By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, April 21, 2017
Hannah Saiz has learned her swimming career as a late bloomer naturally parallels steeping tea.
A tea aficionado, she’s realized over time that blooming takes hot water and time – very much like the process she has gone through to become a member of the U.S. National Team this year.
Still, while she’s just recently experiencing swimming success on a national level, her journey is one she has enjoyed as she’s gained perspective and a greater appreciation for the sport and what it represents for her now.
“Coming out of high school, I was nowhere near good enough in the pool to be considered as even a walk-on in any tall-order Division I program,” said Saiz, who swam for and attended Division III swimming powerhouse Kenyon College. “I had been to one LCM sectionals meet. No Junior Nationals. No Senior Nationals. My 200 fly was a 2:11 short course yards when I began marketing myself to college coaches.
“What DI powerhouse coach will look at that and say, ‘Yes, that's exactly what our team needs’ (or even, ‘Let's give it a try’)?” But a DIII coach might. Jim Steen did. Not necessarily because I was good enough to excite him, but because I had gotten into the school and was willing to be whatever the team needed. So this mile-loving backstroker got tossed into the butterfly lane and... well,, let's just say it worked out.”
It’s definitely working out well for Saiz, who was a finalist in the 200 fly at last summer’s Olympic Trials and won the event a few weeks later at the U.S. Open – earning her spot on her first National Team.
But in order to comprehend where she is now, it’s important to understand where Saiz came from in terms of her pre-Kenyon swimming success.
Her high school team didn’t lift weights, and she was responsible for buying her own racing suits (as a result, she didn't wear a knee-skin tech suit until NCAAs her freshman year of college).
Her high school girls' team was by far better than the high school boys, and yet the second-best 500 freestyler on the girl's side was around 6:30.
At her first Olympic Trials in 2012 – after making her cut just weeks before the meet – Saiz finished 55th in the 200 fly and, despite having no real shot at making the team, left Omaha heartbroken.
Fast-forward four years and she made her Trials cut nearly every time she swam the race. She went into 2016 Trials just needing (for her own sanity) to make it through to semifinals – and she did that and more.
This time, she left Omaha disappointed on a different level because she went into the meet knowing she could make the team if everything went 100 percent right.
“I had the best race of my meet in prelims, overthought a bit too much in semis and swam a different kind of race in finals,” said Saiz, who was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and spent the first three years of her life in Fairbanks (Alaska) before moving to New York. “My body felt awful the whole time I was there. None of my races were the kind of easy speed I felt throughout the year. That finals swim was a special kind of painful.
“I still believe I’m capable of going times that will qualify me for a berth on an Olympic team. It’s like uncovering a sculpture – gotta scrape away one layer of not-quite-good-enough at a time to get to the pinnacle. Belief is the easy part. No matter how outmatched I am, I always go into the battle expecting to come out victorious.”
In the meantime, since she’s been out of college, Saiz has held several jobs that have allowed her to keep training and pursuing a much bigger dream than she ever could have imagined before attending Kenyon.
She worked at a swim school for three years – teaching lessons to kids ages 5 months and up – and worked as a barista for a couple of months, but the hours were too erratic. She’s now working as a lifeguard, but she really wants to make it as a professional swimmer.
“I really want to make swimming pay for itself, as opposed to being an extremely expensive hobby,” said Saiz, who lives in Milwaukee, Wis. “I think I’m moving in the right direction.”
Because Division III rules don’t allow for post-grads to train with their college teammates, Saiz needed a new place to swim.
She hunted down Dave Anderson and the Schroeder YMCA in Brown Deer, Wis., and moved there knowing it was a “for good” kind of thing.
After becoming familiar with the new program and coaches – and finding out where she stood as a professional on a predominantly high school-aged team – she has been excelling.
Not bad for someone who admits that she hadn’t planned on continuing to swim competitively after college.
“After NCAAs, the Kenyon seniors give speeches over dinner to the gathered family and teammates,” said Saiz, an English major at Kenyon. “I'm not a particularly eloquent public speaker. I like small words and simple ideas. The small words that escaped me that night, standing in front of the gathered Kenyon crowd were these: ‘I am not done.’
“I meant to go right into coaching. I didn't know, honestly, that non-Olympic athletes could keep swimming after college. I had a general idea about Masters swimming, but thought of it more as something that 85 year olds did to stay alive longer.”
Like every swim kid, Saiz swam dreaming of making the Olympics, but coming from an area of the country where few if any swimmers compete beyond high school, she knew of the very low statistical probability of achieving that dream.
With Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships coming up in a couple of months, she said she is more focused on swimming and seeing how far she can take it than ever before.
And she acknowledges the gifts that swimming has given her by continuing to give her best every day she’s in the water.
“I think the biggest gift that swimming as a post-grad has given to me is perspective,” said Saiz, who enjoys reading, writing and knitting as interests and hobbies. “As long as I want to keep swimming (regardless of what level that is), there will always be another meet for me. That perspective made finishing 8th in the Olympic Trials easier to deal with.
“Swimming is more about joy to me than anything. I love the work. I love that moment when your body rests on the edge between being as good as you've ever been and just a tiny bit better. When rational thought suggests, maybe we're doing more than strictly sensible; hold on, there. What we do to ourselves in the water has nothing to do with intelligent survival."