By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, September 27, 2019
It wasn’t long ago that Erika Brown thought she wouldn’t take swimming any further than high school.
She’d lost her passion. Practice had become a chore. She was uninspired to push herself to accomplish more and lacked belief that she could be more than a “regular” swimmer.
“I went to (Olympic) Swim Trials in ’16 after my senior year of high school, and I was overwhelmed by the situation because I didn’t believe I belonged there,” she said. “I kind of felt like I was just going through the motions.
“Swimming had been in my life since I was 9, but I’d lost my love for the sport, and I didn’t think I could get it back.”
This all changed for Brown during her freshman year at the University of Tennessee.
She started working with Coach Matt Kredich and his staff, and collectively, they infused a renewed spirit and joy for swimming in her – and it’s been an upward ascension ever since.
Now a senior competing in her final collegiate season, Brown believes she can take her swimming to even higher levels – as in earning a roster spot on next summer’s Olympic team.
But she is also very aware that despite winning her first National title in the 50 freestyle this summer at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, the talent level in the United States in her events is incredibly high and that it will be a challenge next summer in Omaha to duplicate her results.
“I had a strong game plan (at Phillips 66 Nationals) to take the race out aggressively from the start,” she said. “I really threw myself forward in the race, got my head down and got my hand on the wall first. That’s what it takes in the 50 – it’s such a short race.
“In order to do that at Trials next summer, I’ll definitely need to use that same strategy because many of the top sprinters weren’t at Nationals this year. Nonetheless, this race has given me a significant boost in confidence. I know I belong among the top sprinters, and that will go a long way for me over the next year.”
While winning her first individual National title was fantastic, Brown said the most impactful race of this summer’s Nationals was joining forces with her Tennessee teammates to win the 400 medley relay.
For Brown, who is very much motivated and encouraged by her teammates, being part of the relay was inspiring and incredibly memorable.
“There’s nothing quite like seeing people you love and care about succeed, knowing you played a part in helping them succeed,” said Brown, a kinesiology major who will graduate from Tennessee next May. “There’s something special about seeing your teammates improve. That was definitely the highlight of the meet for me.”
It’s that team atmosphere that Brown said she knows she can rely on for support next year at Trials.
Having her teammates and biggest cheerleaders there – along with family and friends – will be a nice change from 2016 Trials when she arrived in Omaha feeling overwhelmed and uninspired to swim fast.
That won’t be the case next year – Brown is confident of that.
“Just like Nationals (this year), I will have a big group from Tennessee there competing and supporting each other; that will make a big difference for me this time,” she said. “After I graduate in May, I plan to stay in Knoxville and continue training with my coaches and teammates.
“At 2016 Trials, that was when I really realized I had lost my passion for swimming. I saw it in my attitude and in my results. I’m such a different swimmer and person this time. I’m excited to compete.”
Not only has her love for swimming returned over the past few years at Tennessee, but Brown said she also has become a much-improved swimmer.
She said being around other swimmers with the same goals and working with great coaches helped her improve her technique and strategy.
A desire to race and compete is something she’s always had. She’s just learned to channel it better – and her results have proven it’s working.
Proof of that is the fact that she improved from a 10th place finish in the 50 free at Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championships as a freshman to the NCAA runner-up in the event the next year.
“We set some very high standards at Tennessee, and that’s definitely helped me be my best self,” said Brown, who has finished as the 50 free runner-up at NCAA Championships the past two years and was the 2019 SEC Female Swimmer of the Year. “Learning more and being receptive to suggestions and coaching has also made me a better swimmer.
“I think I’ve also gained a more mature perspective about all the sacrifices that my parents made for me to get where I am in the sport. My dad lived and worked in another state while we moved to North Carolina so I could swim for a great club in Charlotte. I think I felt guilty about that in high school, and it negatively affected my swimming. Now, I really appreciate what they did for me, and I swim for them as much as I swim for myself and my teammates.”