Hannah Saiz ’13 plunges into the waters of the women’s 200-butterfly final during the 2013 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Championships with one thought on her mind: beating her preliminary time of 1:55.98 by at least three-tenths of a second to break the NCAA Division III record.
Saiz is in the water, fast. She swims the first 50 yards and passes out, unconscious.
She is on the pool deck, throat and lungs burning, surrounded by lifeguards and teammates.
Saiz has just had a severe asthma attack.
“I was barred from further competition,” Saiz said in a recent telephone interview from Milwaukee, where she is currently training. “I had to watch from the pool deck as some teammates I was incredibly proud of went out and owned in the 800 freestyle relay.” In Saiz’s final season, the Ladies went on to take second place overall at the NCAA National Championships.
“That was my spot, that was where I wanted to be, and it was incredibly painful mentally and emotionally, standing on the sideline,” Saiz said. “I wanted to find out if I had more left.”
Despite winning an individual national title with her preliminary time, Saiz uses her final race of 2013 as motivation today. This past summer Saiz left her job as a swimming instructor to pursue professional swimming full time. She has qualified for the 2016 Olympic trials. Saiz participated in the 2012 Olympic trials but did not make the final cut.
Despite the challenges, including breaking a hand during the warm-ups of the 2014 Summer Nationals (Irvine, Calif.) and her continued battle with asthma, Saiz has found a reason to dive back into the pool.
In the summer after graduating from Kenyon with an English major, Saiz trained at the Ohio State University, returning to Kenyon for a collegiate long-course meet. There, she swam 30 seconds faster than she did during her first Olympic trials in 2012.
“I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I guess [I’m] not done yet,’” Saiz said.
Instead of becoming a collegiate assistant coach, Saiz sought avenues for becoming a professional and found the Schroeder YMCA swimming team.
“Life after Kenyon is everyone’s dream and everyone’s nightmare,” Saiz said. Her focus is on rest, nutrition and recovery rather than on homework, practice, cardio and weightlifting.
“I think I eat much better than I ever did at Kenyon, simply because I am cooking for myself now,” Saiz said. “Unlike Peirce where you have the mystery meat and you don’t know what’s in it, I know absolutely everything that I put into my body.”
In addition to keeping in top shape, another challenge of professional swimming is staying afloat financially. Swimming, unlike other American sports, pays only a handful of athletes well. Because Saiz did not place as a top six swimmer in the U.S. or top 12 swimmer in the world at the 2015 Phillips National Championships, instead finishing ninth in the U.S. pool, she did not qualify for an annual government swimming stipend of $30,000. To pay transportation bills, lodging and the food costs that come with being a professional, Saiz is using DreamFuel, a crowd-funding website that helps athletes deal with the financial strain.
“It takes a leap of faith that is tremendous and many of us are more interested in doing other things professionally at that point, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that,” Jess Book ’01, Saiz’s head coach for three years during her time at Kenyon, said. “It takes a lot of courage to take a jump like that.”
Saiz is able to dedicate herself to the pool seven days a week because she is not like everyone else, bringing intensity to her work.
Saiz took to heart the quote, “You can’t be the best and be like everybody else,” which she saw while competing in high school.
Saiz’s former teammate Mariah Williamson ’16 remembers her teammate’s intensity. “She worked really, really hard and if you weren’t working really, really hard, she would call you out for it,” Williamson said. “She has an admirable work ethic. She was definitely a positive influence.”
According to Book, Saiz fit the criteria of what it takes to be a professional: a love of the water and a strong belief that she could get better.
“I think Hannah loved swimming as much as anyone I’ve ever met,” Book said. “She has a relationship with the water that is profound and almost beyond words.”
After posting a time of 2:09.83 in the 200-yard butterfly two months ago at the 2015 Phillips 66 National Championships, Saiz currently ranks 40th in the world and eighth among U.S. swimmers.
Saiz accumulated 19 All-America certificates while with the Ladies, won the 2013 NCAA Division III title in the 200-yard butterfly, graduated with program records for both butterfly events and helped guide the Ladies to a runner-up finish at the 2013 NCAA Division III Championship. In June, Saiz will once again seek to push her limits at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Neb.