Taege overcomes injuries to earn All-American accolades

Gad Choi | Contributing Reporter

Junior Sara Taege competes in the 500-yard freestyle in a dual meet with DePauw University on Nov. 2, 2013. Taege finished sixth in the 400 individual medley and eighth in the 500 freestyle at the NCAA Division III Championships last weekend.

Great athletes are known for not only their physical ability but also their passion and desire to overcome challenges. For the Washington University swimming team, junior Sara Taege’s embodiment of these traits has made her a great collegiate swimmer.

Helping the women’s team score 134 points, the fifth-highest total in school history, and place eighth at this year’s NCAA Division III Championships, Taege clinched three All-American honors as she finished sixth in the women’s 400-yard individual medley and eighth in the 500 free and contributed to a ninth-place finish in the 400 medley relay and a 13th-place finish in the 200 free relay. According to head coach Brad Shively, expectations for Taege have been high since she joined the Bears.

Taege “was a good swimmer out of high school…and she was recruited by a lot of good programs. We knew she was going to be a good swimmer,” Shively said. “We were lucky enough to have her decide that Washington University and this swimming program were for her.”

Majoring in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology as a pre-medical school student, Taege has spent so much of her life in the water that she struggles to remember precisely when she started swimming. But once she started, she fell in love with the sport.

“There’s a special aspect of being able to escape from everything and just go into that water and compete and race where nothing else matters. It means a lot to me and I think that’s my motivation,” Taege said. “It’s more than just swimming. It’s part of who I am. Each day, I go and enjoy it. I love to race and compete and I thrive off that…[Swimming] has become so ingrained in me that I can’t imagine going without it.”

But before she even had a chance to swim a single lap for the Red and Green, her dream of racing at the 2012 national championships was almost put on hold. A week before orientation, Taege suffered a knee injury so severe that the possibility of sitting out her entire freshman year seemed imminent.

“I went through orientation on crutches. I had to crutch all over campus,” she said. “Basically, I had to go through physical therapy every day. I was in the water when I could be, not kicking—I would just have to pull.”

While physical therapy can be a challenging, grueling and lengthy process filled with doubts and uncertainty, Taege was determined to return to the pool faster and stronger as quickly as possible. Her hard work and focus paid off as she attended the University Athletic Association Championships and set a school record in the 200 butterfly. Taege was also the only swimmer from the women’s side to qualify for the Division III Championships that season.

“I came in and always said I wanted to qualify for nationals, but when I was injured, I didn’t think I would be able to,” Taege said. “But I pushed through it, and I think the greatest moment [in my entire swimming career] was when I qualified for nationals.”

Taege walked away from the final meet of her freshman season having earned All-American honors with two top-seven finishes in both the 500 freestyle and the 400 individual medley.

“She is a very competitive young woman,” Shively said. “That’s probably one of the things that stands out the most. When we put her in a pressure situation, that’s when she’s at her best. She has a very strong will to win.”

Her competitive drive has led Taege to new heights. Relentless in her desire to improve, Taege has polished and primed her legacy by tacking on several additional school records and qualifying and competing in two more national championships.

As competitors a sport that focuses more on individual performances, it may be easy for swimmers to place emphasis on themselves, but despite her success, Taege places the team and its accomplishments before her individual ones. In her interview, there was no fixation on “I” or “my” accomplishments but rather an ardent focus on “we” and “our.”

“When you’re swimming, it’s not just about you. You’re representing your team, your coaches, your teammates and your school. I feel like that helps us keep that team atmosphere,” Taege said. “And when it is only about the individual, that’s when teams struggle, that’s when you have conflicts…but when you push others and don’t just focus on yourselves and encourage your teammates when they’re down—that makes everyone better. We know that everyone is there for each other, and we’re just an actual big family.”

These bonds extend far beyond this year’s team, and the competition reaches even to those who have come before them. If you’ve ever walked through the pool at Wash. U., you’ve probably noticed the boards mounted on the walls. These lists of top swimmers in school history do more than just recognize the achievements of past Bears—they serve to inspire the current ones.

“Every day when I swim, I breathe and look and I see the names up on those boards. It’s really inspiring and encouraging to swim faster to break those records. But the names on those boards are spectacular people,” Taege said. “They have set the stage for what I am a part of now…and down the road my name will be on that board and some girl will be struggling at practice and she’ll see my name and say, ‘I want to beat that time.’”

Despite all that Taege has won so far, she still has a year left at Wash. U.—another year to add to her list of accomplishments. Out of the 10 swimmers who qualified for nationals this year, only one will be graduating, placing high expectations for a team that has one more year to build on its eighth-place performance.

“If we as a program want to be up there with the top teams in the country, it takes a great deal of dedication and commitment. If that’s something that they want to do every year, they have to think about the training during the off-season. They have to be really committed to what it takes to be among the top 10 teams in the country,” Shively said about the expectations for the women’s team.

With the 2014 complete, Taege will return to her studies and prepare for a life outside swimming. But when swimming season returns in the fall, Taege is hoping that women’s team will grow from its success this season.

“I really want to see this team continue to grow,” said Taege. “I want to see more girls qualify for nationals. I want us to score higher than eighth. I want more people in the finals and in consolation finals…I have my career, but what I care about is our program. I want to leave a lasting impact and be a part of something great.”

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