Former National Team Members Find Success at the Collegiate Level
by Alyssa Jacobs
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Many former USA Artistic Swimming national team members will meet in Stanford, Calif. on April 15th for the U.S. Collegiate Championship representing different collegiate teams, training with different goals then they had during their time in the national talent program. Despite having once shared the responsibility of representing the USAAS organization, the athletes all now wear different logos on their chests. We caught up with Natalia Vega (senior, Incarnate Word), Rachel Jager (senior, Ohio State) and Emmanuella Tchakmakjian (freshman, Stanford) to discuss what this season has been like as collegiate athletes. The commonality amongst the group: they all were members of the 2017 senior national team. Similarly, they’ve all had the opportunity to represent America on the international stage at both junior and senior world championships. Natalia took her talents to Texas to represent UIW, Emma to stayed on the west coast to compete at Stanford and Rachel ventured to Ohio to swim for the Buckeyes.
The three collegiate teams all met twice this season for virtual invitationals where Stanford claimed first ahead of Ohio State followed by Incarnate Word. The varsity teams have had to be creative this season to be able to compete, and the championship will be the first time the Buckeyes share the same pool as their competitors and the first time they debut their team routines this season. Regardless of the format, competition was close at every meet, making the field for the 2021 championship especially exciting, particularly in the solo category between Stanford's Jacklyn Luu, Ohio State's Laila Huric and UIW's Natalia Vega. In addition to these unique circumstances, all teams have an intense desire to compete given the cancellation of last year’s championship and a passion to represent their athletic departments. This combination of factors makes the energy surrounding this year’s event very special.
What are your future career goals?
Rachel: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in kinesiology, then possibly going into physical therapy for athletes or another career related to health and wellness.
Emma: At the moment, my goal is to attend law school and pursue an Olympic sport-related leadership career.
What was your favorite memory representing USAAS on the world stage?
Natalia: Two of my favorites were training camp in Malta and swimming team (tech and free) in Budapest 2017... Nothing will ever compare to that feeling! Walking out and swimming to thousands of people in the stands and all of them cheering for you.
Rachel: Being able to meet athletes from all around the world who have dedicated their lives to the same sport as me. It is a cool feeling knowing that someone on the other side of the world is doing the same thing that I do every day.
Emma: The Comen Cup in 2016 holds a special place in my heart. My coaches placed extreme emphasis on the power of self-discipline and that redefined the purpose of preparation for me. When I got to the competition, I knew that our team had given it our all to strongly represent the United States. That distinct feeling of trust in myself and my team that I had on deck right before we were about to swim is still unforgettable.
What has/was the transition been like to competing at the collegiate level?
Natalia: During my journey, I went from junior team in 2016 to my freshman year of college, then went back to national team and trained for worlds 2017. In 2019, I took a gap year and competed in mixed duet before returning to UIW. I’ve had to transition from collegiate to national team quite a bit in the past five years. But competing at the collegiate level is a fun and unique experience.
Rachel: In college, we have to fit all of our training into a 20-hour weekly schedule with is very different from the national team environment. Because we have such a condensed training schedule, we have to get creative outside of the pool and weight room to find time to review our routines and stretch. Many of us request extra practice time knowing it takes a lot more work than 20 hours a week to become champions.
Emma: I find myself so in love with the team's camaraderie. My teammates and coaches here at Stanford have made the transition so special. I've never felt so supported and loved as I do with this team and they bring out the best in me.
What has training through a pandemic been like for you and your team?
Natalia: Challenging, chaotic and stressful! But it has also been extremely rewarding. It is definitely a year I won’t forget.
Rachel: So many ups and downs. With our amazing athletic department's help, we have gotten to practice with each other every day in the safest ways possible. Of course, it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing but our team is built with the most resilient group of girls and coaching staff who are able to adapt and thrive whatever is thrown our way. We like to focus on what we call ‘pandemic perks’ and remember the positive.
Emma: Just like everyone else, we went into this season embracing the unknown. We weren't in control of our training protocols, dorm housing situations and whether competition would even be a reality. While we all did want the chance to perform, we made it our main focus to be present and appreciate every single moment together. This has really enhanced our momentum as a team and has made the experience even more meaningful.
How did your team work through the cancellation of last year’s championship and what has it taught you?
Natalia: I will never forget that day or the faces of our seniors. That cancellation brought a lot of sadness but we promised each other that this year would be dedicated to all the seniors that never had their last collegiate championship. That cancellation taught me to not take anything for granted and always swim like it's the last time.
Rachel: Last year was extremely disappointing to have been a week away from the championship and then have it taken away from us, but especially from our seniors who dedicated four years to the program and weren’t able to finish their careers.What it has taught us is that the journey to get to a championship is filled with so many valuable moments, lessons and memories. Even though we weren’t able to complete the journey last year, it was not a year wasted by any means.
Emma: This experience is not mine to tell, but I want to take a moment to appreciate my teammates that went through this cancellation. Their loyalty and unity to each other is their strength and that has continued to prevail in our team dynamic this year. I am genuinely so inspired by all of them because they have shown me that the biggest "win" is fully appreciating the love that we share for each other.
What are you most excited for at the collegiate championship and what does representing your university mean to you?
Natalia: Well, I haven’t been to a collegiate championship since 2018 (2019 gap year / 2020 cancellation) So I’m just excited to go back but definitely most excited to swim my heart out and represent UIW one last time. Representing UIW means a lot and brings a lot of emotions as I know my time here is ending very very soon. “Peck em’ queen forever”
Rachel: I am most excited to compete again. We have had two virtual competitions this year, but it’s not the same as being able to swim in front of the judges and see your competitors at the pool. Swimming in front of a panel of judges gives me that spark to perform, which is a feeling that I have really missed. At Ohio State, our team's core values are respect, defend, protect. So, when I compete as an Ohio state athlete, I’m not just swimming for myself, but for the Ohio State athletes who have come before me, for all of my current teammates, and for our program's future athletes.
Emma: I know it's going to be the best experience in my entire synchronized swimming career. I get goosebumps thinking about the moment when we will yell our "L-E-L..." cheer in our home pool right before swimming for the last time as a varsity program. We will quite literally leave everything in the pool and I know that it'll be a moment that I'll never forget. It's a blessing to represent Stanford because I've dreamed about swimming for Stanford ever since I was a child and the fact that it is my reality is still unfathomable.
How has competing with your collegiate team impacted you as an athlete or person?
Natalia: Competing with my collegiate team has been an honor. In our program we have swimmers from all over the world... literally! Every person that I’ve swam with in the past four years has impacted my life for the better and I’m grateful to have made some of my best friends here.
Rachel: Competing with my collegiate team has helped me grow into a team player. Throughout my career as an athlete, I was very focused on my personal goal of securing a spot on the national team. For this goal I only needed to focus on the improvement of my own abilities. After coming to Ohio State my goal shifted from being individual-focused to team-focused. I learned very quickly that the best teams are made of athletes who want to improve and succeed for each other. I come to the pool every day knowing that each of my teammates is giving everything they’ve got to our team, which pushes me to do the same.
Emma: I've definitely grown in every way. This experience has been so overwhelmingly positive and I know that I made the right decision coming to Stanford. The motivational climate here has increased my self-confidence and the love that I feel from my teammates is unparalleled. I haven't been this happy being myself in a long time, and this feeling has manifested positive reward in every aspect of my life. The collegiate experience has also made me fall in love with the sport again and that's something that I'm really grateful for.