Chasing Perfection On Her Own Terms: Alyson Baumann On Improving In Swimming And School

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Sophomore student-athlete Alyson Baumann, ’20 (Photo by Jim Fitzgerald)

As a senior in high school, Alyson Baumann embodied the tension of a perfectionist. She embodied it so well that she’s using it as motivation to become a speech pathologist:

“I put so much pressure on myself to do well in swim and school that I developed vocal cord dysfunction. When I would swim I couldn’t breathe because my throat would close because I’d be so anxious that I wasn’t doing well enough . . . So I went to a speech pathologist. Her name is Karen, and she made such a big impact on my life. We would just talk about things. She was like counselor to me, and I want to be that for someone else.”

Now a sophomore at Fredonia, Baumann is chasing several school records, including the 200-yard freestyle in which she’s two seconds away, and the 500-yard freestyle in which she’s six seconds away. In contrast to high school, she’s chasing those records on her own terms: “I just want to be the best that I can be.”

Jon-Ryan Maloney: Can you tell me about how you were raised?

Alyson Baumann: I’ve always been family-oriented. My mom is a strong woman and has always been a really big role model in my life. Growing up, I always had high expectations for myself. Even in middle school if I did bad on a test I’d think to myself, “I’ve got to do better.” I’ve always wanted to challenge myself and always wanted to be the best that I could be.

Maloney: Why that early though? It’s unusual to see someone with that drive that early.

Baumann: I’ve just always had high expectations for myself. I don’t know if it was from my parents or if it just came from me–I’ve always wanted to do better. I always wanted to be on high honor roll or in National Honor Society, not for the show, but because I was proud of myself. I’ve always wanted to do that. I started swimming at a young age; I think I started swimming competitively when I was seven.

Maloney: So your parents never swam?

Baumann: No, but my brother and I grew up swimming and my mom would come and work the swim meets. Growing up, my mom wasn’t involved in activities, clubs, and sports, so when I showed interest in them she was like “Do it, do it!” because she never got to do it. Getting involved is what makes everything so much fun. Being involved in school and being involved in a sport is what makes you feel connected to everyone. It’s a community.

Maloney: And your mom didn’t get to do those things?

Baumann: No. I remember in eighth grade I wanted to quit swim so badly. I hated it because I wasn’t the best, and in my mind I had to be the best. My mom said, “You can’t quit now. You’ve been doing this for so long.” I stuck with it because I realized I didn’t have to be the best. I had to learn that lesson throughout high school.

Maloney: Do you still feel that way though, even now?

Baumann: Yes.

Maloney: What do you want to be the best at right now?

Baumann: I just want to be the best that I can be.

Maloney: What does that mean this year for swimming?

Baumann: Ultimately, my goal is to break the 2 (200-yard freestyle), the 5 (500-yard freestyle), and the mile records. That’s my biggest goal, but if it doesn’t happen I have two more years. I don’t want to put too much pressure on it because it’s not worth getting upset over if it doesn’t happen.

Maloney: When you started thinking about college were you always thinking about speech pathology?

Baumann: My senior year of high school I had this thing called “vocal cord dysfunction.” It’s like asthma, but it doesn’t respond to an inhaler because it’s mental—it’s all anxiety. I put so much pressure on myself to do well in swim and school that I developed vocal cord dysfunction. When I would swim I couldn’t breathe because my throat would close because I’d be so anxious that I wasn’t doing well enough.

Maloney: That’s really interesting. It’s poetic in a way.

Baumann: Exactly. So I went to a speech pathologist. Her name is Karen, and she made such a big impact on my life. We would just talk about things. She was like counselor to me, and I want to be that for someone else.

Maloney: What did she help you with?

Baumann: She taught me exercises and explained why they work and how the anxiety causes the dysfunction. I still have exercise-induced asthma, but I know how to control it now. I can get out of the pool to calm myself down and get right back in.

Maloney: Are they breathing exercises?

Baumann: It’s (manually) moving stuff around in my throat, like pulling down my larynx. It’s really cool. My senior year of high school is when I decided that that’s what I wanted for myself.

Maloney: Why did you pick Fredonia as you’re looking through all the speech pathology programs?

Baumann: I was stuck between Fredonia and one other college. I went to the other college, and the coach was nice but she wasn’t very personable. I was just another person to her, but when I met Arthur (Head Swimming and Diving Coach, Arthur Wang) he had this personality that I liked. When I went on my recruiting trip I met my future roommate and she was one of the reasons too; we were really close right off the bat. I really liked the atmosphere here. As soon as I went to the other college everyone was asking, “What are your times?” Here, everyone was asking, “Who are you as a person?” It felt more like family and not just about times and what you can do to perform. I really liked that.

