Olympic 10km Marathon Swim Dark Horse, Ashley Twichell

Olympic 10km Marathon Swim Dark Horse, Ashley Twichell

Emerging from Duke University in her own quiet way, the statuesque Ashley Twichell has been impressing her coach at the Mission Viejo Nadadores on a daily basis for months now.

She doesn’t break down, no matter what kind of workouts we throw at her,” said Coach Bill Rose.

She just keeps it up and is competitive. She has been a great addition to our team.”

She has been impressing her pool coaches … and the international open water swimming community for several months now, all the while flying under the radar of the American media. After learning she had earned a trip to Shanghai for the 2011 World Swimming Championships, the first Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation grant recipient began a fast-track trajectory that suddenly placed her among the world’s elite open water swimmers.

I really didn’t know too much [about open water swimming] after qualifying for the World Championships. And then when I was there everything was new to me.” But her newness played into her cards as she was able to soak up the ambiance of an international competition and learn about the protocols and procedures that take place before the event. She was also able to size up her competition and saw first-hand the speed, strength and endurance of her competition on the world’s stage.

There were just so many swimmers in the 5 km race, I got out towards the front and stayed with the leaders,” recalled Twichell about her first opportunity to race against an international field. And she almost pulled off the upset of the championships. From swimming in indoor short-course pools at Duke University in North Carolina to competing in the open water in Shanghai, Twichell remained true to her calm, composed demeanor that serves her well in the chaotic scrum of open water competitions.

I learned about the finish and racing at that level,” she explained about her shoulder-to-shoulder race in the 5 km race where she captured a bronze, just a finger touch away from the gold medal. But she knew that her open water education required additional tests en route to the Olympics. Did she have a fluke race in Shanghai or did she cement her status among the world’s very best? The open water community wondered.

So she headed to Mission Viejo and continued to push her up and down the pool, soaking up in the tradition of lots of hard work from previous generations of Nadadores who succeeded at all levels of aquatics. Punctuated between long cycles of double workouts, she traveled to Mexico and captured a silver medal in the Pan American Games. Then, Rio de Janeiro was next on her agenda as she competed in a made-for-television professional race on the 2016 Rio Olympics course. With significantly colder water than expected, she learned to expect the unexpected and experienced a healthy amount of physicality that will be critical in the London Olympics. Next on her international circuit, she traveled 32 hours to South Africa where she put in a strong 10 km race before facing the Olympic 10 km gold medal favorite Keri-Anne Payne in a one-mile sprint showdown.

The two rivals went stroke-for-stroke in a beeline from start to finish at the world-famous Midmar Mile. Payne, true to her reputation and consistent with her track record, came out on top but the two women pushed themselves as they both had a first-hand chance to size up each others strengths and weaknesses .

And potentially they will both see each other again on August 9th in the Serpentine at the Olympic 10 km Marathon Swim finals. While Payne is already qualified due to her 10 km victory at the 2011 World Swimming Championships, Twichell still must overcome two hurdles to relive another battle against Payne. Firstly, she must finish among the top 15 at the final Olympic 10 km qualifier in June which, frankly, should not be a difficult task. But a much more difficult requirement is beating her friend and American teammate Haley Anderson, another tall, fit and up-and-coming world-class open water swimmer. Only one of these Americans will be able to qualify for the showdown against Payne and the rest of the Olympic marathon swimming field.

But Twichell has the tools to achieve both, as does Anderson (a subject of a subsequent article).

As a solid base, Twichell is a hard worker who welcomes putting in the hours training and pushing her body to discomfort levels that would wilt others. Commitment and focus are in her DNA.

Secondly, she is in the right program that provides her with not only the necessary mileage, but also enables her to do so day in and day out against teammates who are also world-class. “Every day, we are pushing ourselves. And Coach Rose gives us these incredible sets.”

Thirdly, she has a beautifully balanced stroke that enables her to swim straight and efficiently. Her navigational IQ is among the highest in the world’s elite which will serve her well not only in Portugal, but also whenever she is leading a pack or drafting off someone else.

Fourthly, she is an intelligent swimmer who understands the tactics and strategies of racing – and who is a student of the sport. Her composure and focused mindset, along with her underlying competitive spirit, is ideal for the pressures and dynamics of open water racing for two hours. Mellow and cool both in the water and out, panic and stress are seemingly not in her deck of cards.

Importantly, Twichell can also shift gears quickly and as needed, speeding up when necessary and going stroke-for-stroke when surges are thrown in the middle of the race.

She is also a tall, strong athlete who can hold her position around turns and in the middle of a pack. Her arm strokes are wide that enable her to create and maintain space within a tightly-knit pack. Her dual attributes of a New Yorker’s innate physicality and born athleticism enable her to hold her position wherever and whenever necessary, both essential for success at the highest echelon.

And she has the advantage of blossoming just at the right time. Her confidence radiates quietly out of her, but simply in a humble and sweet manner. She remains gracious and appreciative, smiling constantly. She is grateful of the support given to her while enjoying her ride to the top. Yet she realizes much more hard work remains and there are still tactics to learn. She knows that nothing is given and everything is earned in a sport where the unexpected is encountered at every race.

But every day, Twichell is taking a few more strokes to compete on the ultimate stage where she may fly under the radar until it is time to climb the podium.

Photo of Ashley Twichell at the USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships by Mike Lewis.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones