Athlete of the Week: As Alex Bird nears the finish line, we look back at his impressive swimming career

Miguel Campos | Staff Reporter

As a captain of the No. 7 men’s Swimming and Diving team, senior Alex Bird has helped lead the Bears to wins in two of their three duals in 2020. I had a chance to talk to Alex about leadership, how he got into swimming and how he embodies his favorite fruit.

Student Life: Well, we’ll start off with something a little easy. Can you tell me a bit about yourself, Alex?

Alex Bird: I was born and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Started swimming when I was about seven, and then year-round for a club team when I was ten, so swimming has been a part of my life for forever. I swam through high school, had a friend who swam for my club team who ended up at Wash. U. He was a senior when I was a freshman, and so he kind of convinced me to take a recruiting trip out here. Loved the team and the coach on my visit, thought it really stood out among the other schools I was looking at, and so I decided to commit. I haven’t looked back since, been loving it here and am just finishing up my senior season right now.

SL: When you started swimming when you were seven, can you talk to me a bit more about who influenced you to first get in the water and later on, what made you start doing it competitively?

AB: So I think my mom was the reason I started swimming. She put me in it when I was seven with my neighbors who are also my best friends, and I felt like immediately wanting to quit because, you know, the water’s cold, you don’t want to swim for an hour, but she told me to stick with it, and I think during the first couple months of competition, I started to realize that I was winning, so I liked that and I decided to stick with it. She was the reason I got into it and then I’d say the reason I’ve stayed with it is teammates and friends I’ve made along the way.

Courtesy of Danny Reise

Alex Bird dives into the Millstone Pool during a swimming and diving meet against Saint Louis University last September. Bird, now a senior, is one of the captains of the men’s swim team.

SL: As many consider swimming to be an individual sport more so than a team sport, can you explain the importance of your teammates?

AB: Yeah, so swimming is definitely a team sport. I mean, an individual sport too, but there are definitely a ton of team aspects. In training alone—you can’t do it alone, trainings would not be the same because you need someone to go through those grueling sets with you and keep you motivated. Then also, from a competition standpoint, it’s not the same without your guys cheering behind your lane. When you’re getting up on the blocks and you hear someone shouting your name “Let’s go Alex!” it just gives you that extra boost, kind of fires you up for the race. So I’d say that and then aside from being in the water, your teammates are also really important out of the water because you become sort of a family, and so any issues related to swimming or not, those guys, you spend hours in the pool with them and you live with them. I’ve lived with swimmers every year at Wash. U., so [it’s] just really a huge part of my life, I couldn’t be here without them.

SL: I’m pretty sure you’ve had a lot of fond memories in and out of the water as a swimmer. Can you point out one memory that kind of sticks out more than others.

AB: One of my favorites, probably my favorite swimming memory came last year. It didn’t directly involve me, but rather two of my housemates and former teammates were swimming at the national NCAA meet in March. So this is the big meet that not everyone qualifies for, and only a select few of our team were chosen to make the trip. And so my two roommates and two of my former teammates were on the 400-medley relay that won the national championship, which was the first relay that Wash. U. had ever won on the men’s side, and we were watching it live on a live stream in Hitzeman [House] in one of the sophomore suites and the whole team was packed in there. Chase [Van Patten, another of the team’s captains] was the anchor leg doing freestyle, and he dove in first and we were all like screaming, you know, probably woke up the entire dorm, just yelling for him to go…and that was just probably my favorite memory of swimming, for sure.

SL: You mentioned two of your housemates, they were swimmers as well, right? How does that shape the dynamic of how you choose people to live with, how you interact with each other and stuff like that?

AB: It’s super nice having the same schedule. Freshman year, I lived with a swimmer, but [for] people who didn’t, I’m sure there’s some tension there with your alarm going off in the morning and you got to get up and if you’re tired, you want to get to bed early, [and] not everyone’s going to want to do that, so it’s nice having someone on the same schedule as you, someone who travels with you to meets and competitions. Practice really makes you closer with your team, so it was just kind of a natural thing to want to live with them. They’re my best friends.

