My journey to states

Rhianna Hensler, currently a 10th grader at Notre Dame Prep and a swimmer for the Irish swim team, earned the second and third of her three state championships last month at the MHSAA swimming and diving finals held at Eastern Michigan University. Her success in the pool was not without help, something she readily acknowledges. In fact, Hensler says that none of her athletic prowess would be possible withour her coaches, her teammates, the band AC/DC, and most importantly, her God.

She wrote about the road to this year's state championship. Take a look. 

My journey to states

By Rhianna Hensler, sophomore at Notre Dame Preparatory School

Going into sophomore season, I was really excited. I was coming off of a pretty good summer season and a great freshman season. I won the 100 fly as a freshman, and set the D3 and school record. This year, I wanted to reclaim the title, win my other event, and more. It was up there on my goal sheet in my room, and I could see it everyday. Everyday I was training and working so hard. I gave so much effort in practice, in the weight room, whenever and wherever I was working to get myself better. I was focused, and I was determined. 

In early October, the team swam at the Oakland County Championships. I ended up winning the 100 fly and getting second in the 50 free, and going best times in both events. I was really happy, and looked forward to going even faster at States.

I continued working in practice and the weight room. In the last few weeks of the season, I was doing sets and going times in practice that I had never been able to do before. I felt ready for States. 

I went into Thursday, November 16th, like any other day. I got up early to study for my math test, ate breakfast, and went to class as usual. (Honestly, I was more scared for my math test than for States). The team got dismissed early, and some teachers and administrators came to send us off.

We drove up to EMU, checked in our hotel, and settled in.

Before bed, I read Scripture. I bring my Bible with me to every travel meet, and always sit down to read a few passages the night before a big race. I still wasn’t nervous, which was a little strange. I said my prayers and went to bed, looking forward to the next day.

The next morning, I still wasn’t nervous.

(A little side note here. I went into States freshman year with no eyes on me, and nobody expecting me to do anything. This year, it was different. A month or so before States, I was drilling technique with my dad at our local athletic club. The new aquatics director recognized me, and asked me if I was the freshman that set the D3 record in the 100 fly the previous year. It was the first time something like that had happened, and it was awesome. A week before States, when we were swimming at Leagues, a parent timer asked me what events I was swimming at States the next week. He knew who I was and knew about my 100 fly the previous year as well. 

People were starting to recognize me, which was a completely new experience. Furthermore, I was seated first in both of my events going into States, so I had nowhere to go but down.)

We walked onto the quite familiar deck of EMU, and I got my first look at all the competitors and the teams. During warm up, I felt really good. Spectators started filling in the seats, and I couldn’t help but think some of them were looking at me. 

It was at this point I started feeling the pressure. I was the top seed in both events, which meant that everybody in both the 50 free and the 100 fly were out to take my spot. 

All too soon, the meet started. My first event was the 200 medley relay. My teammate Lindsey Creek swam backstroke, Julia Nellis did breaststroke, I did fly, and Libby Stacey did freestyle. The relay added around two seconds, which was not where we wanted to be. Negative energy started to creep in, and it was imperative that I didn’t pay any attention to it.

I got ready for the 50 free, but something was off. Subconsciously, I wasn’t swimming for myself, and I wasn’t swimming to enjoy myself. It seemed like I had so much to lose, and I was feeling the weight of expectations and the pressure to prove something to people. Before the meet, it felt like “Oh yes, I’m seated first in both of my events and people know who I am!” But standing there on the deck, with the pressure of people watching and competitors trying to get my spot, it became more like “Oh no, I’m seated first in both of my events…and people know who I am.” 

But no matter. I tried to get the negative thoughts out of my mind and the positivity in. I went behind the blocks and said my pre-race prayer, the one I say before every race. I put in my headphones and blocked out everything except the music. 

Three heats before mine, I took off my parka and headphones and got behind the blocks. I started my established pre-race routine. The arm swings, the jumps, and the controlled breathing. Soon, they were calling up my heat.

