After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and a second near miss in as many quads, Ashley Twichell – with five international medals (including two golds) – realized that she came close to making the team rather than narrowly missing it.
That confidence showed up not only at this year’s Open Water Nationals, where she won the 10k and made the World Championships team in Hungary, but also at U.S. Nationals, where she finished third and was just seconds away from making the World Championshiops team in the 1500.
She talks about the satisfaction and pride she has taken from staying with the sport in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday (actually, Wednesday, factoring in the holiday!).
1. So are you ready for Worlds later this month?
Ashley: I’m definitely really excited for Worlds. This is my third Worlds and first time competing in the 10k at Worlds. I’m just really proud and looking forward to representing the U.S. in the 5k and 10k.
2. Team Santa Monica’s Dave Kelsheimer as head coach, and of course your current coach Rich DeSelm from North Carolina – pretty cool crew?
Ashley: We have a really fun group of coaches, athletes and a great staff -- I am really excited about that part of it. Haley Anderson is still such a great swimmer and being on a team with her is amazing. The men and women swimmers on the team are really wonderful. I worked with Dave in 2015 when he was one of our coaches at Worlds, and I saw him at a race we did more recently in the Cayman Islands, so I had some practices with him. Rich going is just great. And of course Chip Peterson competing for the U.S. is just wonderful because I have been training with Chip, who is a very close personal friend, and the UNC team.
3. Getting excited or even nervous for Worlds?
Ashley: I don’t get too nervous until the race is closer. We (left) for Slovenia (Monday) and team camp, and we’re really excited about that.
4. You mentioned Chip – he’s one of the easiest people I have met to root for, isn’t he?
Ashley: Absolutely. We have been training together, starting in April at UNC, but with the same club team prior to that, so for 2½ years now. I have known him quite a while. I knew him when I was at Duke, and he has always impressed me. He’s been on the open water team going back a long time. He broke out when he was young and was part of that first group that really brought some good attention to the sport. And he’s also been accepted to medical school at UNC, so he’ll have that starting in August. I have always looked up to him, his work ethic, talent and character. We have a lot of fun together. We work hard, but we can enjoy it. Plus, we’re both on the (laughs) older end now, so we hit those practices where we aren’t feeling so good, and we encourage each other. To head to Budapest together is something very special.
5. We started talking so long ago, and when you graduated Duke it seemed like you thought you’d maybe swim a couple of months. How amazing is the career you have put together since then as a pro?
Ashley: First of all, thank you! When I graduated Duke, I really had plans to go past Open Water Select Camp that I had been invited to. I moved to Mission Viejo and wanting to swim through that summer of 2011, but I certainly hadn’t thought past that. But then I made the U.S. National Team at the end of it, and things kind of snowballed from there. I had three amazing years at Mission Viejo. I credit coach (Bill) Rose for my first National Team, my first international medal. A lot of swimmers get burned out near the end of or after college, but coach Rose and the Nadadores, made it so much fun for me. It was just a special place to be. That team out there is pretty unique, and I feel pretty blessed. Once a Nadadore, always a Nadadore, and I still talk to coach Rose weekly if not daily.
6. Last week, there was a shift in the pool toward more college swimmers making this team, but with the unique demands, travel and events of open water, does that make it more conducive to pros perhaps?
Ashley: I think it can in some cases. There’s a lot of travel in there, which can be difficult for high school and college athletes. And I’ve seen a lot of data supporting that endurance athletes don’t peak until they are 30 – marathon runners are known for that. You have seen some swimmers like that as well, competing to and beyond 30, yet still going faster. I’ve found this year in particular that I have not hit my peak yet – including in the pool – and can still go faster.
7. Missing the team barely in 2016, compared to how it felt in 2012, why was the reaction so different this time?
Ashley: That’s been huge for me. When I missed in 2012 that was really tough. Looking back on it now, I still don’t know if I ever got over it. I had a rough 2013, and part of that was from not processing it and going through what had happened with missing the 2012 team.