SL: Are there any people specifically that you can attribute your success to, whether it be your family, some close friends, some professors even?

AB: So I’d say family has been important, but not like directly involved with my swimming, they’ve always just been supportive of everything that I did and weren’t super nitty gritty, helicopter parents or anything. Friends, I would definitely attribute more of my motivation to continue swimming to. Like I said, swimming is definitely at least 50% social, you know. I don’t do it just because I like the water, I also love the bonds I’ve made. Getting up for a Saturday morning practice, you just can’t do it if you’re not going to be with the guys that you want to be with. And then coaches, I definitely give a lot of credit to our coach Brad Shively. He finds a way to keep things upbeat and positive even when we’re doing the most grueling practices, always jokes around with you about food or where you’re from or what was on TV last night, [and he’s] a super positive guy and that energy definitely carries into the practices.

SL: I noticed while looking at your stats the other day that you hit two personal records on back to back days in 2016 with the 200- and 100-yard butterfly. Can you tell me what that felt like and were you in the zone—what was going on that weekend?

AB: Yeah, so that was my first championship meet of college, and by far my best meet ever. I think the reason for my success was [that] I was so excited from everything being new and I just wanted to prove myself and support my team, because I had fallen in love with the team already. I just wanted to do the absolute best that I could. I think one of the other big things, freshman year coming from a high school club where you do a lot of aerobic training, but the biggest improvement that people often make in college is they pay more attention to strength and their technique, and so I made it a point of emphasis to focus on those things my freshman year especially, [to] take extra time in the weight room and then after practice work on technique, and I really think that paid off.

SL: I’ve also noticed that the two personal records you hit back in 2016 and the two personal records you set earlier this year were all at Wheaton. I was wondering if there was any special correlation with Wheaton being maybe a special place to swim, if you have any previous associations with it?

AB: So yeah, that freshman meet was the first year that I’d swum at that pool, but it definitely kind of set the tone there for me. [I] have a ton of good memories at that pool, it’s a really fun meet, taking that group up to Illinois, kind of in the middle of nowhere, but we’re on a mission, got a business trip kind of mindset. So yeah, I think it’s definitely a good pool for me.

SL: So obviously, you’re a senior and you’re one of the captains of the team, one of the coveted positions, I’d imagine, so can you tell me a bit about what you try to instill in the younger guys before you go off and graduate?

AB: I’ve just been trying to be a role model this year, and to me that means being vocal in the water, making sure that our teammates know that I’m behind them and in support of them, challenging people to race in practice. If I notice someone’s looking a bit down, I might challenge them to race me on a certain set and I think that could help fire people up. I guess I just try to make sure that everyone’s having fun too. I think it’s important to train hard, but also make time for yourself to do things that you enjoy, so just doing fun activities like taking guys out to dinner. We just came back from a training trip in Florida that we do every year over winter break, and so that’s a fun time for us to all live together. I was one of the heads of the houses, and we did a bunch of trips to the beach and eating out, and so, I think making sure that the guys know that having fun as a team is definitely helpful for the overall success of the program.

SL: That’s good to hear. You’ve done great so far, and as we approach the end of the interview, I’ve got one more question for you and I think it’s the most important one. It might be a little weird, but this is a question that I’ve always gotten in various interviews that I partake in. So, here it is. If you were a fruit of any kind, what would it be and why?

AB: I think I know. I think I’d be a banana. I eat bananas every morning before practice because you can always count on them, they’re consistent. They’re not flashy or over the top, but they’re reliable and they set up a good foundation for the rest of your day. They give you everything you need, and I like to think of myself as being that kind of rock, that consistent guy, that might not necessarily be a superstar or anything but will always bring consistent effort that is needed for a team.

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