Finding The Importance Of Team
This feature originally appeared in the 2021 Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.
Alicia Wilson relishes being a part of the Cal women's swimming team. The camaraderie, the friendships, the encouragement … all have made a profound impact during her first three years as a Golden Bear.
But for Wilson to earn her place on the British Olympic team for the Tokyo Games – she hails from Guildford, a town about 30 miles southwest of London – she would have to swim virtually alone. Not only did she have to leave her Cal teammates behind for her final training stretch, but COVID-19 regulations at the time of the British Swimming Selection Trials in April prevented even members of her immediate family being present at the venue.
"You couldn't even leave your hotel room to go for a walk during the day," Wilson said. "You could literally just go to the pool. It was so challenging. I couldn't see my parents for the full week. I couldn't see anyone outside of that bubble."
Despite the circumstances, Wilson came through with a performance of a lifetime in her specialty, the 200-meter individual medley. She touched the final wall in 2:09.61, a two-second improvement on her personal best that was good for second place in her race
"When I was diving off the blocks, I was thinking about the whole year and just how I needed something to make all that struggle and hardship really, truly worth it," Wilson said. "I wanted to look back and be proud. This was my last chance and I wanted to make something worth it."
While Wilson would have to wait a couple of weeks to be named to Britain's Tokyo team officially – the trials were the second part of a selection phase – she knew that her place was essentially secured. The final announcement was a mere formality.
The value of personal support, whether relatives, friends or teammates, revealed itself as much as ever over the past year and a half. For Wilson, it became apparent soon after COVID-19 shut down the sports world in March 2020, less than a week before the Bears were to compete at the NCAA Championships. The news sent team members scattering to their hometowns for remote learning, with Wilson returning to the UK.
The 2020 Olympics, a focal point for athletes around the world, were soon postponed and uncertainty reigned. Separated from the Cal community by thousands of miles, Wilson said she felt lucky to have the support of coaches Teri McKeever and Dani Korman and her teammates to help her through the difficult stretches.
"I think everyone had their own internal struggles this year," said Wilson, who claimed a gold medal in the 200 IM at the 2019 World University Games before the pandemic set in. "It was obviously so much harder this year than any other year. We couldn't all come together. Even though I was a captain, at times I didn't feel as though I was leading the team, or I was having my own struggles and I was not leading by example."
At the outset of the pandemic, pools and borders were closed, putting Wilson's status as a swimmer and Cal student in limbo. The week of the originally scheduled British trials in the spring of 2020 proved to be a low point.
"The date that I was supposed to be competing at the trials, which I hoped to make the Olympics, my grandpa passed away," Wilson said. "I was at the funeral on the day I thought I was going to be making the Olympic team. I wasn't sure because of my visa status that I could come back (to Berkeley), and I couldn't swim."
Wilson made it back to campus in mid-August. While she was able to resume swimming workouts with her teammates in Berkeley, limited cohort sizes prevented everyone from practicing together. There was also no guarantee of a collegiate season.
"Any time we got to race, we didn't know if it was going to be the first time or the last time," McKeever said. We didn't know if we were going to have Pac-12s. We didn't know if we were going to have an NCAAs. We had to be grateful and appreciate the opportunity to race. I think that helped because people didn't take it for granted."
Back in a team environment, Wilson thrived in the water, setting lifetime bests in six individual events, including Cal pool and dual-meet records in the 200- and 400-yard individual medley. At the Pac-12 meet, she captured the conference title in the 200 IM, anchored the 800 free relay to a Pac-12 crown and earned runner-up finishes in the 200 back and 400 IM. Three weeks later at the NCAA Championships in March, Wilson claimed third place in the 200 IM and on the 800 free relay.
Soon after, Wilson left Berkeley behind again and was back in the UK preparing for the Olympic trials a year after the first attempt was canceled. Having been through the confines of a collegiate season, one that included regular COVID testing, physical distancing and reduced in-person interactions, she had a better idea what to expect than her last visit to her home country.
"I think it helped with adaptability and understanding how to go with the flow," McKeever said. "As an athlete or a coach, you want to have some consistency and predictability. We all lost that in the last year. While it's been incredibly nerve-wracking, I think the athletes who have been able to focus on what we can control and find a way with whatever we're dealt to make the best of it are really the ones who are going to succeed."
A business administration major at the Haas School of Business, Wilson also maintained her academic focus and earned Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll mention for the second consecutive year. In addition, she serves as vice president of the Cal Sports Marketing Club.
"I had no idea what I wanted to do when I first came to Cal," Wilson said. "It was like, 'Wow, I made it to Cal!' I didn't even think about my major. Then my second semester, I loved studying at the business school and started taking courses for it. I'm so glad I enrolled in that degree program. I'm the only Haas major (on the team), which has forced me to reach out to other people and to find classmates that I could connect with. I really like having that community away from the swimming pool."
There's that word "community" again. Whether teammates, classmates, coaches or family, Wilson knows how much it means.
"During a crisis, it is incredibly hard to see such experiences as an opportunity for growth," Wilson wrote on her LinkedIn page after making the British Olympic team. "But, if there is anything I have learned in this grueling year, it is that with the right support system, there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel."
UPDATE: Wilson qualified for the Olympic semifinals of the 200 IM during the opening heats Sunday night. She will swim for a spot in the final Monday night Pacific Time.