“Take your mark.” I got ready, already envisioning the start I had been working on all season, planning where I was going to take my one breath (the ninth stroke on the second 25), how I was going to break out, how many dolphin kicks I would do underwater (eight off the start and six off the turn), and how I was going to finish. 

The 50 free is the fastest event, so it's very important that you have a good race plan and execute it as close to perfect as possible. 

At the halfway point, I could see the girl next to me, about an arm's length behind. I came down the second 25, took my breath, and plowed for the finish.

I touched the wall and looked up, expecting to see my time pop up on the scoreboard. The scoreboard didn't display my time, which made me a little upset. In the 50, every hundredth counts, and getting an accurate time is crucial. My time was put in as a 23.95, two tenths off my best, and tied for first going into finals. I went into prelims with a half second lead, and came out tied.

Next was the 100 fly. It was a pretty quick turnaround after the 50, but I had done it at Counties and knew what to expect.

I watched the heats before me swim with my headphones in, after I had prayed.

I got up on the blocks, ready to race. I still had a little adrenaline from the 50, and I reassuringly thought about all the training I did as I got ready to swim. Yet there was a nagging feeling in the back of my head that this was my best event, and this was where people were watching me the most. 

The race started. I reached up to take my first stroke and…was met with water. I had missed my breakout. Trying not to panic, I quickly calculated how I needed to make up for it. I took the first half of the race out a bit faster than normal, thinking I needed it for missing the breakout. Since I was so fast in the first half, I didn’t have it in the second half. After I finished, I looked at the scoreboard, and saw a 56.4, just about a second and a half slower than my best time. That time was only good enough to be second place going into finals. I went into prelims with a two and a half second lead, and came out second by two tenths.

By the time the 400 free relay rolled around, the team’s morale was low and I was feeling dejected. The relay didn't do very well, but we still managed to make it back for finals the next day.

After prelims, I still couldn’t help feeling the pressure of expectations upon me. Now, they seemed more real than before.

We got back to the hotel, and I needed a break from everyone and everything, so I spent some time alone. I was feeling dejected and defeated, and pondering the question that always seems to plague me, “how am I going to pull it off tomorrow?” 

I had gone faster before, sure, but those times meant nothing now. It was all about the races I was going to swim, not the times I’d already swum. 

It was too much, so I did what I always do when I need to relax: I prayed.

“God,” I said, “here’s the thing. I was super excited for this meet, and all the training pointed to going faster times. I had a good attitude, and that’s gone now, and I figured that I can’t really do this alone. I don’t want to do it alone. So I really need you tomorrow.” I said. “Not that you’re not always there already” I quickly added, because I didn’t want God to feel unappreciated or anything like that. 

“But I'd really like a little extra boost of faith in myself and Your plan for tomorrow. If possible.”

Then I asked the Holy Spirit for extra courage, strength, and faith. I asked Jesus for help, asked Mary to intercede for me, and I think I asked some of my favorite saints to pray for me as well. 

I started thinking about why I was even swimming at States. I wasn’t swimming for God, apparently, and I wasn’t swimming for myself. This was very strange, because usually I swim for God and myself. I also wasn’t really enjoying it, which was another weird thing. Usually all I want to do is relive meets and go back in time and do them again, but I just wanted to forget about prelims. That’s when I knew. I knew I needed to stop worrying so much about the expectations, about any pressure I may have been experiencing. I needed to stop worrying about what other people were thinking and what other competitors were doing. The only thing I could control was my mind and my attitude. Nothing else. Instead of looking at the big picture and worrying about what was going to happen, I needed to take it one step at a time and let God take care of the rest. I had a new resolve to let go and enjoy the finals experience. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done, and it was still hard to stop thinking about the pressure entirely.

Luckily, we went out to dinner as a team that night, which helped me get my mind off of swimming for a little while. It was great being with my team, and we had so much fun talking, laughing, and enjoying having dinner as a team. 