8. Night and day though with 2016, isn’t it?
Ashley: This past (open water) Nationals, doing so well, that was huge for me, in part because I missed the Olympic team again but I was able to move on a little quicker. I’m not ever going to say it’s easy to miss making a team because it is not. I do this because I love it. And it’s a lot more enjoyable if you look at bright side of things. I can focus on the fact that I missed two Olympic teams by narrow margins, or I can look at it as I’ve competed around the world and been to six of the seven continents and have friends in so many different countries. I had six or seven of my coaches as guests at my wedding, which is so cool. All the relationships I have formed will outlast anything else.
9. What a great pool swim in Indy last week – third in 1500. How great is that?
Ashley: I was happy with my time (16:10). A few months ago, I had no intent of going to World Team Trials after I made the team in the 5k and 10k. In fact, I had actually decided not to go, to focus on my open water training and stay home to rest and spend time with my husband. But then two weeks before Indianapolis, I talked it over with my coaches and was a maybe. Then I got the urge to go and race the mile.
10. You literally decided that last minute?
Ashley: I booked a flight (laughs) with travel insurance because I didn’t know until the day before if I was going to fly out to Indy. I flew out Thursday and raced Saturday. But up until Wednesday night, I hadn’t made a final decision. My focus was and is open water. My training stayed exactly the same – I didn’t do any specific training for (pool) Nationals – which makes the time there mean more, and I am proud of my effort.
11. So you get there and how did it feel?
Ashley: I go there and started seeing friends, which immediately made the trip more than worth it no matter what! For the swim itself on Saturday morning, it wasn’t a great feeling and I had some soreness, but I was still able to do a best time. And I’ve still never done a mile shaved and tapered, so that’s something I hope to do at some point.
12. Seeing so many friends what a cool highlight though?
Ashley: Oh, it really was – it always is. Maybe I just appreciate it more every year as I get older. But just to see so many friends, and so many of my coaches. My coach from Duke, Rich, was there, Coach Rose, just all of these coaches from my past who played such important roles in what I have done, what I hope to do, and who I am, today. It was really cool to have them almost all of them there and on deck.
13. Your open water win in the 10k, was that a new strategy, of being out front for so much of the race?
Ashley: I have definitely always liked being out in front. That’s where I am most comfortable. But I have gotten to a point where I am okay not being in a spot where I want to be in a race, which is also important. I know if I’m not out front in clean water, I have a shot to finish where I want, and that’s a change from when I first started.
So in (the 10k) race, I need to go back a little to explain it. We started inviting international swimmers to our Nationals this year, which obviously benefits everyone involved and makes us better. There’s a whole lot of competition. It actually was not my strategy to break out front when I did. This Italian girl broke off, and I just kind of followed her. I looked back after we had gone 300-400 meters and was pretty shocked to see we had a lead on the pack. My thought then was, “Awesome, if the two of us do 7k together, it’ll come down to the two of us at end.” And then she stopped swimming at 5k and pulled out of the race! I thought, “Oh man, I’m about to swim a 5k alone.” I wondered if I should fall back and conserve some energy for a good finish. I made the decision to go with it and stay with the lead. That was tough physically, but moreso mentally – a pretty long hour swimming alone out there. No boats were out there – even the lead boat was with the pack. So I was pretty isolated. My mind was wandering a bit, but I tried to stay focused. I looked back twice to see people were then just focused on finishing strong.
14. And then to be so strong at pool Nationals – how was that meet, was it as incredible as it seemed on TV?
Ashley: It was awesome! That was part of why I on Wednesday... that played into it, wanting to get out there because the excitement level was so high and the swims were just incredible. New faces were making the team and some familiar faces were going really fast. People had thought since it was after an Olympic year it wouldn’t be that fast, and they were wrong, because everyone obviously got back to work after Olympic Trials or Rio depending on if they made the team. Just such impressive swims. What a great atmosphere. It was more exciting than I even expected. We’re seeing that depth, that diversity, more swimmers who are fast in every event, and that is great for the sport.
