By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Photo courtesy Texas Athletics
Even though she comes from a large family – the youngest of four kids – it wasn’t until she started swimming that Grace Ariola felt like she truly belonged.
With a father who played semi-pro baseball, an athletic mom and brothers and sisters who were skilled in baseball and softball, Ariola said she felt like she didn’t “fit in” with them because she was so clumsy and awkward on land.
Fortunately for Ariola, water “called out to her” and is where she found her passion and identity.
“I have terrible hand-eye coordination, which doesn’t translate well to land sports with balls, which most of them do,” said the University of Texas freshman sprinter. “So, when you have parents and siblings who are all good at those sports and you’re not, you feel left out.
“Once I found swimming, my confidence skyrocketed because I loved it, and I was good at it. The pool was where I was comfortable and where I belonged.”
Ariola’s love affair with swimming began as a 7-year-old, and she swam summer leagues with the Stingray Swim Club before joining the WAVES Team in her Bloomington, Ill., hometown.
And despite a short time between her 15th and 16th birthdays when she considered giving up the sport because she “lost the joy” and “went through the motions” at practice and meets, Ariola has been completely committed to swimming.
“My mom tells me that I was born to be in the water; the pool called to me,” Ariola said. “When I was little, we used to go boating and tubing a lot, and I would stand on the boat and act like I was going to jump off into the water. That’s how much I loved it. No fear.”
Nearing the completion of her freshman season and year in Austin – a city that Ariola loves for its vibrancy, youth and, above all else, warm winter weather – she said the transition from high school to college has been solid but not within out its challenges.
As for her swimming, she said she loves being part of such a supportive team that looks out for one another and holds each other accountable.
It’s one of the factors that has helped her become a better swimmer and competitor this year – although she said that may not have been apparent from her performance last week at NCAA Championships in her home pool.
“I’m happy that I was able to score a (individual) point (in the 50 freestyle), but being part of the relays was amazingly rewarding and satisfying,” Ariola said, who finished 16th in the 50 free, swam the lead off leg on the 200 freestyle relay (8th) and anchored the 200 medley (12th) and 400 free (4th) relays for the Longhorns at NCAAs.
“It was my first NCAAs, and although I’ve competed at big meets before last week, it was still an experience I was unfamiliar with, and it took me a little while to get used to it. But I left the meet with another great experience that I will use to my advantage moving forward, just as I have with every other meet experience. It’s always a learning process for me.”
Over the past few years, Ariola has had a pool full of great experiences – Olympic Trials, Junior World Championships, Junior Pan Pacific Championships and Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – so she said she feels she’s gained a lot of “big-meet” experience.
Based on her fourth-place finish in the 50 free at Phillips 66 Nationals last summer, she’s a member of the U.S. National Team and is looking forward to competing this summer at World University Games in Naples, Italy.
Being of Italian descent (her father’s family is from Italy), Ariola said this trip is a great opportunity to swim fast, gain more experience and learn a bit more about her heritage – although she’s not expecting to have much free time outside of the pool while she’s there.
“My parents are joining me on the trip, and they are going to stay longer to visit with some family there, but for me, it’s all about the swimming, and swimming fast,” said Ariola, who will compete in the 50 free and select relays in Italy. “One thing I’ve realized over the past few years through my competitions is that I belong – that I can compete with anyone.
“When you’ve swum against legends like Simone (Manuel) and Mallory (Comerford) and others at Nationals, you really do begin to realize that you can hold your own. That has been huge for my confidence, and I look forward to competing because now I know I can.”
And with her second Olympic Trials next summer – although still more than a year away – Ariola said she knows, based on all of her recent experience and success, her approach and expectations will be much different in 2020 than they were in 2016.
In 2016, she was a 16-year-old backstroker/freestyler searching for her own international swimming identity who went to Omaha wanting to gain experience but left with a ninth-place finish (100 backstroke) and great memories for the future.
This time, she’s an experienced international swimmer who is expecting to not only final but potentially earn a spot on her first Olympic Team – something that’s been a goal of hers for years.
Still, she said she is confident that, at the conclusion of her career, she won’t look back with disappointment or regret if she doesn’t get to compete at the Olympics – although it’s a dream she said she’s going to continue to pursue.
“When I think back to that time when I really wanted to stop swimming, I’m so glad that I didn’t quit because swimming has given me so much, especially the past few years, and it’s not just the travel and competition; it’s helps me find my own identity,” she said. “I’m so grateful for everything USA Swimming has done for me, for my coaches, for my family and friends and teammates.
“You don’t get to this stage of swimming by yourself. You do it with the help and support of others, and I am so thankful for everyone who has helped me along the way. I’m excited for what’s still to come.”