After narrowly missing out on the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Teams, Ashley Twichell finally accomplished her goal of making the Olympic Team for 2020 in the 10k open water race. That dream has been deferred for a year as the Olympics have been rescheduled due to Coronavirus concerns, but she has every intent of competing next year.
Here’s a look at how she got started, why she keeps swimming and some of the challenges she faces as a professional swimmer.
How did you start swimming, and what has kept you going all these years?
When I first began swimming over twenty years ago, I certainly never thought it would one day become my career. My parents had me learn how to ‘swim’ at the age of 2 solely for the purpose of becoming water safe. I joined a swim team at the age of 4 because I wanted to be just like my older siblings, and I continued with it for the friendships and because of my genuine love for the water. As I became older, another factor became the primary driving force behind my swimming career, and continues to be so today: the desire and ambition to push myself to be the very best that I can possibly be.
What have been some of the highlights of your swimming career?
As with most every athlete’s career, mine has been filled with its fair share of highs and lows. Swimming has given me so many unbelievable friendships – with teammates, coaches, and competitors alike. Swimming has afforded me amazing opportunities to travel to six of the seven continents, where I’ve been fortunate to experience numerous cultures and create relationships with people all over the world. Swimming was a huge part of my amazing four years at Duke University. I’ve won multiple national titles, and am a five-time World Championship medalist.
What have been some of the setbacks?
On the flip side, I’ve struggled through an ongoing shoulder injury for 10+ years, including a surgery in 2014, 10 months before the 2015 Open Water Olympic Trials. I’ve come extremely close to qualifying for an Olympic team, narrowly missing out (twice). The disappointment felt when just barely missing a goal you’ve been working so hard for so long is difficult to put into words or quantify, and some would say that’s reason enough not to try again.
What pushes you to chase your goals after failing?
Competing, and medaling, at the Olympics is still a goal of mine, even though I’ve previously fallen short. It is the fear of failure that stops many from chasing dreams, from whole-heartedly pursuing goals, from taking risks. But I believe that there is only one failure we should fear, and that is the failure of not giving it your all. I’ve committed myself to my goal, my dream, my vision, and I have and will give it everything I’ve got. I know that if I do all of this and still ‘fall short’ of the ultimate goal, I have not failed.
What would you like to do after swimming?
Ever since I graduated college, I have taken my swimming career year by year. Initially, when I decided to keep swimming post-collegiately, I believed I would just swim through the summer of 2011 – and here I am, in 2019, still competing! I’ve always told myself that as long as I am still loving the training and competing and able to support myself, I’ll keep at it. I am also someone who really does better when living in the moment, and so to be completely honest, I do not have a concrete plan for when I retire from swimming. I know that if I think and stress too much about that, it will affect my swimming negatively. That being said, I do have two strong passions that I am excited to pursue when that time comes.
The first is teaching children (or people of any age) how to swim. This is actually something I have been doing, in some capacity, since I was a junior in high school, but am excited at the prospect of devoting much more time to it once I am done swimming competitively. For the past several summers, I have been giving swim lessons to both ‘learn-to-swim’ kids, as well as year-round swimmers who are looking for technique advice. While I enjoy both types, I really find myself gravitating towards the learn-to-swim. I was fortunate enough to learn how to swim before I could even walk, and for a while, I thought that was the norm. However, I quickly realized just how many people CANNOT swim, and I want to do everything in my power to change that, one person at a time. I have such a love and passion for the water, and I want to pass that on to others. More importantly, I want every kid (and person) out there to be water-safe. My husband and I have discussed plans to open up a swim school once I am done competing, and the thought of how many lives that could change really excites and motivates me.
Talk about your passion for sports psychology.
I majored in psychology at Duke University, and some of my favorite classes were the ones with our sports psychologist, so much so that my senior year, I began meeting with him weekly for personal sessions. My first three years of school, I had a great ACCs and a mediocre NCAAs. My senior year, I finally had a great NCAAs, and I credit much of this to the help I received and work I did with Greg Dale (sports psychologist).
Athletes work so hard and so long on training their bodies, and sometimes neglect the important of training our mind. While I do think we have made great strides in the mental side of training, I believe there is still a long ways to go. I believe there is still, at times, a stigma associated with seeing a mental health professional (in whatever realm it may be), and I want to do my part in erasing that.
What is one of the biggest challenges you face as a professional swimmer?
I have found that one of the biggest challenges as a professional swimmer is the uncertainty and/or insecurity regarding funding. Funding from USA Swimming, as well as receiving health insurance, is based off performance at certain competitions. Therefore, if you don’t place as needed in order to qualify for funding and/or health insurance, there is nothing you can really do about it, and that is scary. Thinking about trying to secure funding leading up to an important competition isn’t ideal, and can be anxiety and stress-inducing.
I also have to do a lot of physical therapy, massage therapy and maintenance to keep my shoulder healthy, and insurance doesn’t cover these things, which can get costly.
In addition, my ‘home base’ is in North Carolina, where I live with my husband. However, depending on the time of year and meets, the club team I primarily train with isn’t always on the same schedule as me, or doing what I need to be doing. Thus, I supplement my training in NC with training trips out to California and Colorado, typically with Coach Bill Rose. These trips can get expensive as well.
To learn how the USA Swimming Foundation is helping build champions like Ashley, please visit usaswimmingfoundation.org.