By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, September 6, 2019
Photo courtesy of North Carolina State Athletics
In many ways, it’s been a dream year for Makayla Sargent.
Not only did she earn All-America honors in the 400 individual medley at NCAAs in the spring, but she won the same event at World University Games and very recently – as in this past Wednesday – she was named to her first National Team.
As she enters her second season at North Carolina State (she spent her freshman campaign at Florida) and looks forward to next year’s Olympic Trials, Sargent isn’t afraid to look back at where she’s been but is keeping an eye on what she still wants.
As in becoming an Olympian.
“It’s (Being named to the National Team) a dream come true for me, and I’m swimming at a level now that I’m excited I’ve reached; it still doesn’t feel real to me,” she said.
Having started league swimming at age 7, Sargent didn’t really take swimming seriously until she was 11 – and then it was full-on commitment.
Three times a week, she and her mom drove from her hometown of Bellport, N.Y., an hour and a half to Victor for practice. On the other two days, she worked out on her own with instruction from her coach at the local YMCA – all the while learning to become more and more independent as a swimmer and competitor.
“I won’t lie – on those days when I trained alone, I missed having my teammates to train with and push me, but it was also really good for me to be responsible for myself,” she said. “It was during this time, I really started to push myself like never before and where I started to enjoy the sport like never before. This was a turning point for me in my swimming.
Her sophomore year, Sargent moved to Victor and lived with a host family so she could focus on her swimming without the constant travel. She said living away from her family, while extremely difficult at times, also forced her to become more self-reliant.
By her junior year, her family – including younger sisters who also swim – moved to Victor so they could all be together, but she never lost sight of how that year away positively impacted her life.
However, when she moved to Gainesville, Fla., for her freshman year at Florida, Sargent said she never felt good about being so far away from her family and, most likely because of this, didn’t feel like a part of the team in a way that made her feel comfortable.
So, at the conclusion of the year, she transferred to N.C. State to be closer to her family – and she now knows she has found her home away from home in Raleigh.
“I love it here; funny thing is, when I was competing in high school, I never made it to any meets in North Carolina, so I didn’t know anything about the state,” said Sargent, who starts her final collegiate season in a few weeks. “It’s so beautiful here, and I love living so close to downtown Raleigh.
“There are so many great restaurants, and there is a lot to do. And I love my teammates and coaches. I feel like this environment has been great for me personally and as a swimmer.”
While living a more comfortable, content life in Raleigh has positively impacted her swimming, Sargent said there’s more to her improvement that resulted in a gold medal at WUGs this summer in Naples, Italy, than that.
Working daily with Wolfpack Head Coach Braden Holloway and his assistant coaches has helped her improve all four of her strokes and ultimately, drop time.
She said she loves how open they are to her ideas and how they include her in her training plans. The entire experience has amped up her confidence during training, and that has translated to competitions.
And because the individual medley involves all four strokes, it’s important for Sargent to continue to fine-tune each one to build speed and momentum throughout her race – although breaststroke – the third leg in the IM – is her favorite.
“It’s the one that always came easiest, most naturally, for me, plus it’s a pivotal leg for me in my race because I prefer to have a strong back half and a fast breaststroke sets me up for a strong finish,” said Sargent, who finished 11th in the 400 IM last March at NCAAs.
“I’ve also really learned to swim my own race. It’s something Coach (Holloway) really stresses in practice – along with treating practice like a meet as far as racing goes. In a race like the IM where different swimmers have different strengths in different strokes, maintaining my own race strategy is very important.”
Sargent said she experienced this during the 400 IM final at WUGs.
While she said she’s worked to make her butterfly a stronger leg, at the halfway point of the race, she was sitting steady in third or fourth place, and she knew she still had the breast to make a move and then a strong free to take it home.
“I never panicked while other swimmers had the lead through the fly and back legs because I knew my strong leg was still to come,” she said. “As a younger swimmer, I often let what other swimmers were doing push me too much and then I didn’t have enough for the back half of my race. Now, I stay true to my race strategy, and it works.”
While Sargent said she plans to focus her energy and attention on her final season at NC State – being the best teammate and leader she can be – for the next several months, she knows the next Olympic Trials isn’t far off.
Because she and her teammates train a mixture of short and long course, she knows once her NCAA season is over, she will be in a very good place for Trials.
Having been a spectator at 2012 Trials and then a young, relatively inexperienced competitor in 2016, Sargent said she knows next year’s Trials will be different for her because her perspective and expectations will be much different.
Still, regardless of what happens in Omaha, she said she knows if she gives it all she has, she’ll be happy with her outcomes.
“I’ve always been a very competitive person, and I love racing; it’s what drives me in swimming,” she said. “I know everything that I’ve experienced over the past few years – Trials, NCAAs, WUGs, Nationals – will all be very beneficial for me when I swim at Trials next summer. In 2016, I was a bit overwhelmed by the experience – and my event was on the first day, so I didn’t really have much time to adjust to the enormity of Trials.
“When I step on the blocks now, I am ready to compete. I know my own expectations will be different next year, but I also know as long as I swim my own race and compete at my highest level, whatever happens is what’s meant to happen, and I’ll be happy. But, of course, I want to make the team. Being an Olympian has always been a dream of mine, and now it feels more attainable than ever before.”