The day is August 30, 2016. It is my second day of school at Southern Virginia University. I am wearing my favorite red USA baseball cap. It is 9:30 in the morning and I am walking around campus, admiring the red brick buildings. The history of the campus is seeping through my bones. I walk up the front steps of Main Hall, onto a patio where I nod to a professor and some students and find myself a white rocking chair. I call my best friend.
A few minutes later, the professor I had just nodded to comes over to me and asks me to be in a picture with him and a few other students. I nod, not asking any questions. I put my phone on the chair, with my friend still on the line, and walk around the corner. I smile pretty, shake the professor’s hand, and walk right back to my call. I was gone for 2 1/2 minutes.
It wasn’t until that evening that I found out just what that picture was for. I was attending a gathering at my church leader’s home, where I met Jessica Rasmussen, the woman on the far right in the photo above. She explained that the professor in the photo was not actually a professor, but Jeff Benedict, best-selling author and special features writer for Sports Illustrated. I remember my mouth opening wide as she explained that he was opening an Institute for Writing and Mass Media at the university to help students who wanted to write. I blurted, “Oh my gosh, I want to be a writer!” She smiled and told me she would mention my name to Jeff.
Well, mention she did. She used my red hat to illustrate my back story and explain that I was now finding a new life at Southern Virginia University. I found an email in my inbox from Jeff shortly after, inviting me to be part of the Institute. I was on cloud nine.
The Institute took me to a new level of self-realization that I wasn’t expecting. When I first entered college, I was swimming in a pool of uncertainty and identity crisis. I had retired from the USA Senior National Team for synchronized swimming, I had left my home once again, and I was still adjusting to my new “normal” life. For the first time ever, I had dreams that I had no idea how to achieve. I had goals that seemed too far-fetched and I somehow knew I wasn’t good enough. I simply had no idea who I was.
The day I happened to stand in a random photo, I was just the girl in the red cap. The day I received an email from Jeff, I was the recently retired National Team athlete, wearing a red cap that went with me to competitions around the world. At the first writing institute, I was the student who shook hands with Chris Barlow, Emmy-Award winning director and producer. The day I addressed my university with my story, I was the woman who persevered. The day I traveled to New York City and Connecticut with several students from the Institute, I was a dreamer, a potential. The day I sit and write this down, I am the new me, with a new-found voice in a loud world.
My synchronized swimming career took me to swim in a tank in the middle of Times Square, to the World Championship Arena in Kazan, Russia, and to international competitions and explorations across 8 countries. I was comfortable with hard work, and I was familiar with meeting Olympians, celebrities, and successful business men and woman across the country. I was even that figure for others: being interviewed by local and national news stations, taking pictures with little girls, being one of the eight faces of USA Synchro. When I stopped swimming, I gave all that up. So when I put my favorite red, USA cap on my head, it was a symbol of lost dreams and forgotten success. Little did I know that that cap would take me to Times Square again, but this time to shake hands with Richard Pine, literary agent for Inkwell Management, Jofie Ferrari-Adler, editor for Simon and Schuster, Dave Checketts, former CEO of Madison Square Garden, and Katie Couric, Yahoo! global news anchor. That cap took me to have long conversations with world-class screenwriters, photographers, editors, publishers, and writers. My red cap gave me an all-exclusive pass to start chasing new dreams, new experiences, and finding my new voice.
The Institute taught me a lot about different areas of digital media in the world today, and I attended many lectures on hard work and how to make your way in the world. But I know about hard work. I know a lot about hard work. But I didn’t know a lot about rediscovery and change, and I evolved magnificently through the 8 months of learning. The hand of God has shaped my entire life, and there is no doubt he played a part of me wearing USA on my head, standing in a picture, and shaking hands with the people who can help me shape my new future, help me build a new career. My world didn’t stop spinning when I exited the pool and hung up my noseclip. My potential and my dreams didn’t stop evolving when I stopped putting a swimsuit on every morning. Every person I met through my experience with the Institute for Writing and Mass Media looked past the cap on my head and into my soul, into the potential and the fire that resides there. Every single person was 100% on board to move their schedules for me, to send emails and make connections for me, to spend minutes asking questions about me, and to listen to me. And it is through those individuals- that I found my voice.