15. And to see the college swimmers stepping up and kind of taking over – though several post-grads did well – that kind of builds the sport, too, both for high school and college?
Ashley: It does. And go back to NCAAs, because that was a really fast meet for men and women. That also helped create the great scene you saw at Nationals in Indianapolis, and I think people are pretty excited to see that Team USA will be really fast in Budapest. I am certainly (laughs) by now one of the older ones, and I’m as excited as anyone at the young talent coming up – the quality and quantity. You used to wonder when someone retired if there’d be someone to take their place, or if they’d hopefully come out of retirement, but now, the number of fast swimmers is off the charts! We know there are swimmers to fill those shoes – that someone will be there to do it. Chip and I both being older, we joke about that now, because we see those kids coming up. I talk to the UNC girls who I swim with about other college girls being so fast, and they’ll tell me about rising seniors that just signed who will make NCAAs even better. It’s just unbelievable. And so good for college swimming, USA Swimming, and the sport. You can’t focus on the next one guy or girl who is going to be the next superstar, because there are going to be many of them.
16. I’ve always rooted for the University of Virginia’s Leah Smith, and now, she’s on this incredible run. You know her and swam against her, how do you assess what she’s doing?
Ashley: She is so impressive. There was a lot of talk at the meet about how impressive she is. She’s already amazing in the distance freestyles and an Olympic medalist. People think of Katie Ledecky because she truly is so dominant, but Leah is right there – and for Leah to swim that 400 IM in a 4:33 at night – definitely people were so excited talking about that. I actually saw Leah in the airport Sunday morning as we were both leaving Indy, and I told her how great it is and how proud she must be to be doing five events in Budapest.
17. What did she say? Wasn’t she exhausted?
Ashley: Yeah, she was (laughs) tired. But she’s excited. And she’s also excited she’s added a new event. That keeps it interesting, keeps it fun. Most Americans expect that from her now because she’s so talented, but I think a lot of international people are going to be surprised to see what she can do in the IM and the (shorter) freestyles. She can do it all.
18. As much attention as it got for Leah helping push Katie Ledecky, doesn’t it work the other way too -- that Katie helped push Leah to this new great level?
Ashley: Absolutely. Even for Leah at Olympic Trials last summer to be pretty close to Katie was impressive. That’s going really fast. People can’t forget that Leah is an Olympic medalist. They both push each other, in training camps and competitions. That’s awesome, how they can push each other, then work together in camp and shine together on the international stage for the United States.
19. I remember an extended period of shoulder pain for you, and then in July of 2014 you had the surgery – it’s been a lot better since?
Ashley: Surgery was definitely successful. I was actually pain-free for a while, but then six months ago I had some flare-ups. But this time I got on top of it quicker than in past. I started talking to the right people. One was Keenan Robinson of USA Swimming, who really worked with me to keep me on the right track. I am also doing physical therapy in Raleigh once or twice a week and working with a massage therapist twice a week. It’s more preventative, but it’s just so important to stay on top of it. And I think now with how things are in my life, I’m just better-equipped to handle these kinds of things, because your reaction is going to have a lot to do with how it impacts you. I used to think things like this were the end of the world and get all upset. But I now I just take a deep breath, assess my resources, and get past it.
20. Isn’t it funny how your great attitude makes this journey so much more fun – and even more successful?
Ashley: You know, from making the U.S. National Team to my first international meet, things moved pretty fast. In the last few years, I’ve been able to focus on getting everything in order and finding a way to enjoy the moments, and how all of them can improve me as a person. I think a big part of why I am continuing to swim fast and even faster this past year is because I am really happy with myself, and my life. A bad practice or bad race isn’t the end of the world, it’s just a bad race or a bad practice. There’s a better one tomorrow. I have great people around me, and to be able to even be a swimmer at this point is a dream I didn’t know it was possible. And the challenges and overcoming setbacks are, in the end, probably what shaped me the most significantly after all. So there’s a lot to be thankful for, including representing the U.S. in a couple of races at Worlds in Budapest!