gives me chills every time.
But when you take glory, attention and fame out of athletics, you are left with the basics: a group of people (a team) being led to improve in their ability (by a coach).
The way the media portrays sports is not what really makes us addicted to improving, and my time in college swimming allowed me to witness the truth behind athletic growth.
Don’t get me wrong, of course I have dreamed of standing on the Olympic podium, national anthem playing, crying harder than Ryan Held did in Rio.
The media frequently fails to capture the tiny moments.
It’s the small stories that make a team — most of which occur in less than ten seconds: a tap on the shoulder in between reps, or a nod to a teammate, drenched in sweat, who is struggling to keep up. My college team could not have survived without consistent support. Taking the breath and energy to encourage your teammates in a split second of rest means a lot. To be honest, it’s sacrifice, and sacrifice builds a team.
Coaches sacrifice more for their athletes than the media cares to cover.
My senior year of college, I was student teaching in the fall, meaning my morning practices needed to start at 5:15 instead of 6 am. There was no hesitation, and no discussion. My coaches just made it happen.
These morning practices were not even close to glamorous. They often involved silence for the first half hour or so until we could form words.
It was a freezing February morning at 6 a.m., and I was just beginning a killer practice. I wasn’t feeling it. I was on the verge of tears. I was faltering, I was about to fall off pace, and nationals was a month away. In between each rep, my assistant coach posted a sheet of paper on the starting block next to my lane with encouraging quotes and images- stupid ones, I might add, but there we were. The sun wasn’t out, the streets were covered with ice, but we had work to do.
My head coach? She never doubted me. Not once. That doesn’t occur in one moment. I felt her confidence in every set, of every practice, of every day for four years. The media only captures the celebration, but true athletes understand what coaches sacrifice and give to make those moments happen.
These aren’t things that can be easily captured.
They aren’t sexy or intriguing to the average viewer — but it’s the truth. The issue with the media is its obsession with emotionally heightened moments — ones that can be included in advertisements or on replay. These are not the moments that form a team, though. Unyielding support, as mundane as it may translate on TV, runs deep through any successful team.
I have no doubt that coaches and teams lift each other up daily in every program across the country. In DIII sports, though, internal encouragement is paramount to the success of its athletes, because external recognition is not guaranteed, nor is it expected.
Therefore, we cling to the moments that build us up daily, instead of striving for the temporary euphoria that comes with a major, high profile win.
I finished my college swimming career swimming faster than I ever could have imagined.
As an underdog, I won the 500 freestyle at nationals. It was a brilliant night, probably the best night of my life. But no one that hears about that night, or even sees the photos, will understand it like my team and my coaches, who saw the daily grind. Who were there for the early morning sweat and tears.
When I reflect on my senior year, I get most nostalgic looking back on the little things. Without the little things, my win wouldn’t have mattered. Without my team and coaches, my win wouldn’t have happened.
I had the privilege of experiencing athletics in its purest form- where team and atmosphere and support are undeniably the most exciting part of participating.
The media can be misleading. It rarely shows where the true work happens, and where the true team is built. Media attention does not correlate with personal success, and a lack of recognition should not imply a lack of accomplishment.
My collegiate swimming career came to a close as I was standing in line, waiting to file into a commencement ceremony with my peers. Although my classmate didn’t have a clue, I knew what I accomplished.
More importantly, I recognized the reality of how I was able to succeed: a string of tiny moments, built up overtime, by teammates and coaches alike, without which, my media-worthy moments wouldn’t have mattered.