Sweet Briar swimmer shows what ‘tough’ means

January 10, 2017 | By Joelle Ziemian
Taylor Allen works on her butterfly stroke with the Sweet Briar swim team in Delray Beach, Fla. The team travels every winter break to practice.

Taylor Allen works on her butterfly stroke with the Sweet Briar swim team in Delray Beach, Fla. The team travels every winter break to practice.

When freshman Taylor Allen swims lap after lap of freestyle at practice, it is a competition against herself. “How far can I push myself?” she wonders as she pushes off the wall.

But she already knows the answer: She can push herself a lot — more than most people can imagine.

While a junior year at all-girls St. Catherine’s in Richmond, attracting attention for her excellent times in the butterfly, excruciating pain in her lower back drove her to a series of doctors, even as she kept swimming competitively, always improving her performance and times. Finally winding up in surgery, doctors found a fracture on each side of her spine.

Taylor’s injuries were so severe that pieces of bone were actually floating in her vertebrae. She had been swimming through that pain.

Under doctor’s orders to not swim butterfly again until her scars totally healed, Taylor turned to freestyle — because not swimming is simply not an option. “The pool calls to me,” she says. “If I’ve been out, I have to get back in.”

Allen in Delray Beach, Fla., in January 2017

Allen in Delray Beach, Fla., in January 2017

Swimming on Sweet Briar’s swim team under the direction of Coach Donna Hodgert, Taylor is an emerging star in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC). Her most competitive events at this point in the season are the 100-meter backstroke and 100-meter breaststroke. Hodgert is also developing consistency in the sprinting events (50 meters and 100 meters free) so that Taylor can compete for a top-eight spot at the conference meet.

Hodgert says, “The beauty of working with an athlete like Taylor is that she is talented in many events and I have faith she can break into the top three in our conference meet in a few of them. We just have to decide on our focus and prepare for that goal second semester.”

Taylor appreciates how Coach Hodgert challenges the team while supporting the swimmers. “What makes a good coach is the ability to push but recognizing there’s life outside the pool,” she says.

For Taylor, life outside the pool means being at home on a campus she loves. While in high school, she toured six colleges, including some state universities, and as soon as she visited Sweet Briar she knew she’d found her college — even though she hadn’t imagined she would land at a women’s college.

“My advisor at St. Catherine’s told me about Sweet Briar,” she says. “I knew as soon as I visited. I met with Donna and I loved her and the pool, and the campus.”

She says she plans to keep swimming until she graduates.

“It’s been wonderful,” Taylor says about her first semester at Sweet Briar. “There was no homesickness at all.”

She says that just as her relationship with Coach Hodgert is close and supportive, faculty go out of their way to advance student success. “You have an idea,” she says, “And they find a way to help you develop it.”

Strength conditioning is a crucial part of training for the swim team. Allen (front) and her teammates get instructions from Coach Hodgert.

Strength conditioning is a crucial part of training for the swim team. Here, Allen (front) and her teammates get instructions from Coach Hodgert.

Having always been in a female learning environment, Taylor says the experience has made her strong while allowing her to attend to her athletics and studies without having to impress anybody.

“I have always been tough,” she says. “My motto is: You can do it, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.”

The next thing that Taylor plans to prove she can do is to compete again in the butterfly.

Hodgert says those days may be closer than anyone would have imagined. “Taylor impressed me at the end of the season with her fifty-fly leg of a medley relay. Swimming just a fifty-meter split, she was on pace to break the one-hundred-meter fly school record. I was certainly excited to see her turn out that time and it made me wonder if she was ready to train more fly.”

As the Sweet Briar swim team heads to Florida for spring training, Hodgert echoes one thing that is not up for debate. “Taylor is tough and loves to compete, so I know once we make a decision to go for that event, she will succeed.”

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