By BRYNN BOYER
Last March, when other students were packing for cruises and trips to Mexico, sophomore Michelle Sawyer found out that she would be spending her spring break at the NCAA Division III National Championships for swimming.
“I didn’t find out until a week and half before we were supposed to leave,” the 20-year-old Psychology major said with a laugh.
At the Capital Athletic Conference meet the month before, Sawyer had made the “B cut” for Nationals, meaning that her scores weren’t high enough to automatically place her on the National team. Instead she had to wait to see if she would get an invitation from a national panel of reviewers.
“You just have to train like you’re going,” she explained.
Little more than a week before the best college swimmers would compete in Houston, Texas, Sawyer went online and saw her name posted as well as six other Mary Washington women swimmers.
“I was supposed to go to California to see my best friend so when I found out I made Nationals, I had to give up the trip,” Sawyer said. “I don’t look at it as a sacrifice though,” she quickly added, “just a huge honor.”
As the only freshman on the team who made the National cut, Sawyer didn’t know what to expect from the experience.
“It was definitely intimidating because I was the only freshman [from Mary Washington]. Everyone else knew the routine,” said Sawyer. “It’s every kids dream to go the National Championships. The whole time I kept thinking ‘I’m in the same area as the best swimmers in the country! I don’t deserve to be here.’”
To cope with the nervousness, Sawyer and her teammates invented ways to stay calm.
“We’d listen to this rap song before every event,” she said. “I can’t remember the name of it. It’s the one that goes ‘Whooo, Whooo!’ You know the one I mean?” she asked while trying to remember the name of their ritual song.
“Oh, this was really funny,” she continued, “Every day, another swimmer and I would ride the elevator in the hotel all the way up to the 28th floor and all the way back down. I’m sure people on the street could see us dancing and singing in this glass elevator!”
When it came time for her first event, she “was never more nervous before a race,” though she ended up swimming a personal best and beating the other Mary Washington swimmer, who was a senior.
Sawyer’s top finish was in a team relay event in which they placed ninth. Not good enough to podium, but enough to earn the honors of being declared an All-America.
To earn All-American status at the National Championships, the individual swimmer or relay team must place 16th or higher in an event. All of the Mary Washington relay teams went All-American and Sawyer earned the honor three times.
In addition to having the honor of being the only freshman on the team to go to Nationals and being a three time All-American, Sawyer was also the only freshman to be named an Academic All-American last year because she maintained a 3.5 or better grade point average.
Sawyer admitted with a chuckle, “I guess I set the bar pretty high last year.”
Despite the fact that the words ‘All-American’ is often listed after her name now, Sawyer insists that the experience, though humbling, doesn’t define her college life.
“I don’t know if the experience has really changed me. I mean, I love swimming but I don’t identify myself by it,” she said after a long pause. “It was just a big honor.”
“I identify myself as a Christian, that’s who I am,” she explained further. “Everything else falls behind that. God gave me this talent and he’s enabled me to do it well.”
Sawyer emphasized that although swimming takes up a large amount of time, normally around 15 hours a week of practice during the season plus weekend meets, it doesn’t keep her from being involved in other aspects of college life.
“I’ve had to learn to manage my time to do other things,” she said.
So far this year, Michelle has made a national cut in one event and her goal is to make it to Nationals again, this time in Miami, Ohio.
“I had an academically hard semester in the fall so I’m just going to do the best I can,” she said.
After such a perfect season last year, Sawyer admitted that the pressure of repeating last year’s success sometimes affects her.
“Whenever I start to get hard on myself, I listen to my favorite song, Casting Crown’s ‘Who Am I’.”
She paused and repeated part of the lyrics, “’Not because of who I am, but because of what you’ve done. Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who you are.’”
It would be easy to let an experience like competing in the Nationals become justification for walking tall, however Sawyer doesn’t set herself apart from the rest of her team.
“I just want to stress that everything I’ve accomplished, my teammates have been doing just as great things,” she stressed. “It’s an honor to even be part of this program. It’s just phenomenal.”