By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Ashley Twichell has had a big month and big year already. Big for winning the BHP Aquatic Super Series Swim the Swan Race in Australia, and then claiming the Midmar mile, and then signing a deal with TYR, about which she is “quite thrilled and very thankful.” After a move from west to east coast, and an injury, she has come back better than ever, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What do you make of your swimming so far this year, particularly the two wins?
Ashley: It went really well. Australia was my first 10k since July. After World University Games in July, I took about 6 weeks off, which is by far the longest break I have ever had
2. What was the time off for?
Ashley: To heal my shoulder. I was contemplating shoulder surgery. I got a few different opinions, and decided against the surgery, and to let it heal on its own.
3 And the big move, how did that affect things?
Ashley: I switched my training around with the move to North Carolina. So competing, I was excited to see how it would go. It went really well. The mile race went really well also.
4. What was the injury?
Ashley: I have always had shoulder issues. They run in my family. My Dad has had the surgery. I have had an issue with it since high school. It got bad in college and then calmed down a little bit. When I was in California it got bad again – so bad that some days I had no range of motion and could not get in the water.
5. This went back to U.S. Open Water Nationals as well, right?
Ashley: At the 10k at Nationals, I woke up and could not move. I did the 5k, but I knew something had to be done. I could not compete as well as I wanted to, or even train. I talked to Dr. (Scott) Rodeo (USA Swimming team physician) and he was pretty confident I could train through it with proper planning and thought.
6. So the injury is a tear or not?
Ashley: I do have a partial tear in my rotator cuff – I had an MRI and they can see it – but I am able to train through it. I have done physical therapy and chiropractic work for it.
7. How tough of a call was that – surgery or not?
Ashley: When I was deciding what to do, there were pros and cons to doing surgery or not. I knew that an invasive procedure would put me out of the water for a while, and that would be as hard mentally as it was physically; especially training for open water, that would be a lot to work up to. I wanted to get to where I could manage it.
8. Does it seem to be working so far?
Ashley: I have been fortunate that it has been really good since September, minus one or two flare-ups. So just maintaining and being rigorous with my physical therapy – doing all the little things, that keep it going and allows me to manage it.
9. How has the big move been?
Ashley: It’s been absolutely amazing. California was an unbelievable 2½ years. I could not have asked from anything more from the Nadadores and Coach (Bill) Rose. I just finished, literally, writing a note to Coach Rose to say hi and thank him for everything. He has been so supportive still through texting and Facebook posts, and to have that support system really helps me.
10. That move to California was a good move at a critical time in your career, wasn’t it?
Ashley: He (Coach Rose) helped me grow and improve as a swimmer, but more importantly as a person, and I am forever grateful to him. It was hard to leave there. But I knew I was coming to a place I really loved. I have been able to go to Duke (from where she graduated), and see my friends and coaches. My four years at Duke were so great as well.
11. You have family in the northeast, but also nearby Raleigh?
Ashley: My sister just had a baby and she and her husband are close by. My niece is 4 months old so being able to see her is awesome. Family is the most important thing in life. I do have the rest of my family on the east coast, so that’s another great thing about being back.
12. New program with the new team, obviously the training fits you, correct?
Ashley: This approach to training has been so good for me. Like I said, my shoulder needed a bit of a change. And just mentally – I am 24, and I have been doing this sport for a long time – I needed a change. A change of pace was necessary. I never fell out of love with the sport, but this made me love it even more. Keeping it interesting and fun is what it is really about for me.
13. Chloe Sutton is your roommate, and another person who needed a change at this point in her life, what’s it like to have her move with you to this new opportunity?
Ashley: She’s been an unbelievable person in my life. From the first day I moved out to California, we started out as training partners – and we were amazing partners, going head to head every day in practice. Since then we have become great friends, and best friends. She’s a really special girl in so many different ways, so talented in the water and so genuine out of it. She has such a good heart. When we are practicing together, it is beneficial for both of us; she pushes me in the short stuff and I push her in the longer stuff.
