Top athletes in the pool, James Baker ’20 and teammate Dayen Wilson ’21 found competitive excellence as they strove against each other for almost three years. Baker shares the story of that competition and its rewards here.
“I’ve never done this before, Good luck.” Dayen Wilson said to his teammate before they both stepped onto the blocks to race what would likely be the most grueling mile of their lives. I was that teammate. This race officially signified the end of our seasons—and, the end of my NCAA career. That single “Good Luck” - the first in our history - signaled a level of respect that had been earned over years and miles together in the pool. This is our story.
Two and half years earlier, on August 28, 2018, we finished our first workout together. Dayen was a new transfer from another college, and I was entering my third season on the team. But that didn’t mean we didn’t know each other; we had both done our research. We knew each other’s times and we’d studied race videos of each other. Dayen had seen my struggle with flip turns and I had noted the rigidity in his stroke. We were both distance swimmers. We knew each other because we knew ourselves.
At that first workout, Dayen had arrived on deck early and claimed a lane. I arrived and chose the lane next to him. We nodded a greeting and went to work. When the workout was over, both of us were exhausted. We’d spent every lap looking at each other. Glaring as we tried to find an edge. Watching the other’s stroke for a weak catch or a misaligned turn, every opponent’s mistake an opportunity to take advantage of.
When we finished the workout, both of us were exhausted. As we climbed out of the pool, I said to him, “That was solid for an hour and a half, not too crazy.” He responded, “Aye that was a solid one, nothing crazy yet.” Neither of us would admit defeat that first day.
And so the rest of that first season progressed, we both had good races and we both had bad ones. At the end, the season came to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Neither of us had reached the goals we had set nor seen our hard work pay off. We were forced to take solace in the fact that, together, we had pushed ourselves in ways we hadn’t thought possible.We resolved to learn from the season and move on to the next.
We parted ways that spring, knowing that we’d do our damndest to gain an edge before start of the new season in the fall. The isolation that comes with off-season training was ahead of us. A daunting task for athletes, the American Psychological Association will tell you that there is robust evidence for social isolation and loneliness significantly increasing the risk for athlete burnout, and that the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.”1.
But with swimming, there is an innate sense of isolation—it’s built into the sport. Practice entails a mind-numbing amount of yardage where an athlete simply stares at a black line and changes their direction of travel from forwards to backwards every 15 seconds. With your face in the water, you lose an avenue of communication. Coaches must wait until athletes are given a rare break from the endless laps before critiquing a stroke or effort. Teammates do not have the time to speak to one another during reps. There is no emphasis on communication and teamwork like there might be on a soccer pitch or a football field. Sometimes, a swimmer gets ten seconds of stoppage every fifteen to twenty minutes. If you’re having a slow day in practice, you might start missing intervals, leading to hours straight of back and forth swimming as you try to make up the yardage your teammates have already concluded.
Countless swimmers struggle with it. Even swimmers who are good enough to make it as household names, like American Michael Phelps and Australian Ian Thorpe, have discussed the mental toll that swimming in isolation takes on a person.4 Thorpe described practice as being “surrounded by people but [having] this intense loneliness”5 Dayen and I would fight it off the only way we knew how, by competing with each another. Every day that summer, we could see each other in our minds’ eye—swimming in the lane next to us, racing us, pushing us.
The next season, our competitiveness came to a head in early December. Both of us were “shaved and tapered” and were slated to swim side by side in the final heat of the weekend’s 1650-yard freestyles.
We were the top two seeds; Dayen having been the fastest thus far that year, but I had the faster lifetime best. When we finished the 15-minute race, it was within two seconds of each other. Neither one of us was happy about it. Dayen climbed out, pissed he had lost again that weekend. I climbed out, pissed my margin of victory was so small.
For about 5 minutes we lamented the situation. Then, at about the same time, we both came to terms with it and resolved to change it in the only way we knew how, to train harder. At the end of the night, we sat together for dinner. There was no “Good job” nor “Great race” said — instead a third teammate broke the tension by saying, “You guys watched each other that whole race.” We smirked. Both of us knew that we had given our absolute best that race, and that the other had done the same.
What our teammate didn’t realize was that we had been watching each other, not just to win, but to encourage as well. Both of us wanted a great race for the other. We practiced our craft together every day without fail. If one of us was to find success, the other would surely follow. The Positive Coaching Alliance states that a true competitor is someone who not only pushes themselves to be better but pushes their teammates and adversaries to be better as well.2 The relationship between us fit that mold to a T.
The end of our time together began not on the pool deck or in a weight room, but in a classroom.
The team was gathered for a meeting. We were all there early, none of the coaches had arrived yet. At the front of the room, a TV was playing old race highlights from previous years. Despite knowing the end result, we were all cheering at the TV, urging our teammates on.
Dayen watched me. Usually engrossed in old race footage, instead I slowly stood up and left the room. Nobody else noticed. Through a window in the door, Dayen watched me scrolling through my phone. After a brief pause, I smashed it against the wall. Shoving it in my pocket, I returned to the room. Dayen was the only one who saw. As I walked back in, we locked eyes and the tears were already flowing. We both knew what was about to happen. Thirty seconds later, the coaches walked in one by one. Dayen and I sat, stone-faced, as our head coach announced the season’s cancelation. The next hour blurred together for us. Several faculty members came down to talk to us The athletic director, the school president, the faculty athletic representative, a professor, none of it mattered. Their words fell on deaf ears. We had dedicated countless hours in preparation for one single event.