Maloney: If you could get a message out to every student-athlete at Fredonia, what would you tell them?

Baumann: One thing I struggled with last year was making sure to love my sport. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself; have fun with it. Don’t get all worked up and make yourself sad if you’re not performing well. Last year, if I wasn’t performing the way I wanted I would be upset with myself and that whole meet would be garbage because I’d be in a bad mindset. It’s so important to have a good mindset. It’s all about attitude and what you make of it.

Maloney: Are there any routines that you go through that help your mindset?

Baumann: I’m a very organized, routine person. I have a color-coded planner that I write everything down in. I like to look ahead and see what I have coming up, which helps me organize everything. I’m OCD about it, but I love it.

Maloney: Are there any particular classes, professors, or activities that you’ve found helpful at Fredonia?

Baumann: When a lot of people pick their classes they just think, “Which class is easiest? Which teacher will give me an easy ‘A’?” I think it’s important to take something that you’re interested in, and if you don’t get an ‘A’ you don’t get an ‘A.’ My freshman year I decided to take psychology and I did not do well in it, but now I want to take a psychology minor because I think it’s so interesting. A lot of people are too scared to pick up minors because they don’t want to ruin their GPA, but I think it’s important to learn as much as you can and expand your horizons.

Maloney: How does psychology tie into speech pathology?

Baumann: Speech pathology is also mental–at least in my case it was with vocal cord dysfunction. I’m taking counseling classes next semester too, because I want to know how to comfort people and be there for them. You want people to want to come talk to you, not feeling like, “Oh, I have to go to the doctor.” I want people to want to come talk to me and feel better when they leave. Mentally, I’d always feel better leaving Karen’s office. I would go to her to do my exercises and then we would talk. She would ask, “How are you doing today? Did you have a rough day? When was the last time you had an episode? Did you have a bad day? Did you have a hard test?”

Maloney: It’s as though speech pathology is like coaching.

Baumann: It’s what you want to take out of it. Like stroke patients: they’re having a hard time because they’re frustrated with themselves. They want to talk but they can’t. Or people who are having trouble eating: they want to talk but they can’t. Or people with lisps: they get frustrated with themselves. So I feel like it’s important to be there for them to support them mentally too.

Maloney: What’s the most important thing you’ve done to improve as a student-athlete?

Baumann: I think it’s important to separate the student and the athlete. Last year I’d be sitting in class and thinking about the horrible practice I had coming up and I wouldn’t be learning anything. Or I’d go into a practice thinking about the huge test I had the next day and I’d swim horribly. If you’re in class, be in the class that you’re in. The practice is coming no matter what so there’s no point sitting in class dreading it. I think that’s one of the biggest things I had to learn. Whatever’s coming is coming anyways.

Maloney: Does your planner help?

Baumann: Yes. I take it out all the time. My friends make fun of me, but crossing things off my list makes me feel so good. That’s just how I am.

Maloney: Is there anything about improving that’s scary. Right now you’re the best girl on the team, and now you’re competing with the boys.

Baumann: Sometimes I feel like a lot of pressure is on me, but at the same time we’re all together; we’re all a team; we’re all important; we all put our hearts into it. Everyone works just as hard. I don’t think it’s scary because we’re a team. It’s not just me–I’m with all my girls.

Maloney: I asked Arthur the other day, “What makes Alyson so good at swimming?” He gave me a few reasons, but I’d be curious to hear your response to that question.

Baumann: One thing I focus on as a swimmer, and especially as I’m becoming a distance swimmer, is being efficient. When I get tired I make sure to keep my head down and keep my streamline long. I try not to get messy.

Maloney: So it’s very mental.

Baumann: Yes. I’m always telling myself, “Keep it long. Keep it smooth.” That’s something I focus on in the pool a lot.

Maloney: Is there anything outside of the pool?

Baumann: Just having a positive attitude. I complain sometimes, but you signed up for this sport so you might as well put in the work and not frown while you’re doing it.

Maloney: Is there anything else that’s important for you to say?

Baumann: So many student-athletes dread going to practice. Not just swimmers, but people in other sports too: “I don’t want to go to practice. I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that.” You have to love what you’re doing, especially in Division III where you’re not getting money. You should want to do it. You should want to be a family with that team, stick together, and try to encourage each other.

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