Comparing My Rookie Season Swimming for WashU with My Rookie Year Helping Launch Astronauts Into Space

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The rookie year of any athlete is often looked back at and over analyzed. Were they a complete bust? Are there hints of greatness hidden beneath all of that adjustment? The amazing thing about the first season is that you never really know what you’re going to get. For me, I look back at my rookie year with fondness, not because of the outcome, but because of the struggle it took to get there. 

As a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, collegiate swimming was a whole different animal. Since my high school didn’t have a men’s swim team, I was forced to swim on a club team year round. In club swimming, there is always the next big meet to train for. Every competition, I was physically and mentally ready to race. In swimming, we like to call this being “tapered”. When you’re tapered, the long events don’t seem so long, the races don’t seem to hurt, and you swim very fast. 

This was the exact opposite of how you race for the majority of the time in college. From lifting weights for the first time, to higher yardage and intensity practices, the increased workload took its toll. In college, you can only taper 2-3 times in a season in order to maintain your fitness level, which means all those early season duel meets were very much un-tapered races. This was new to me. In the fall semester, my times were the slowest they had been in years, and my confidence slipped with it. I was used to swimming fully rested and winning races. Instead, I was racing with a broken down body and finishing last.

I might have quit swimming that first semester, but my coaches and teammates never stopped believing I would turn it around. In a small meet where we usually swim off events, my coach put me in my best, hoping we could generate some momentum moving forward. It worked. The time was no better than it was earlier in the season, but I managed to win the race. I think that was the turning point. All of those races in the beginning of the season weren’t about going best times, they were about standing up and racing the guy next to you, getting your hand on the wall first, no matter how ugly it is. At that rinky-dink meet, with a time that meant nothing, I proved to myself I could win again. After not scoring a single point at a duel meet in November, I went on to win the Division 3 100 yard breaststroke national title as a rookie, setting a new meet record in the process. 

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On my first day at Aerojet Rocketdyne, I reflected on how similar it felt as a freshman. I was no longer working with cookie cutter examples and purely theoretical engineering textbooks. This was actual rocket science. I had been assigned to work on the RS-25 liquid rocket engine program, the core engines designed to propel NASA’s Space Launch System, with American astronauts, back to the moon and on to Mars. Rocket engines are complex, and the RS-25 is extremely so. At first, I was overwhelmed with how much information there was to learn and how much responsibility was given to me. Having that experience as a freshman, and knowing what the end outcome was, I dove into work headfirst, fully comfortable with making some mistakes along the way. 

As a freshman in athletics, you are gifted with an immediate family that has all gone through the same trials of a rookie season. They know how hard the transition can be, and are there for you every step of the way. In industry, there is no better resource than your teammates and coworkers. At Aerojet Rocketdyne, we have engineers that are regarded by others in industry as the top in their field. Although it might be more intimidating than approaching one of your teammates after practice, these individuals are more than happy to share their own experiences and failures. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, most likely, someone has gone through the same thing you have.

Perhaps the most important trait an athlete can have is perseverance to constantly improve, even in spite of recent failure. As an engineer, there is always more to learn. The minute you open yourself up to a new subject, you realize how much you actually don’t know. This constant drive for improvement that I developed as an athlete is essential at Aerojet Rocketdyne, where our job is to put American astronauts into space safely and reliably. As evidenced by the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters, complacency in this industry is unforgiving. 

I never again won a national title after my freshman year, finishing second in the 100-yard breaststroke three consecutive times. I did come close, a total of 0.03 seconds between standing on the top of that podium again. But I never got back there. Many people felt pity for me. Some said it was just bad timing. Others said I was a one and done. But to me, those three, second place finishes taught me more about myself than the lone national title ever could. They taught me to be resilient. They remind me everyday of the passion swimming gave me. I may no longer be an athlete, but my experience as a collegiate swimmer is with me wherever I go in life; it has prepared me to meet every challenge head on with passion, resilience and an irrationality that will allow me to achieve my highest goals.