Tappin: Heart Of A Wildcat

By Emi Komiya

Georgia native Ashley Tappin began swimming when she and her mother moved to Florida and Tappin joined the local swim team at the YMCA. Her coach immediately recognized her special talent and recommended she swim competitively.

"I was competing by the age of nine. I swam breaststroke, which coincidentally would not become my specialty in the future. By age 11 I was competing (at Junior Nationals)," said Tappin.

Tappin lived a relatively normal life with the exception of spending extensive hours in the swimming pool. She would later move to New Orleans with her mother to continue training with her coach Allen Smith, where she swam for him on both a club team and later her high school team.

"By thirteen I was already in the Olympic trials," said Tappin "When I swam for St. Martins High School in New Orleans, I was swimming butterfly in freestyle events, lapping my opponents and racing against the boys' teams."

At 17, Tappin qualified to compete at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, where she swam in the 4x100-meter relay qualifiers and earned her first gold medal.

"Being so young, I wasn't completely aware and I took the experience for granted," said Tappin, "At the time, going pro was not really a realistic option for female swimmers.  I knew college would be the next best option. Swimming was the only decision when it came to choosing a school."

Tappin set her sights on the University of Florida where she established loyalty with the program and her coach. During her freshman year at Florida, Tappin earned two NCAA titles. However, the swimming program faced a change of circumstance and Tappin felt her priorities shifting toward a new horizon.

"Arizona was always an option and it turned out to be the best fit for me. Transferring is one of the best decisions I ever made. The athletics program (at Arizona) cared about the swimmers and the coaching staff was just excellent," said Tappin.

Life in Tucson continued to revolve around swimming. Tappin was simultaneously training to compete with the Wildcats, training for the Olympics, and pursuing a degree in business. Overwhelmed with the pressure on her body, Tappin was due for a big decision.

"By my junior year, my shoulders were severely injured from chronic improper over-use," said Tappin. "The NCAA championships and the Olympic trials were three weeks apart that year, I couldn't do both so I had to make a decision."

Tappin would ultimately decide to stay in the United States during the 1996 Olympics and compete as a Wildcat.

"To me, it was a no brainer. I was not in the best shape, so going to the Olympics was not the right thing at the time. Plus, I owed it to my team, the school, and the coaches to stay and compete. The women's NCAA is the toughest environment I have ever been in. There's a lot of estrogen and intensity," said Tappin with a laugh.

Thereafter, Tappin had repair surgery on her shoulders. She would go on to earn five NCAA titles at Arizona. Upon the conclusion of her eligibility in late 1997 Tappin decided to venture to Los Angeles where she modeled for a year.

"It wasn't anything serious, I just had outgrown college. But L.A. was just a distraction, it didn't end up being the best thing for me," said Tappin.

By 1999, Tappin had set her sights back on swimming. She made the decision to come out of retirement and move to the Olympics training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo. At the facility, Tappin learned new mechanical swimming techniques to prevent wear on her shoulders.

"That was the most focused I had ever been about swimming. I put in 100 percent effort every day because I felt like I wasn't finished," said Tappin. "It didn't matter if I didn't make the team. I just knew I had to try and I trained to be the best in that year and a half."

Tappin competed in the 2000 Games in Sydney where she received two more gold medals in the heat qualifiers in the medley relay and the freestyle relay.

"I was 25 by then so the experience was completely different from Barcelona," said Tappin. "I was a leader for the younger swimmers who were upset about things like missing prom because of the Olympics. After being a member of the USA National team for about 14 years, the perspective changed as I got older."

By then, Tappin was ready to retire from a lifetime of swimming ranked as one of the top five swimmers in the world.

Currently, Tappin is happily married to Russell Doussan and living in New Orleans with their one-year-old twins, Beau and Hartley.

"I would never push anything on my kids. I wouldn't encourage them to be swimmers. It really is one of the most physically and mentally demanding sports. There were times when I wanted to stop (badly)," said Tappin.

Tappin's daughter Hartley was born with Down syndrome, and had to undergo heart surgery at birth, but today she is healthy.

"We found out that Hartley's doctors participate in traveling around the world to perform open heart surgeries for children in less developed countries," said Tappin, "I immediately knew it was my calling to help the doctors who saved my daughter's life to fund these trips. My swimming career has helped with that."

Hartley's Hearts Foundation has become Tappin's main focus. She has been able to publicize her cause enough to fund two trips to Paraguay and Russia thus far.

"I don't know how we do it. One trip sends a team of doctors to perform 12 heart surgeries in eight days," Tappin said.

As reporters learn of Tappin's career as a swimmer and her story of Hartley's Heart Foundation they share it with the community allowing the foundation to thrive.

Tappin was inducted into the University of Arizona Hall of Fame in 2005 and coached at the University of New Orleans. Currently, she swims recreationally and teaches private lessons sporadically.

"I would not have chosen a different path. I will forever be a Wildcat above anything else. If you have hopes and dreams and you walk away then you will live with regret. And I told myself I wouldn't do that," said Tappin.

Today, Tappin's gold medals lie tucked away as a memory of her accomplishments and her life as a world-class swimmer.

"You only get one shot and getting the medals was the icing on the cake, but the cake is what matters," she said. "The hard work and pain and giving it my everything is what matters."

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