SMU swim team seniors Parker Hardigree and Connor Dalbo are not only nearing the swan song of their journey as student-athletes, but they are on the verge of closing the chapter on their competitive swimming careers entirely.
That shift in identity isn’t an easy one, particularly when a person has been doing it for their entire life. Such has been the case for both Hardigree and Dalbo, who have both been on this journey for as far back as they can remember.
Hardigree was seven years old when he made up his mind that he wanted to pursue diving, while Dalbo got his first taste of the water at age four and was a state champion by the time he was 10 years old.
All of it—the beginning, end, and everything in between — comes full-circle with the American Athletic Conference Championships on the horizon where the team aims to repeat their conference title from last year.
“It hasn’t hit me yet that it’s almost over,” said Hardigree. “We have our conference championships, but then for me, I have NCAA zones. And then hopefully, NCAAs at the end of March. So I still view it like I have a long time left in my career, but in reality, it’s just like six weeks, maybe. I try not to think about it being the end and try to just focus on the task at hand. Yeah, I’m pretty upset that I’m done diving.”
Dalbo echoed those feelings, while referring to the closing of the competitive swimming chapter in his life as bittersweet. But as with everything in life, when one door closes, another one opens.
“With the end in sight for us, it’s obviously bittersweet. It’s the end of one chapter but the beginning of the next. I’ve been swimming for 18 years of my life, and it’s kind of been everything that I’ve known,” Dalbo said. “It’s time to move on to the next chapter, but I’m not leaving it in a bad light. I think the future of the SMU swim team is going to be incredible.”
Just because a new door opens doesn’t mean seniors won’t have those moments in life, particularly in their later years, when they look back and reminisce on what the old one offered.
And it isn’t just about the competition, either.
Lifelong friendships were made the moment Hardigree and Dalbo stepped foot on campus. That feeling of comradery is a common theme in college athletics, and the swim team is no different.
“The best part about being a part of a college team is you get on campus and immediately have 20-30 best friends,” said Dalbo.
Coming into college athletics can be intimidating right out of the gates, especially if you’re from a small rural community like Hardigree, who grew up in Moultrie, Georgia. So having that immediate bond with so many people early on just made the whole college transition significantly easier.
“We had a group of best friends right from the get-go. So we’re practicing together, eating together, and always hanging out. I never felt like I needed to make new friends when I came to college because I already had that group,” Hardigree said.
Making lifelong friends and overcoming challenges is at the heart of every great college journey.
Wins and losses aren’t nearly as important as the periods of mental growth in between. Those are the teaching moments that prepare a young adult for the real world beyond those college walls.
Hardigree’s biggest lesson throughout college was one of perseverance. Consistency is key in life for any goal that you set out to accomplish. Even if it takes one, two, three, or even four tries, you can accomplish anything in this world if you’re willing to put in the work.
“I set my entire life around competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials. That’s the goal of every swimmer, you know? You see it on television growing up and want to be a part of that stage — that huge arena,” said Dalbo.
“I had the opportunity to make the cut many times throughout college, and I failed on the first three tries. It wasn’t a confidence issue, either. There were times when I really felt like I had the chance to break through, but I just kept coming up short of my goal.”
“It basically came down to spring 2021. I ended up having the best conference meet of my career throughout the short course session, and on that Sunday morning, I was more prepared than ever to close it out with a strong long course trial time. And I finally did it! I made the cut. I touched the wall and looked up to see the time, and all of my teammates were on the side cheering and going nuts. To me, that was the defining moment in my college career. Being able to actually compete in the Olympic Trials that summer was just sort of the icing on the cake at that point.”
Hardigree had similar goals of making the cut for the Olympic Trials to the point where he wrapped his entire identity around it. The whole ordeal, along with a global health pandemic, forced him to take a step back and recalibrate things in his life.
Diving might be what he does, but it doesn’t define him as a person.
“One of my biggest goals throughout my entire diving career was to make the Olympic trials,” said Hardigree. “I got really close to getting the trial score in my sophomore year, but I bombed the final competition. For a while there, I had the mindset that I’d wasted 13 years of my life because I didn’t meet that goal. It really made me question my identity because I always identified as a diver.”
“When COVID happened, and we got sent home to quarantine, I had a lot of time to just step back and reevaluate my identity, I guess. That’s when I started to realize diving was going to end one day. It’s not everything in my life. When we came back, that growth I’d experienced just made me enjoy the sport more. It made me want to cherish the moments I have now and really embrace the grind. You know, just make the most of what I have because this is going to end, and I still have the rest of my life ahead of me.”
When diving ends, Hardigree hopes to give back to the sport that gave so much to him. He’s already on track to becoming a diving coach and instilling the knowledge that he’s gained over the years in the next generation.
“I’m excited for the future because I’m going to be coaching diving now. I’m looking forward to the transition. I’m already currently an assistant coach at the local club team here in Dallas,” Hardigree said.
“I love it. I love giving back to the children and really building the next generation of divers — you know, just giving back to the sport that gave so much to me.”
Dalbo plans on taking all of the skills he learned during his time at SMU and applying them to his professional career after graduation. He’s going to be a financial analyst for an advisory firm in Dallas, but rest assured, however, he’ll be keeping a very close eye on SMU swimming.
“I’m extremely excited about what the future looks like for the guys on the team now and the ones coming in. That’s going to be an incredible experience,” said Dalbo.
“They’re going to continue to get faster long after I’m gone, and that’s something that makes me really happy, you know? While it’s sad that it’s ending, I’m happy that the future of SMU swimming is in incredibly good hands. They’re going to take off from here.”
But before that happens, both Hardigree and Dalbo will take off at the conference championships. The end might be approaching, but there’s still work to do.
With this being the last ride, they’ll do everything they can to make sure it’s a memorable one.
And repeating their conference title from last year would certainly qualify as one.