One week and two days prior to what would have been a climactic showdown between us — me vs. him and us vs. the nation as we tried to go 1-2 atop the podium — Covid-19 forced the country to shut down and the NCAA national championships were canceled. People were dying. Hospitals and doctors were overworked and understaffed. Elderly and at-risk individuals were living their lives in fear of exposure.
We were shattered. We were healthy. We knew the virus wasn’t a serious threat to us. But we also knew that steps had to be taken. As our coach said later that week, we were “making the sacrifice play for the rest of society.”
Imagine asking someone to marry you in 2016, waking up every single day before 5:30 AM for the next four years, knowing that your wedding date would be March 2020. Then, imagine that wedding being canceled less than a week away. Top it off by recognizing that you’ll never see your fiancé again. That there is no other opportunity. It would feel something like committing to a team in high school, spending four years preparing for your final competition as a senior in college, knowing that it was your moment, your opportunity. Then, having it all disappear.
Needless to say, we did not want to hear that we were doing the right thing. That we were part of a solution which would save countless lives and prevent global catastrophe. We wanted to wake up from the nightmare.
Dayen next remembers fumbling his way around the classroom, he was too teary-eyed to see properly. He eventually found me. He knew I was waiting for him. We had relied on each other all season and this was no different. Everyone else was in tears. Dayen remembers sitting down next to me and pausing. I was not rigid with paralyzing anger or anxiety, nor shaking nor sobbing in sadness. I projected a calm observant look, but I wasn’t feeling my own emotions, I was watching everyone else’s. “Will you swim after this?” was all I could muster to Dayen.
Another meeting in the locker room. Dayen spoke briefly, saying thank you to the seniors and that he would do his best to live up to their example in the future. Then he and a couple others joined me in the pool. He remembers hopping into the lane next to him, swimming side by side. For once, Dayen didn’t push the pace. Neither did I. Instead, we swam back and forth for half an hour, matching each other stroke for stroke.
Our team was told we would have one last opportunity to race. Everyone would get to pick one event. No spectators would be allowed at the meet, no official times, no time for a full taper and rest. Just an opportunity to put it all on the line once more. When asked if he would swim the mile, Dayen remembers an odd feeling coming over him. Given the circumstances, the shorter the race, the better he would do. Then he looked over to me, saw a grim, yet determined, face and said, “If you need me to, I’ll be there.” I simply nodded; I had not spoken in a day.
My lack of speech had troubled Dayen and other teammates. I had isolated myself from them. Countless studies in isolationism and solitary confinement have shown that, when individuals isolate themselves, they begin to lose all sense of time and purpose3. I was doing just that. Dayen knew the best way to reach me wasn’t through literal communication, but through the way we had communicated so often in the past. Through swimming.
The next morning was race day. As the team shuffled onto the pool deck, athletes were taking a more unusual approach to their race. Instead of a strict, regimented warmup, coaches and athletes were milling around the deck. Conversing with each other, joking, doing jumping jacks, throwing a tennis ball. But not Dayen, he had a job to do. His only competition for the day had walked down to the pool, gotten in the water, and began the exact same warmup we had done for countless meets. Dayen got in next to me.
We began slowly, working our way through a long half an hour of stretching out our strokes. Practicing perfect streamlines, exaggerating the roll of our bodies side to side as we glided through the water. Then, we began to warm-up in earnest. Working our heart rates up to race pace. Dayen and I assumed our typical game faces. Glaring at each other before each repetition, peeking out of the sides of our goggles as we came off the wall, twisting our heads as fast as we could to see the other finish their lap.
It was the final “performance” Dayen knew I wanted. Not the sad goodbyes that some of the athletes were engaging in already, nor the cheerful, joking, intensity-free last couple laps. I needed something far more serious and Dayen knew he could help me get there.
When our last race began, we pushed the pace, together. He glared at me with every breath he took. I glared right back. Despite our lack of time to rest and prepare, neither one of us gave an inch to the other, daring each other to hang on and match our speed if the other could.
The only way I could ever have felt satisfied with my college career was to go out on an absolute high note, be best I could possibly be. Dayen pushed me. We kept training while others took the two days off. We raised our intensity in the way that only two people with an identical, “I will die before I give in to you,” attitude can.
That race was leaps and bounds better than any performance we’d ever had, in what was essentially just another practice. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I couldn’t hear every stroke he took, see every splash out of the corner of my eye, and watch him try to extend himself underwater to gather extra bits of momentum.
Nobody else could have swum that mile, it’s too grueling of an event to do in conditions like the ones we faced. I certainly would have floundered and run out of steam without him. For me, swimming has always been about putting together the puzzle of speed. Each piece, each miniscule part of preparation, each nutrient ingested, each workout completed, each technical change, is a part of that puzzle. On that day, on that race, Dayen was the biggest part of my puzzle. For that, I am eternally grateful. Sempre Avanti.
- Novotney, Amy. “The Risks of Social Isolation.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, May 2019, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation.
- Triple-Impact Competitors: Making Yourself, Your Teammates and the Game Better. Positive Coaching Alliance, 2020.
- Daily Newsletter 1701. “Death of Cave Research Woman.” New Scientist, 27 Jan. 1990, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg12517011-900-death-of-cave-research-woman/.
- Dart, Tom. “Loneliness, Isolation and Pressure: the Inner Demons of Elite Swimming.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Feb. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/feb/17/olympic-swimming-loneliness-isolation-pressure-inner-demons.
- McRae, Donald. “Interview: Ian Thorpe.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Nov. 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/jul/12/ian-thorpe-gay-parkinson-interview.