After dinner, we went back to the hotel. For some reason, some teammates and I got on the topic of Father Mike Schmitz, my favorite priest on YouTube. I showed them one of my favorite Fr. Mike videos, called What’s Your Burden? Watching the video again, I realized it was exactly what I needed to hear. It discusses the fear of failure, the resentment of mistakes, the weight of work, and how we tend to equate our work with our worth. It talks about our true identities as sons and daughters of God, and how our burdens should be carried for an audience of one (God). 

That night, with the words of Fr. Mike Schmitz in my head, I read more Scripture, this time focusing on passages of strength and hope. I fell asleep in prayer, asking God to be with me as I went through the next day.

The next day, it was all about having fun and enjoying being at the meet. We warmed up, and it was during that time that I started to feel pressure again. I told myself to stop worrying, stop caring, take it one step at a time, and enjoy it. 

Before the meet started, we did one final team cheer (even though there were only four of us on deck). I tried to put all negative thoughts out of my head, and focus on swimming for myself and carrying the burden for an audience of one.

We stood behind the blocks as a relay team, the last time we would get to do this relay together. We went into the meet seated fifth and came out of prelims twelfth, which means ninth was the highest we could place at that point. (The way swimming works, there are eight people or relay teams in a heat. You can only place within your heat. So the top eight are shooting for first, and ninth through sixteenth are shooting for ninth. If the ninth place person/team has a time faster than a time in a top eight, they still get ninth place). The national anthem started, and we all grabbed hands one last time as a team. Then, it was time to race.

The relay ended up getting ninth, which was the best place we could get at that point. That was cool, because we broke our best time, re-broke our school record, and won our heat.

It was soon time for my 50 free. I started feeling the nerves again, but I put my headphones in and listened to one of my favorite Newsboys song, We Believe. It has a certain calming effect, and I needed that right about then. 

I went to the area for swimmers to line up before parading out behind the blocks. I put my stuff down and began listening to my pre-race music.

We got in order by lane, and then we paraded out on deck. I still had my headphones in, but apparently the song playing as we walked out was AC/DC's Thunderstruck, which happens to be a song we hear all the time at morning workouts. Coincidence?

I put my stuff down in the bucket. I could feel the doubts beginning to creep in, the “what ifs?”, but it was at that point I had to ignore them and keep my eyes on my goals and my hope.

The starter called us up. I had the whole race planned out in my head before I even hit the water. Same race as prelims, only a more powerful finish.

We all dove in, and I was in full sprint mode for the whole race. I saw the girl on my left, the girl I was tied with coming out of prelims.

We turned at the 25 mark, the halfway point, and I saw her right there with me. I used my breakout to my fullest advantage, and gained speed as I hit the surface of the water.

Finishing the race, I turned and looked at the scoreboard, kind of expecting a 1 next to my name. I checked, then had to check again. Disappointment filled me. 

“Sixth? I thought as I stared in disbelief at the board. The 50s hard to judge where you are, I know, but sixth? And a 24.66?" I was shocked as I looked at my time. "I’ve gone a half second faster than that in practice.”

I congratulated the girl who won, the freshman next to me.

I got out of the water, and thought “You’ve got one more shot. Go get it.”

But then the timers told me the time was wrong, and said I went 23-something. Then I saw Coach Shapira coming over, and he told me I had won, which made me very, very happy. 

I warmed down, pleased with myself. But now was the real test. The 100 fly. Everyone in the final wanted to win just as much as I did. It was just a matter of who wanted it the most.

I said a quick prayer of thanks and went to the podium for the 50 free. My assistant coach Renee presented everyone with their medals, which was really cool. 

Before the 100 fly, I prayed again.

The other girls started coming into the ready room and started talking to one another. It was a really good atmosphere, and not very tense at all. 

When it was time to parade out. I made my way to Lane 5. I looked out at the crystal clear water, and put all thoughts of expectation from my mind. This was my event, and I was not going to lose my title, no matter who was next to me. 

