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#TGW: The Sum of Their Experiences

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

THE FLATS – There are all kinds of feelings a student-athlete feels when the finish line is in sight.

There’s excitement and anticipation of getting to the end. There’s also a kind of bittersweet feeling that comes along in reaching that end.

Georgia Tech swimming and diving’s senior class can see the finish line of the athlete portion, as their final home meet began Friday and concludes Saturday against the University of Denver Pioneers. In two weeks there is the Auburn Invite, then, after that, ACC and NCAA Championships. Of course, on the student side there is May 3 and 4, the days of Spring Commencement.

This time, during which the team members prepare to “get out” and get out of the pool as Yellow Jackets for the last time, not only has been inspirational but cathartic as it’s allowed them to look back at just how far they’ve come from when they were wet-behind-the-ears freshmen.

While each student-athlete has his or her own unique story, there are definite points where all of their careers intersect.

One aspect upon where they just about they all agree is that time was of the essence. This wasn’t about their splits – not that that wasn’t important – as much as how they were able to get the most out their time. Swimming played a big part in that.

“Academically it’s taught me time management and discipline,” said Colt Williamson, who holds the school’s all-time mark in the 50 free and nine all-time top-10 marks. “If I didn’t have swimming and I had an 8 a.m. class, I’m not sure I’d be able to go to it every single day. I think I’d sleep in. So it’s taught me discipline. I’m up and ready so I go to all my classes I need to.”

“Being in this sport, you have to basically schedule all your classes around practice, you have to set aside 20 hours a week for practice,” agreed Joseph Portillo, who holds two all-time top-10 marks (eighth in the 200 breast, ninth in the 100 back). “That’s 20 hours that if you’re not an athlete, you would be studying or preparing in some way. So you have to make tough decisions based on, ‘If I want to hang out with my friends this day’ or ‘maybe I need to crack down on this assignment because I know I have a big meet coming up.’”

Portillo added that time management was one of two key facets in making it through Georgia Tech academically and athletically.

“This sounds a little cliché, but determination, grit, and tenacity,” he said. “Training at a Division I level is straining sometimes. The classes here at Georgia Tech are too. I’m a mechanical engineering major and it’s the biggest major at this school. It’s a very well-renowned program and as such, the classes are going to be fairly rigorous. You have to dedicate a lot of time and sometimes it’s going to seem like it’s too much. Learning how to push through practice, push through maybe a bad couple of practices or a bad stretch of meets, learning, ‘I have an end goal in sight. I need to keep working on that. No matter how I feel right now I have to keep working toward that.’

“It’s the same way in classes,” he added. “If I know I want to achieve this grade in this class but I have a bad assignment here, a bad test here. I know I have to re-evaluate what I need to do to get better. Do I need to study more? Do I need to talk to the professors? Do I need to do some extra problems outside? Just making adjustments along the way to keep that end goal in sight.”

Of course, credit for being able to adjust, push through and prevail – in the class or the pool – goes to the student-athletes themselves, but having the proper support system has been crucial.

That camaraderie is one of the things that will be missed the most upon graduation or, in the case of those that attend grad school, the end of eligibility.

“I would say the team and the relationships I’ve made,” said diver and team captain Matt Casillas, who holds the school record in the 3-meter and has top-10’s in the 1-meter and platform. “Even though it seems like sometimes after a bad meet or something that that’s what’s important, now none of that has remained relevant. When I look back on it, it’s mainly just the memories that I’ve made along the way and the friends that I’ll keep for life.”

For Williamson, the school was the thing.

“I think (coming to Georgia Tech) was one of the best decisions I made in my life,” he said. “The way I saw it was ‘try to go to the best school swimming can get you into because swimming’s only going to be there for so long and, now that I’m done with swimming, I’m going to finish with a Georgia Tech degree. That, to me, sounds so much better than maybe going to a college specifically for swimming and not knowing what to do afterwards. Now I know.”

Portillo also knew Tech was right right away.

“I was on my trip here, me and some of the other recruits and all of the hosts, had gone to get like frozen yogurt or something and me and Noah Harasz both saw something happen in the street,” he recalled. “Our reaction to it, we both said out loud the exact same phrase. Then, two hours later, a similar thing, we said the exact same phrase in reaction to something at the exact same time. It’s like, ‘Two jinx moments? This is destiny. I’m supposed to be here.’ Our personalities, our senses of humor, the way that we act in general was pretty similar for me with almost everybody here.”

Iris Wang never claimed to be on the same wavelength as her teammates. In fact, she barely spoke the same language when she first arrived in Atlanta from Xiamen, China. But over the four years on The Flats, she learned what’s special about being part of Georgia Tech swimming and diving. She credited her teammates for several major changes and improvements.

“Communication, teamwork, working with people, understanding people, having empathy, leadership and perseverance, not being afraid to show your personality,” said Wang, who has set seven program records (50, 100, and 200 free, 200, 400, and 800 free relay, and 400 medley relay) and holds 28 all-time top-10 marks. “At first, when I got here, my English wasn’t very good, so if I wasn’t on the swimming team, it would have been very hard for me to improve my oral communication and make friends. I think swimming helped me a lot in that aspect.”

Sara Gilbert didn’t have to travel nearly as far as Wang to get to Georgia Tech, as she was an Atlanta native but the daughter of Virginia Tech Swimming parents – her mom being the first women’s swimming All-American in Hokies history. She found that excelling at swimming and in the classroom actually went hand-in-hand. It just took a little time to get into the routine.

“I think after my first two semesters I felt much better with workload and managing my schedule and school itself,” said Gilbert, a two-year captain, who holds three all-time top-10 marks (100 back, eighth, 200 back, ninth, and 400 medley relay, 10th). “You could say practice is just like another class. You’re getting ready for a big meet, studying, basically working on technique, skill, pace and stuff like that. There’s definitely a parallel. You kind of get in a rhythm of class, study, test, that kind of thing. It’ll be weird not having that schedule every day.”

Former captain Rodrigo Correia similarly found a major correlation between his approach and success in the pool and success in the classroom.

“I think one helps the other because you’ve got to put hard work into school and you’ve got to put hard work into swimming to do well,” said Correia, who holds six all-time program records (200 free, 100 and 200 back, 800 free relay and 200 and 400 medley relay) as part of his 28 all-time top-10s. “I started swimming early and that’s what kind of got me used to working and doing whatever I had to do to perform. So you can tie that into school, too, because you have to work hard to get good grades.”

While all of the seniors are excited about what the future holds as far as this weekend and the rest of Championship Season, they’re as excited about what the future holds beyond school.

But before they leave, they want future generations to learn from their experiences. It’s the advice they would give their freshman selves if they could go back in time.

“I would definitely tell freshman Rod to pay more attention to time management because I think that was one of my weaknesses my freshman year,” he said. “If I knew that before – a lot of people told me that – but I just put a little more attention into my time management I’m pretty sure everything could have gone smoother and easier.”

“I would tell my freshman self…I started changing the way that I studied,” said Portillo. “I probably could have done maybe just a little bit better because something that I’ve struggled with my entire time here is my sleep schedule. A lot of times, I’ll take a nap during the middle of the day and then end up staying up later than I want to because I’m having to catch up on school work that I could have done earlier in the day but I was really tired from another late night the day before. So I would tell myself to suck it up, get your work done early so that you can get a good night’s sleep all at once instead of kind of splitting it down, two or three hours at one time then like four hours at night.”

While Portillo would have wanted more time alone to relax, Wang would have preferred more time around others.

“Try to open up more. Don’t be afraid of talking to people, eat healthier, and have more time for my family and friends back at home because after my freshman year, I lost that connection with them because it was so busy,” said Wang, an industrial design major who has interviewed with athletics apparel companies. “The schedule was crazy. Have more communication with other coaches.”

Now, after watching senior after senior give emotional senior speeches to the team through the years and not get it. Now? Now she gets it.

“When I was a junior I was getting there, I could see why they’re crying,” she said. “Now, I’m not saying I’m going to cry, but I really appreciate my class. if you look at a team picture, the class picture when I was a freshman and then senior year, the number of people shrank. That happened for each class. Just seeing everyone who is here right now and went through four years on the team, I just want to say ‘Good job.’ then appreciate that they stayed there with me all four years.”

On Saturday, Georgia Tech will appreciate Lila Best, Laura Branton, Matt Casillas, Rodrigo Correia, Sara Gilbert, Florina Ilie, Nolan Mallet, Joseph Portillo, Iris Wang and Colt Williamson for staying with us for all these years.

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