14. So you are in different events completely from her at this point?
Ashley: I am focused on the open water and she is focused on the pool so we don’t have the head-to-head competition, but we are still racing every day. In fact, today we had the first “competition” we have had in a month – she was in Orlando, and I just got back in town, and we talked about how great it is to be back together again. And not just the training, but the friendship with her that I cherish.
15. For coming back from an injury and training with a new program, I cannot believe how calmed you looked before your first big race back this month – how is that possible?
Ashley: I mean, I am always pretty confident in my training; I know what I am doing, and I am a pretty hard worker. I just try to clear my mind before the race and prepare myself to go. Since September, John Payne, our coach, has been really helpful with that. I have always seen the mental side of it – how big the mental side of sports is. In college I took a class on that and saw a sports psychologist. Since September, I have focused on that even more. You train your mind, and your body will follow. I went with that mentality before the races this month.
16. So no nerves?
Ashley: I have really been blessed because I don’t get really nervous before the race – plus in a 10k, you have two hours (laughs) you are going to be thinking about it! My coach texted me before the race, “Put your mind where you want it and your body will follow,” and that became my mantra. Especially in a race like the 10k, which is so physically and mentally challenging, having your mind focused will improve your race.
17. You got to share the podium with one of the greatest people and swimmers on the planet in Haley Anderson, who was second at the 10k, pretty awesome for the American women?
Ashley: Oh yeah, that was awesome. For the American girls, it was me, Haley and Emily Brunemann, who was fifth, so it was a good performance all the way for us. Haley and I roomed together the whole time and just had a great time. Of course, Perth was unbelievable. We spent six days exploring Australia and taking it all in. That’s one of my favorite parts, how close the open water community is. People think it’s so hard because, “Oh Haley, she took the Olympic spot,” but while we compete in the water, we are really good friends, and I am so proud of what an amazing swimmer she is, and all that Emily has done and is doing. There is more to life than swimming, and these friendships will last for life. Alex Meyer was also there with us for the men’s team, so it’s great to travel the world with great friends.
18. Give us some E! insights on what it’s like living with Chloe and what you two do at home?
Ashley: We do watch some TV – we have all of our shows recorded that we watch the next day. We like the Ellen show – I absolutely love Ellen DeGeneres. It’s funny because our schedules are so in sync, so we go to hot yoga together, make dinner, and head home the same time. We have more time since we’re not swimming twice every day. We’re heading to the beach very soon again. We’re more boring (laughs) than people might think. We’re both happy, which makes us swim fast, too.
19. Probably harder for club coaches to let swimmers they have had from the get-go move on and change, but Chloe’s move seems like a perfectly timed and needed switch after all the success she has had as a two-time Olympian, but getting out on her own – though I think it’s perfect she has someone like you to help guide her being so far away and new to this – and finding her way in the world, right?
Ashley: Like all of us, she has been swimming since a young age. She just needed a refreshed look at swimming. To have a kind of change – not saying the situation we were in was bad at all, because we both benefitted from it tremendously and I wouldn’t change my two years there – is what she needed, and in more ways than one. I think being out on her own has been huge for her, being independent and taking more autonomy of her swimming and other areas of her life has been really good for her.
20. A professional swimmer, and we’re almost within the two-year window of Rio – not a bad life still in the pool, considering a couple of years ago when you left Duke you were unsure if you would continue swimming, correct?
Ashley: It is, it absolutely is a wonderful life. I feel so blessed I am able to pursue my dreams with a great sponsor in TYR and amazing people. My family continues to be so supportive of me that I cannot be thankful enough; when I am in Australia or South Africa, I can log into Facebook or just look at my phone and see all the support from them, and that is such a blessing. I get to travel the world with amazing people, and I could not ask for anything better. I take it day by day, pinching myself, to remember not to take anything for granted. What I get to do for a living right now is pretty unique, and very special. I remember every day to be thankful for all of this, and to make the most of it.