By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, May 11, 2018
With more than 20 years of competitive swimming experience, Ashley Twichell has made her fair share of sacrifices because of the sport.
“There have definitely been times where I’ve been bummed about missing something because of swimming – like going on Spring Break in college or missing a wedding because of a competition,” she said. “However, swimming has given me much, much more than it has ‘taken away.’”
Still, despite having experienced the level of frequency in which she’s had to miss or bypass an event in her or someone else’s life because of training, travel or a meet, Twichell said she’s also experienced more than her fair share of advantages – including the lifelong relationships she’s created and maintained in the water.
“The sport has given me best friends – five of my bridesmaids were girls I swam with at Duke,” she said. “It has given me amazing coaches – I had seven swim coaches at my wedding – that I have learned so much from, not just about swimming, but life.
“It has allowed me to travel and compete in more countries than I can remember. It has allowed me to create meaningful relationships with both teammates and competitors, all over the world. Any sacrifices I have made over the years for swimming have been greatly overshadowed by all of these gifts the sport has given me.”
One of the greatest gifts she’s received has been a long, successful post-collegiate career – one she says has lasted much longer than she ever imagined when she graduated from Duke and went pro several years ago.
At the time, she was only planning to continue training and competing through that summer since she had been selected to go to the National Open Water Select Camp in June.
But it was during that meet that she made her first international team, and “things just continued to snowball from there.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that I would still be competing right now, I would have told you that you were crazy,” said Twichell, who married Derek Wall in 2015 and is gaining ground on the day when she decides to hang up her suit and start a family.
“I’ve pretty much always taken it year by year, and as soon as I’m not enjoying the sport any more, I’ll know it is time to be done.”
Twichell is definitely enjoying the sport now – the past few years in particular.
A mainstay on the U.S. National and Open Water National teams, she has won the past three 10k competitions at the U.S. Open Water National Championships – bringing home title No. 4 (she also won in 2012) last weekend in Tempe, Ariz.
She said she was feeling good heading into Nationals having come off a couple of training trips to Chula Vista and Colorado Springs where she put in some really good work.
“I wouldn’t still be going with it if I didn’t still love it,” she said. “I’ve always loved training and the adrenaline and thrill that comes from pushing yourself to your limits in workout – and the competing is when you get to have fun, race and put all of that hard work to good use.
And with a berth on this summer’s Pan Pacific Championship team on the line, Twichell left nothing to chance – winning convincingly with a strong last few meters and a 17-second margin of victory.
“I was excited to race!” Twichell said. “I missed the Pan Pacs team in 2014, so I was extremely motivated to make it this go around. I wasn’t in the lead for the first half of the race – Mariah Denigan, who had a fantastic weekend, led for about the first 5K – and she was actually about 25 meters ahead of the following pack for a good portion.
“She took that lead almost immediately, and I did see her out there, but tried to stay controlled and smooth, hoping she would eventually fall back to us. I believe around the 6K is when I took over that lead position, and again tried to really stay controlled within my stroke, leaving an extra gear for that last 800 or so – which is when I opened up the gap.”
One of the reasons Twichell said she is enjoying training and competing as much as she does today is because she’s back home living and training in North Carolina with the TAC Titans and Coach John Payne. She’s also been fortunate to do some training camps with her longtime coach, mentor and friend Bill Rose.
She said her training schedule changes weekly depending on the time of year. Right now, her “average” week is anywhere between 55,000 to 70,000 yards along with dryland of core and shoulder physical therapy (surgery a few years ago) which serves as her strength training.
And while she calls herself somewhat of a “homebody,” Twichell said she feels blessed that swimming has taken her to open water races on 6 of the 7 continents, and her mom and husband have both been able to join her on a few trips.
“Getting to experience new places and cultures and create relationships with people all over the world is something I will never take for granted,” she said. “But sometimes being on the road has me missing the comfort of home and all that comes with that.
“When I got home from Open Water Nationals this past Monday, I had been away for 7 of the past 8 weeks. Needless to say, I was excited to be back in my own bed and cooking my own meals!”
And while she intends to keep competing in pool events – she went two of her best times in the 200 and 1500 freestyles earlier this season at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Atlanta – Twichell said she knows her bread and butter is in open water.
But she enjoys the balance the two different types of swimming allow her both in training and racing – and in life.
“Competing in the pool gives me a good gauge of where I am in terms of speed and endurance – and I also like racing with that black line on the bottom and my own personal lane every once in a while,” she said.
“I’ve always been intrinsically motivated by just my pure love for the sport, both training and competing. It’s tough to put into words, but there is something really special and gratifying when you put in the hard work day in and day out, and then get to experience the payout from that in competition.”
And while she’s competed at some of the biggest international competitions in the world throughout her career, Twichell continues to chase an Olympic team berth that has eluded her the past two Games.
Despite that, she said she knows that she and her swimming career will not be defined by whether or not she has Olympian in her post-competition biography.
For her, the journey upon which swimming has taken her has rewards that go far beyond conventional standards of what is and isn’t considered successful.
“Ironically, I’ve accomplished more in this sport than I ever dreamed possible, while also still hungry for more,” she said”. Having very narrowly missed the Olympic Team in 2012 and then missing again in 2016 after a shoulder surgery just 8 months before Trials have no doubt served as fuel for motivation.
“I’ve also always recognized that swimming is not my whole world, and never will be. It can be easy to sometimes lose sight of that after a bad race or when I’m frustrated with an injury, but I luckily have amazing family and friends who are there to remind me. I know that at the end of the day, whether I have a good race or a bad race, I make an Olympic Team or miss an Olympic team, I have an amazing support system to go home to, and that is comforting beyond words.”