“This is where I wanted to be.”
March 26, 2013
Amy Spaay's two passions, theater and swimming, bring out completely different leadership styles in the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater junior.
And she's fine with that.
On stage, Spaay is invisible -- supporting the cast from behind the scenes, making sure the lighting, sets and costumes exceed everyone's expectations.
In the pool, she's an athletic superstar -- slicing through the water, smashing records and inspiring her teammates to make school history.
At the NCAA Division III championships, held March 20-23 in Shenandoah, Texas, Spaay became the first UW-Whitewater swimmer or diver to win a national title.
Actually, she won two. Her time of 1:00.85 in the 100-yard breaststroke set a championship meet record. Later, she swam the 200-yard breaststroke in 2:14.71, breaking the school record she had already obliterated by five seconds in February.
"It always feels amazing to break records. I wasn't expecting my times to be that fast at that meet so breaking the records by so much was a complete surprise," Spaay said.
In competitive swimming, five seconds is an eternity. It's evidence of a very talented athlete.
Spaay's life as a Warhawk almost didn't happen. Her college experience came to a crossroads when she received an unsatisfactory ultimatum at her former school.
Just last year, Spaay was a rising star at the University of Arizona, an NCAA Division I institution with one of the top swimming programs in the country.
"They said I had to choose either theater or swimming," she said. "I wanted to do both."
Spaay, from Neenah, decided to return to her home state and see if she could make a splash as a Warhawk.
"Everyone was so welcoming," she said. "As soon as I came to UW-Whitewater, I knew this is where I wanted to be."
Like most student-athletes at UW-Whitewater, swimmers and divers work hard to balance an academic and athletic life. On top of a full load of classes, they're in the pool at least two hours every day, weight-training twice a week, and taking a regular spin class.
"Students get really good at learning time management," said head coach Joel Rollings. "They have academic expectations and family commitments. There's a level of trust and balance. I trust that they'll be training on their own. Everything in college has value."
Spaay credits much of her success to Rollings, who encouraged her to look at swimming differently.
"He showed me that stroke and technique are just as important as muscle and power," she said. "I started looking at the water not as an opponent, but as an ally. He keeps practices fresh and fun. He makes sure we love it."
"Each athlete has different ways of looking at things and different motivation," said Rollings. "The tough part is trying to figure out what will work for them."
If the team's success is any indication, Rollings, who won WIAC Coach of the Year, is riding a dynamic wave.
UW-Whitewater swimmers and divers have broken more than two dozen school records this season and sent nine athletes to the national championships -- the most ever.
At the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Championships, Feb. 14-16 in Brown Deer, both the men's and women's teams placed third overall, with 711 and 652 points respectively -- their best finish ever.
Spaay was named WIAC Swimmer of the Meet and freshman Sierra Becker, a special education major from River Falls, was named WIAC Diver of the Meet.
"It was definitely a memorable moment to be recognized in that way," said Becker, who scored first place in the one-meter dive. "It serves as motivation to continue working hard and keep challenging myself so that I can hopefully keep contributing to the team's success."
Ask her about her accomplishments, and Spaay, too, will talk about the incredible support system she's found at UW-Whitewater.
Whether it's recognizing a swimmer who drops a few seconds off his or her personal best, or celebrating a relay victory, there's a strong bond among the athletes.
"I am very fortunate to be a part of this team because we are like a family," said Becker. "We all work very well together and respect and motivate each other. We truly are a team and want each other to do well."
"It's not about how fast I can go. I came here to be part of a team," said Spaay. "I never would have done any of it without their support. I owe every record and every award to them."
Despite all her accomplishments, Spaay says it'll probably be a while before it all sinks in. Besides, the pool will be there next year.
It's great experience, she says, to prepare for a career in arts and entertainment. She's learned so much in just her first year at UW-Whitewater, and says her comprehensive education has given her skills she can use in multiple settings, from television to motion pictures.
"I love it," she said. "I can't imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life."
Photos (from top): Amy Spaay is victorious in the WIAC Championships (courtesy Dan Hansher); Amy Spaay swims the breaststroke (courtesy Dan Hansher); Warhawk relay team members Amy Spaay, Kendall Thompson, Kelsey Kohlbeck, and Stacey Kindcade; Landon Joiner, Joey Devroy, Ben Wynn, and Marcus Genric (courtesy Dan Hansher); the cast and crew of "Our Town" rehearses in the Greenhill Center of the Arts (courtesy Sarah Altermatt).