The 2022 American Athletic Conference Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships is right around the corner, and it’s reflection time for seniors Gabi Grobler, Olivia Grossklaus, and Johanna Holloway.
How they got here, the experiences along the journey, and what they’ve learned at SMU — every thought hits at once and melds with the weight of the actual competition.
People love to throw around the phrase “it seems like only yesterday.”
Well, the SMU seniors are living it as they prepare to swim in a competitive setting for possibly a final time.
For Holloway, this journey has been about finding herself in more than just diving. Admittedly, the biggest challenge she faced in college was the same problem that plagues most student-athletes: the inability to differentiate between self-worth and competition.
“I came into this program with a lot of big expectations,” said Holloway after conversations with head diving coach Darian Schmidt about what he knew she was capable of.
“There were hopes of winning conference and qualifying for NCAAs, and as a freshman in college, that proved to be overwhelming.”
“And then when I got to my first conference meet, I ended up placing second there. I just remember it being this huge disappointment. So I went back to the drawing board and pushed really hard in my sophomore year and finally broke through to nationals. I was just so excited that I finally got it, you know? But not long after that, we walked into this room after a meeting was called for the whole dive team. That was around the time things started shutting down. COVID happened, and I never got to go to nationals.”
Grobler also knows the agony left in the wake of COVID all too well.
Coming from South Africa, she hasn’t been home since the summer of 2019. So it has been well over two years since she’s actually seen her friends and family. For someone who considers herself a big family person, the thought of having an ocean between herself and the people she loves most in life is incomprehensible.
While Holloway’s journey was about self-worth, Grobler’s has been all about self-growth.
“I decided to stay and figure out life here when COVID hit,” said Grobler. “I just thought the lifestyle here was going to be better than being back at home because South Africa went into a really bad lockdown. I would have been pretty much stuck in my house 24-7. But if I stayed here, I could at least go for a walk or a bike ride every once in a while. I was comfortable staying here, and I don’t regret making that decision.
“But it has been tough ever since, especially because COVID hasn’t gone away yet. I’ve been having a hard time getting my Visa renewed, which prevents me from being able to leave the country, and my parents are in a similar position while they are attempting to get their Visas to visit me. I’m not even sure if they can come to my graduation. I completely understand the situation, but it is quite devastating.”
For Grossklaus, the thought of her family missing her graduation is unimaginable. Like Grobler, she’s also a big family girl.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons why she chose to attend SMU in the first place — the ease and accessibility to get back home to Arizona. She gets to go home on the regular for school breaks and holidays.
“It was nothing like being across the country or the world, for that matter, but being away from home was nerve-wracking for me,” said Grossklaus.
Self-motivation would be her biggest challenge at SMU, and it came during her freshman year, when she was on her way to class to take a test.
She’d been having some ankle issues, and on this particular day, she left her ankle brace at home. Bad luck struck right on schedule, and she ended up falling down some stairs two weeks before the conference meeting that year.
“I tore all three of the tendons in my ankle. I actually called Johanna because she had to come help me walk to class to take the test,” said Grossklaus. “So my ankle was swollen like a grapefruit, but I’m still taking an exam. I was just feeling so horrible in that moment because as much as swimming is an individual sport, it’s also a team sport. So I felt like I’d let so many people down. I taped my ankle up and wore a boot for a little bit. I actually ended up doing okay swimming, but it was clear it would continue to be an issue if I kept going. So I shut things down and had ankle surgery.”
No one can ever explain why things happen in life.
Holloway being kept from competing at nationals, a global health pandemic keeping Grobler from seeing her family and an injury putting a promising collegiate swimming career for Grossklaus on ice — these were all daunting circumstances these seniors had to navigate through to get to where they are today.
But every challenge can almost be seen as a positive because each of them were put in situations where they were forced to evolve as human beings and not just athletes.
Holloway is letting go of the past and looking towards the future. She might not have been able to actually compete in nationals, but nothing can take away the fact that she made it as a sophomore.
Not even COVID.
The best part is she’ll have a chance to do it again at this year’s conference championships as a senior, and this time, she isn’t tying her self-worth into her performance in the water. Her future is exciting and bright regardless of what happens at the conference meet.
“These girls are my family, and I’m back on my growth. I wasn’t ready last season with all of the gyms being closed down and having to undergo some unconventional training,” Holloway said.
“I missed making it to nationals by only one spot. The last time that happened to me, I pushed as hard as I could to ensure I never came up short like that again. So this time around, we’re going to make it happen.”
One thing Grobler would love to make happen is to get the visa situation sorted out so her parents can come see her compete or, at the very least, see her walk the stage at graduation.
But the fact that she’s made it this long in a completely different country all on her own has given her the kind of strength even she didn’t know she had. You see, the truth is Grobler never wanted to attend school in the States initially until a full-ride scholarship was offered.
And even then, she had her reservations about coming to the U.S.
Things have obviously changed with the passage of time. Grobler isn’t anywhere near as dependent on her parents anymore, and she feels more at home than she ever has in the States right now.
“I think I’ve grown a lot since I’ve been here and learned to become really independent,” said Grobler. “I don’t want to say I’m not dependent on my family anymore, but I’ve learned how to live by myself. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to lean on them when I need it. I’m still hoping they can come see me, but on the bright side, I have a really awesome second family at SMU. All of the girls on the swim team make it so easy to be here by yourself and not miss home 24/7.”
Great chemistry among teammates can help fill the void to some degree of a missing family. It can also lift spirits when a performance doesn’t go exactly as planned.
And it can encourage by understanding and elevating the contributions of an athlete both on and off the field of play — or in this case, the water.’
“It really helped me in a sense of not finding my identity in swimming, which has been super helpful now that I’m closer to retirement. I knew swimming was a part of me, but it wasn’t who I was,” said Grossklaus.
After coming back from the injury, Grossklaus went on to win back-to-back conference championships in the 200-yard butterfly event.
The turnaround started when she began seeing others on the team believing in her more than she even believed in herself.
You can’t put a price tag on that kind of support.
“Everyone believed I could do it. Obviously, winning was incredible, and I was really proud of myself,” Grossklaus said. “But I think what I got most from that experience was the fact that it really is who you surround yourself with — who’s on your team and who’s in your corner. If anything, it made me love swimming and my team even more. I’ve really taken that with me these past two years. These people love me for who I am, not for who I am in the pool.”
That love for one another will follow the SMU seniors into the conference championships. All three have faced and overcome a serious challenge along the way, and no matter what happens in the meet, all three are better because of it.