AOTW: As a freshman, Stephanie Li rarely swam the breaststroke; Three years later, she holds the WU record
Senior Stephanie Li joined her rural New York town’s YMCA club swim team when she was seven years old, following in her brother’s footsteps. Many of her friends were on the team and she enjoyed the daily two-hour practices, so she stuck around. By the time she got to high school, Li was one of the best swimmers in the region, winning conference all-star awards and being named her division’s first team Most Valuable Swimmer from 2012-2015. When she joined the Washington University swimming and diving team in 2016, she thought she would mainly be swimming the individual medley. That changed quickly after a conversation with head coach Brad Shively her freshman fall, and last spring, she broke the school record in the 200 breaststroke. Li sat down with me to discuss her career ahead of this season’s University Athletic Association championships, which began yesterday afternoon and continue through Saturday.
Student Life: What’s your favorite part of swimming? Is there a single aspect of it that you think is particularly fun?
Stephanie Li: There are a lot of things I like about swimming, but in particular here at Wash.U. I really like being on a team. The team here at Wash. U. is so good. There’s so many great swimmers on our team. Back home at my high school, our swim program wasn’t that strong. Coming here and being surrounded by so many awesome swimmers has been really inspiring, and I really like the team bond that we have and all the friendships I’ve made.
Student Life: You talked about how inspiring it is to be around a team of such talented people. Is there any moment where you think that inspiration manifested itself or any specific moment where you remember being inspired by your teammates?
Li: I think just every day in practice, being around everyone else and seeing what they can do, and then seeing everyone work hard in practice and seeing that translate into meets, watching everyone’s time [and] seeing them improve. Just day-to-day—watching everyone and being with them. I think that’s what is inspiring.
Student Life: I’ve heard about these intense morning practices that the team does. What does an average one of those practices look like? You mentioned how being around your teammates doing all of their hard work is inspiring. Walk me through what that hard work looks like on a given day.
Li: Swimming is basically equivalent to a part-time job. We do a practice every day except for Sunday and then we do a double, which is a [weight] lift and a swim. We do that three times a week. Take this morning for example: I got on [the pool] deck at like 6:20 [a.m.] and got all my stuff. Everyone’s kind of sleepy, but you say hi to each other and scarf down the rest of your Clif Bar or whatever. Our coach, Brad, always gives us a chalk talk, so we all converge by the board and he reads the practice to us. Then we get in and we do our warmup, usually some kicking and pulling, and then we do our main set. Then we warm down and usually at the end we’ll do a dry land, which is abs: push-ups, sit-ups, you know. We do boxing sometimes.
Student Life: Boxing as in punching things? Why do you do boxing?
Li: It helps you work on your core strength. We’re not necessarily always just hitting each other. There’s rotational stuff and this windmilling thing we do with boxing gloves, so it adds weight to your hands. That helps you work on controlling your core.
Student Life: Wow. Given that everyone’s so tired at the beginning of the day when you’re on deck at like 6:15 or 6:20 in the morning, do the coaches do anything that kind of amps you guys up? How do you maintain your energy and make sure that you’re practicing with all of your full strength?
Li: One of the things I really like about this program is that our coaches are amazing. They’re always, especially Brad, super energetic in the morning. I think it helps that he downs a cup of coffee. One time he was listening to heavy metal in his headphones before practice. I think our coaches are really committed to the energy of the practice and helping to keep us motivated. We feed off of that energy to hype each other up, especially in those early morning practices. It always helps that we have our radio going and we have a peppy playlist.
Student Life: What kind of songs do you listen to during practice?
Li: Usually it’s a Pandora radio or something. I don’t really know who sets the station. I think it’s sometimes just pop. Usually we hear a bunch of the same songs over and over again, which I think is inevitable because of the algorithm or something. We hear a lot of The All-American Rejects. We always hear some Green Day.
Student Life: If someone had to choose the anthem of the Wash. U. swimming and diving team, do you have an idea of what it would be?
