This past weekend at Ithaca College, senior Christine Shea swam a 1:05.65 in the 100 breastroke putting her .3 seconds away from a national cut and a 2:23.02 in the 200 putting another national cut within .7 seconds of her reach. If she continues at this pace she could make strides in the NEWMAC conference and possibly compete against some of the nation’s top swimmers.
After 18 years of being underwater Shea is practically a mermaid. Her first competitive meet happened when she was four years old. All three of her older siblings swam competitively which lead her to follow in their footsteps.
Shea planned to swim for Northeastern or UMass Amherst but after seeing the pressure her brother was under while swimming Division I and making Olympic trials, she desired an environment where her career was equally important as the sport she loved.
“Being treated as a professional [would’ve been nice] but [I’m not] Michael Phelps,” stated Shea. “[I] have to learn to make a career.”
Fortunately, Mike Boyle, a Springfield College alumni and world renowned strength coach is Shea’s boss and inspired her to enroll.
“He introduced me to weight lifting and I thought it would be really cool to learn stuff about that and I fell in love with [Springfield] because he went here,” said Shea with admiration. “I’m here for him and the swim team. I could do athletics and academics [whereas] in D1 it’s your job.”
Fortunately Shea embraced Division III with open arms and has been taking every opportunity she can to better herself. “If I went anywhere else I don’t know if I would have improved,” stated Shea.
With the core of her season in sight Shea has been training intensively to continue her winning streak. Her driven mindset and healthy lifestyle are what propel her into the pool each day and permit her to leave with note-worthy times.
“This year is the fastest I’ve [swam] in a dual meet season ever which is exciting because I’m currently top 25 in the nation,” said Shea brightly. “But it’s scary because I need to maintain that [especially in February].” In order to compete at the national level she cannot let up or lose sight of the ultimate goal. “I’m trusting the process. I’m trying to stay humble, [I] need to stay humble because things can change.”
In the past people always saw Shea’s potential but this is the first time she truly believes it.
“It’s the first time that I’m confident in my abilities and it’s because of John and Karina, my stroke coach,” declared Shea. This year they changed Shea’s training, which she was extremely nervous about for her senior year, but it has resulted in her quickest times to date.
Besides being gifted at swimming, it is something that Shea loves with every fiber of her being. “It’s the place that I go to where everything makes sense,” she said.
Shea appreciates the way her sport forces her to go outside of her comfort zone. The amount of success she reaps will result from the amount of time she puts into working on herself. All Shea has to do now is believe in her abilities.
“It’s you and the clock. It’s you against yourself and I find that environment super competitive for what I like,” explained Shea. “Life is so chaotic and filled with things you can’t control but in swimming [I] focus on what I can control.”
A vital part of being in control is practicing her pre-meet rituals.
“I wear the same cap and goggles, I eat the same things during a meet, the same travel outfit, same warm-up, same cool-down, I’m a creature of habit.”
Shea’s parents however, noticed she was unbeatable when her routine was altered in some way and Shea took note of it.
“When I get thrown off I have my best swims so sometimes I will purposefully do that to myself,” said Shea. “I [had] to get used to being uncomfortable. I can’t solely depend on [my superstitions] because I can’t just give up on a meet.”
“Swimming is just like every other individual sport,” stated Shea. “You can plateau, you have really good races and really bad races and this is when the roller coaster starts but I’m trying to maintain and keep the faith.”
For the past two years Shea has come within milliseconds of nationals which is no small feat. “To make nationals you have to be in the top 20,” said Shea. “You can make the time but if you’re not in the top NCAA selects you don’t go.” Last year Shea’s times and talent placed her in the top 30, but she did not make the cut.
With one season left, the time to dig deep is now.
Sophomore year was the wake up call for Shea. She finally realized what she was capable of, but junior year was a blur. On top of academic stress and pressure to perform well in her events, Shea had a hard time grappling with being away from her family.
Shea and her older brother are best friends but he is currently in the military. He was deployed to Africa which put a strain on his ability to watch her swim.
Shea’s father also had cancer last year which took a toll on her frequently. “It was really hard and I tried to stay motivated,” remembered Shea. “He was in bad shape but still came to my meets so I tried to swim as fast as possible and make him proud.”
Whenever Shea’s father arrived to a meet after chemotherapy she was given extra fuel to swim harder. “I was swimming for more than just me,” Shea said. “My parents are always my motivation.” Their support is what Shea believes contributed the most to her success over the years. “I owe them so much.”
Besides her loving family members, Shea’s head coach John Taffe has had a critical role in the star athlete’s progression.
“He can tap into my [energy] more than any coach I’ve had [in the past] and he knows what will work,” assured Shea. “Some of my best races happen after [Taffe] says something like, ‘you’re gonna light this place up,’” she said enthusiastically. “So I usually look to him when I need to get out of my own head.”
After 18 years of swimming the act can get tiring, but under Taffe’s instruction Shea has been able to fall in love with the sport again. “He sparked that thing in me where I [realized] I could do something badass,” said Shea with a smile.
From Taffe’s point of view Shea is putting together her best season so far and is blossoming during her senior year. “She has tremendous work ethic and is very self motivated,” said Taffe. “She does those little extra things on her own to try to help herself improve and sometimes the best thing for us to do is stay out of her way.”
In past years Springfield had accomplished swimmers who raced in the events Shea swims now but Shea was in their shadow. “Now she’s in the spotlight and she has embraced that,” stated Taffe. “It isn’t something that she’s afraid of.”
Taffe does not have any personal expectations for Shea for the season but hopes that she uses each practice and meet as a lesson for coming years. “If [everything] comes together for [Shea] I’d like to think that this was something that really contributed to her being considered for [greater opportunities] in the near future.”
Danielle Hoffner was one of the freshmen Shea took under her wing last year. “She encourages people to do their best,” said Hoffner. “When she sees you having a bad day she gives you words of encouragement or [congratulates you on your performance] after races.”
Hoffner admires Shea for her candor. “She doesn’t beat around the bush, she tells it to you straight,” said Hoffner confidently. “[Shea] is probably the best breaststroker we have on the team right now [but] keeps [us] grounded with her humbleness.”
“I don’t want to graduate without leaving a legacy,” Shea stated. “I would hate to leave being nameless, faceless. I want to make an impact.” Whether that legacy be helping her teammates lift weights properly, improving their stroke, or making memories at team pasta parties, the little things are what matter to Shea most.
Outside of swimming Shea aspires to be a well-rounded individual. Despite the difficulties of every-day life and the stress of school, she appreciates her ability to assess situations realistically and bounce back. “I try not to internalize things,” said Shea. “I can wake up and say yesterday sucked but today is a new day and nothing is preventing me from [moving forward] besides myself.”
Shea’s final home meet is senior night on January 27. “That’s when it’s going to be real that I’m a senior,” stated Shea. “All four years I’ve been saying goodbye but [it’s finally time] for my team to say goodbye to me.”
The ultimate goal for Shea’s last season is to make nationals, but the competition is brutal. “You don’t know where you stand until the week of the cut off,” said Shea on a serious note. “I am praying that I can make it because that would be amazing.”
Shea has no doubt that 2018 is the year for her team to make a breakthrough. “We’re gonna kill it,” said Shea with a shrug of her shoulders. “This is the first year that every single [person] on my team can go to [NEWMAC’s] and we’re gonna do something special.”