After my sophomore year at UC Berkeley, I faced a decision most people don’t have to make in their life: whether or not I should put my education on hold to dedicate more time to training to make the U.S. Olympic swim team. While in school I wasn’t improving the way I needed to in the pool, and decided a change in training location was needed. Since transferring to a different university wasn’t an option given that my coach did not want to release me, it came down to either going pro and losing my NCAA eligibility, or possibly not making the Olympic team. While the decision to leave school and delay my education was not an easy one, it more than paid off. In the following years I broke 11 world records and in 2012 took home a gold medal in the 4×100-meter medley relay and a bronze medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.
Looking back on my schedule during this time, there was no way I could have continued pursuing my degree in a traditional college setting while training. And even now, a year and a half out from the next Olympic games, my schedule is just as busy. Each day starts at 6 a.m. with two to three hours of swimming followed by another three hours of cross training in the afternoon. National and international travel for competitions and sponsorships, along with other demands of a professional athletic career, leaves me with little to no time left to spend in class.
Despite my hectic schedule, I was determined to find a way to continue my education. I contemplated viable ways to return to school and quickly realized that I would again have to split my time between class and swimming. With my hopes of making the 2016 Olympic team, I knew flexibility would be the key to making my degree a reality, and my mind turned to online education. My mom had recently began teaching online courses for USC’s graduate mental health program, so I knew online degrees from well-respected universities were attainable, I just needed to find the right program for me.
I began researching online degree programs that would best fit my needs, and was looking for a credible and flexible program that I could access anytime, anywhere. I came across the online Bachelor of Science in Communications degree program at Arizona State University, and in addition to the university’s rigorous academic standards, my experience with the counselors and enrollment coaches really got me excited to start school again. I enrolled in January 2014 and began benefitting from my coursework immediately. Communications has always been an area of interest to me, now more so than ever as a professional athlete. My career requires awareness of the communication landscape, whether working with sponsors, giving interviews or participating in endorsements and commercials. I am eager to leverage my degree and related experience to work in a sports marketing environment after graduation and athletic retirement.
From the very first day of class, I received a great deal of support from faculty and my academic coaches. This past year the National Championships, a very important milestone, occurred in the middle of my summer session. My professors were very helpful in allowing me to work ahead and take finals early knowing I would be focused on my training. This support and flexibility is a huge part of helping me balance my career as a professional athlete with my goal of completing my education.
It is common for professional athletes to put their education on hold in pursuit of their dreams, but I knew I could find a way to earn my degree. My experience proves that achieving a great education while pursuing an athletic career is possible. I love knowing that I can train and get my schoolwork done on my own schedule, and knowing that I am setting myself up for success beyond my years as an athlete makes the journey even more rewarding.