Li: My freshman year, it was “Closer” by The Chainsmokers. I think the song was really big then and it was always playing in practice. Whenever I heard the song, everyone would start singing and then dancing a little on the wall between sets. When I hear that song, it makes me think of good times and the team being happy and celebrating together. And then it helps get me through the set.
Student Life: Gotcha. We discussed the vibe at the beginning of practice. What about the end, after the two hours of hard work and drylands?
Li: Oh, it really depends. If it’s a really tough practice I think we will generally be tired but we will still be happy. We’ll be proud of ourselves for accomplishing this monster practice. One of the things we always do after practice is that we high-five each other within our lanes. I guess you get a natural high from working out, all of your endorphins and stuff, so that probably helps too. I think usually you get the sense of accomplishment at the end of the practice and you feel really good about what you did.
Student Life: Last year at national championships, you broke the school record in the 200 breaststroke. What was that like?
Li: It was really amazing, but I don’t think I could have done it without the support of my teammates, my coaches and my family. Going into freshman year, I didn’t think I would be a 200 breaststroker because I didn’t swim that in high school, but then my coach was very encouraging. He pulled me aside one day and he was like ‘Stephanie, I think you can go this and this time.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really fast, Brad. I guess maybe I can drop like 12 seconds, I don’t know.’ I was kind of like ‘Oh, whatever you say, Brad.’ And then last year I swam a really fast time in the 200 breaststroke and that was after a lot of work and watching my races, figuring out what goals I needed to set for myself in improving my technique and all that stuff. I swam this really great race and Brad pulled me aside and was like ‘Hey, remember freshman year when you said you weren’t a 200 breaststroker? You just swam a great race.’ I said ‘Yeah, I remember Brad. Thanks for believing in me.’ I think that kind of came full circle at nationals when I broke the school record. That was really exciting.
Student Life: Do you remember what was going through your head? Did you realize right away that you had beaten the record?
Li: Nationals is a super fun meet. It was my first year going, and I think I was just excited to be there no matter what because I was competing against some of the best in the nation. I tried not to think too much during my race, but at the end when I hit the wall obviously I was feeling really tired because I went all out in the race. I felt pretty good about how I did. Sometimes you can just tell, like ‘Oh no, did I bomb that race?’ or “Oh, I think I did well.’ Then I saw my time on the board and was like ‘Yes! I dropped two seconds from my time that morning and it’s my best time ever.’ Then I got out and walked to my teammates and they were all giving me high fives and my coach was really happy. He gave me a hug.
Student Life: Aw, that’s a really wonderful moment and so wholesome. What about beyond the practices and meets? What does swimming for fun look like for you?
Li: Honestly, we spend so much time in the pool that if I’m on vacation or something and there’s a pool in the hotel I won’t go near it. I know people on the team like to go snorkeling or go diving, so those are fun recreational swimming activities, like swimming in the ocean or something. The other day I guess we did something kind of fun in the pool. We went to the diving wall and did a balance exercise on physio balls. We were on the edge of the pool and we had to roll onto the ball into the pool and had to balance on top of it. There were a lot of funny, blooper-y moments of people just flipping into the water. It looked silly, but it was a lot of fun.
Student Life: That sounds like so much fun, wow. Two more questions now. What’s the lesson that you want the current freshman class to take away from your leadership as a senior?
Li: I think it’s just that you should not be afraid to challenge yourself and set your goals high. You never know what you can accomplish. Don’t set a low bar for yourself, because then you’re already limiting yourself. And then also, be invested in the team. When you’re on a swim team, you have a huge support system in the pool and in the classroom, so it’s important to also give back to other people because they’re helping you out and you want to give back as well.
Student Life: Right, that sounds like a good lesson. My last question is about UAA championships this week. What’s your outlook or expectation for them?
Li: I’m really excited for UAA championships because it’s my last one and I think our team is really strong this year. Everyone’s been doing really well in the dual meets and working really hard. We all went through a training trip. We do it every year. We go down to Florida and that’s the peak of our training, I guess. That’s the hardest ten days of our training program. I can’t wait to see what everyone does at conference, since it’s the culmination of all the hard work we’ve been putting in this year.