Journey to athletic success included a generous amount of faith


Just a sophomore, Notre Dame swimmer Rhianna Hensler already has three state championships.

(Read Hensler's own account of the journey to her latest state titles.)

At the recently concluded state finals in swimming and diving held at Eastern Michigan University, the Notre Dame girls team broke the top-10 for the first time in school history, placing eighth out of 36 teams in Division 3.

Sophomore Rhianna Hensler defended her 100 butterfly state title from last year, placing first with a new D-3 record time of 55.67. She also earned another individual state title with a win in the 50 free at 23.78.

Hensler is still trying to come to grips.

"It continues to feel a little surreal, to be honest," she said. "I wrote a goal sheet at the beginning of the season, and believe it or not, one of my main goals was to win two state titles."

She said that goal was in her head all season but actually achieving it was something else entirely. 

"It's one thing to set a goal, but it's a whole different feeling when you actually achieve it," she added. "I'm definitely looking forward to more success in the next two years, but it's all about the process and taking it one day at a time. It's not so much about the success as it is about the experience and enjoying my time as a high school swimmer."

Competing since she was seven
Getting to three state titles with such a promising future didn't happen overnight for Hensler, however. She's been competing in the pool since she was only seven years old.

"Growing up, I had always loved swimming and being in the water, but it took me a while to find out that competitive swimming was an actual sport," she said. "I tried gymnastics, tennis, dance, basketball, soccer and even karate before my parents told me about a local swim team. It was the only sport I started that I didn't want to quit after a month or two, mainly because I just loved being in the water." 

Hensler's current NDP coach, Nim Shapira, also knows a little about being in the water. A two-time Olympian for the Israeli national team, Shapira says Hensler is a special athlete.

"Rhianna showed great attention to detail throughout the entire season," he said. "That, along with a tremendous work ethic certainly paid off at the state championships. But besides being a great swimmer, Rhianna is also a great leader by example and will be one of our captains for the upcoming season. I'm very excited to have her play such an active role in the team and to help mentor our other swimmers."

But it hasn't been all smooth sailing for Hensler. Like many competing in high school athletics, she had some doubts about her ability to make it at that level.

"Last year was my first year on a high school team, and going into the states, I didn't think anybody really knew who I was, so there was no pressure to prove anything to anyone," she said. "I knew it was going to be tough to achieve a state title in the 100 fly because there were older and more experienced girls training to win, including the then-Division 3 record holder. Also, there were so many times throughout the season that I doubted my ability to win the event once I got to the state finals. But my coach last year, Shawn Kornoelje, never stopped believing in me and never doubted I could reach my goals." 

Hensler said her teammates last year also were incredibly supportive.

"After the state prelims last year, I was seeded second in the 100 fly. I remember trying to fall asleep the night before the championships and thinking 'How am I going to pull this off tomorrow?' I started praying and was able to calm down and relax. At the finals the next day, I knew I had so much support from my teammates, my coach and my school. I could not have won that state title without them."

A healthy dose of faith

Fast forward to this year's just-completed season, which, Hensler said, included a lot more pressure than she experienced in 2016.

"People began to know my name and face," she said. "By the time I got to states, I felt the weight of expectations and I let it get to me in prelims, which I believe resulted in a lot of negative energy and some bad laps. "After prelims, I found myself thinking once again, 'How am I going to pull this off?'" 

This time around, Hensler said, it took a lot more to overcome the pressure and overbearing weight of expectations.

"I spent a lot of time reflecting and in prayer, plus I listened to Newsboys' songs, read Scripture passages and watched a lot of Father Mike Schmitz videos to help me get over the pressure and the expectations," she said. "I truly believe I was able to win these last two two state titles in large part because of my faith."

Hensler also reserves special praise this for her coach.

"Coach Shapira has been such a big inspiration to me — as both a swimmer and a person," she said. "It's always a little nerve-wracking when you get a new coach because every coach has different training styles and philosophies. Luckily, Coach Shapira turned out to be exactly what I needed in a coach. He helped me with everything from technique to mental training to learning how to have fun and relax. He's also an Olympian, so I greatly appreciated his experienced insight and perspectives of the sport. He's been amazing!" 

When she's not in a pool competing or training, Hensler, who also participates in Notre Dame Prep's student council and is a member of the National Honor Society, said her faith also plays a big role in her life at Notre Dame.

"Every class at NDP provides me with great opportunities, but my favorite class has always been religion," she said. "I was blessed throughout middle school and now in high school to have great religion teachers who are so passionate about teaching the subject. I love learning about my faith, and religion class has quickly become for me 45 minutes of spiritual growth and self discovery."

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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at