I dove in, quite determined to get the breakout right this time. I timed it right, which was good. I didn’t focus on the people on either side of me. I just swam my race and felt the rhythm and the tempo.

At the halfway point, I saw the girl with the fastest prelim time right there with me (it turns out we took out the first fifty in the same exact time – 26.08). I knew I had to use my third 25 to my advantage, because that's when it starts to get really tiring. 

I powered down the length, and went into my last turn. I came off the wall, and could see splashes from the girl to my left. As we got to the last ten yards, I put my head down and got ready to finish. The finish was how I won it freshman year, and it looked like it was going to be the finish again.

I jammed my hands into the wall and quickly looked up at the scoreboard. Luckily, it worked this time, and it said “1” next to my name, with a 55.67 as the time. 

I said good job to the girl on my right, the girl on my left, and other people I knew in the heat.

Warming down after the 100 fly, I just took it all in. The pressure was gone, and the wait was over. I said a prayer of thanks, and just marveled at how blessed I am.

I went over to the podium. As I stood on there, with the other girls from the heat– some of them being girls I had raced against for two years now, I just felt a sense of joy. Not just because of the success, but because of the experience I got to have with the other girls. It was a great feeling.

Coach Shapira presented me with my medal, which was another special moment.

The meet passed quickly from then on. I cheered for my teammates in their individual races, and talked with Coach Shapira and Coach Renee. 

Then, it was time to get ready for the final relay. I warmed up one last time, conscious that this was my last race as a sophomore and underclassman. This meet wasn’t about any of my individual goals anymore. It was all about the team.

I got my teammates Libby and Lindsey, and we went over behind the blocks. We cheered Julia on in her 100 breast, and then it was time to race the relay.

I looked at them all one more time before our last race of the season. I gave them a small pep talk, though it was probably more for myself than them. Then, it was time to race.

I got up on the blocks, and the race began.

The power of the last race didn’t come from the want to prove anything to anyone, and it didn’t come from the fear of failure. It came from helping the team, carrying the burden for the audience of one, and giving myself one last chance to let the hard work pay off. I took off and didn’t look back. The 100 was painful, but it was nothing compared to the feeling of giving into pressure and letting the team down. I finished my 100, and went a 52.58. Not my best, but not terrible. 

I got out of the water and started cheering for my teammates as loud and hard as possible. I prayed as I watched us keep our lead. 

We ended up getting ninth, moving up from fourteenth place. We broke the school record, and we were first in our heat. It was almost like a dream.

We walked back to the team area with a much different attitude from the day before. The only bad feeling today was sadness, the sadness that comes at the end of the season.

I took my time warming down, knowing full well the season ended as soon as I got out of the water. I took in the sights, the sounds, and the ever-present smell of chlorine. And I knew there was nothing else I’d rather be doing. Yesterday at that time, after prelims, I'd had a completely different attitude. I’d wanted to wipe the memories of prelims clean from my conscience, and forget it ever happened. The weight of expectations and the pressure was something I’d never had to deal with before, and I’d let it get to me. It was only through swimming for myself and carrying the burden for the audience of one that I’d reclaimed the enjoyment and the got the good memories I should have had all along. 

We left the pool and went to dinner to celebrate the season as a team.

That dinner with my team was one of the best I’d ever had. The accomplishments of the day were great, sure, but it was the memories with my team that are the clearest. Memories like morning workouts three times a week, meditating at practice, swimming at dual meets, riding with my Swim Sisters to practice everyday, and FaceTiming my teammates late at night to talk about everything from chemistry homework to deep religious questions.

It was a tough season, and there were certainly times it was hard to have faith that everything would work out. After prelims, the expectations and the pressure could have destroyed me. I could have given up and given in. And maybe I would have. But I knew I had a weapon, should I choose to yield it. Nothing is impossible with faith. And if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that carrying the burden for the audience of one makes all the difference. Because it’s not the load that breaks us down. It’s the way we carry it. 

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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