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202(1) Olympian Paige Madden: It’s All About the Challenge

Written By: Maggie Foight

US Olympian and silver medallist Paige Madden has had quite a lot of success in her swimming career. In just the four years that she spent swimming with her University of Virginia cap on, Madden was a finalist for the 2021 Honda Sport Award, was the ACC Swimmer of the Year and Swimmer of the Meet in both 2020 and 2021, and was a two-time ACC Scholar Athlete (2020, 2021).

“I’ve always loved challenges,” says Madden. In selecting UVA, she says: “It offered me a pretty big academic challenge, which has always been really important to me, so that was very appealing.”

Madden also says that she was attracted by the swim team’s extracurricular dedication as well as their commitment to a community-driven environment. About the team dynamic, she “can’t even describe it”: “I just had this feeling on my recruiting trip and was so welcomed by the men and women on the team. That was another thing I really liked, that the men and women got along really well.”

Outside of UVA, Madden earned two medals at the 2019 World University Games and one at the 2019 US Phillips 66 National Championships.

However, despite all of her collegiate success, the second half of 2021 — after she graduated with a degree in kinesiology — held Madden’s most high-profile accomplishments yet. Mid-summer, she competed at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, where she won silver with Team USA’s 4x200 freestyle, alongside big names like Allison Schmitt, Katie McLaughlin, and Katie Ledecky. The Mobile, Alabama, native also got drafted into the ISL only a month after the Olympics ended, joining the Tokyo Frog Kings.

The road to these distinguished points of achievement was not easy for Madden, though. She faced adversity in the form of a knee injury in 2019, about eight weeks before the start of the World University Games. In 2020, like the world, she faced cancellations and postponements due to the COVID pandemic. “I was so wired for 2019 through 2020… and then having Trials not happen, and the Olympics not happen, it was kind of a letdown,” she says. Even when the US finally was gearing up for Trials last June, Madden fell ill with COVID.

Nevertheless, she maintained a positive attitude. Madden says of the 2021 challenge: “I would say that I adapted pretty well because I kind of had a fire just to achieve my goal… I felt like I hadn’t gotten a chance to show my cards in a couple of years.” She mentions her knee surgery, and how she felt like her success at the World University Games primed her mentally for attempting Trials after being sick. “It definitely took some encouragement from my coaches and teammates, but eventually, I got into the mindset that I could do it. It was one of those things, where everything happens for a reason, and it just took me two years to realize why the knee injury had happened, and that… you’re never going to have a perfect year…. You’re always going to be facing adversity.”

The jump from collegiate to professional athletics can be shocking for any swimmer, especially for an Olympics- or ISL-bound one. However, Madden found that despite the major difference, which is the varying time spent together, developing relationships: “The goals are the same; you want to support each other, and bond, and it’s all about the team.”

In fact, just like in college, Madden highly valued the team environment. She specifically chose to participate in the ISL over FINA professional meets because of the appeal of team representation. This mentality even prevailed over the Frog Kings’ language barriers. “We had Japanese swimmers, Hungarians, Russians, some people from the UK, and then a few Americans,” Madden says, yet the experience “made me appreciate how much you can communicate without really using words…. I made really good friends with some of those people and got really upset when we went home…. I couldn’t always have a full-on conversation with them but I still formed a relationship with them.”

Individually, though, Madden notes the equal importance of mental health. “I actually did not swim in between the Tokyo Olympics and ISL, so there was about a month in between and I think I did… maybe three practices? That was kind of just to prepare myself mentally, so I definitely showed up very out of shape. I was okay with that because it was kind of just supposed to be the “cherry on top” for me, so it really wasn’t about the money.” Instead, Madden appreciated the experience, the enjoyment, and the challenge.

Madden further elaborates on the pro transition, saying that the basic training structure for both collegiate swimmers and Olympians are somewhat similar in that athletes are divided based on their specialties. Unlike in college, though, Madden “did get to do some experimenting…. I got to swim with Bob Bowman… I went and swam with Emma Wyant’s club coach Brent Arckey... training with renowned coaches was pretty cool.” Lastly, then, Madden briefly touched on the biggest and clearest difference between collegiate and Olympic training: at the Olympic training camps, “you’re obviously surrounded by some of the best swimmers in the world, and… you’re just held to such a higher expectation. In turn, you’ll meet that expectation and be pushed that much harder, so I would say the intensity is greater for the training camp than your average day at UVA.”

Madden says that in professional swimming, the prize money is also a difficult detail to get used to. Active enjoyment in competition takes a back seat, and “it’s kind of hard not to get caught up in the winnings,” as she puts it, because there is a “price tag” on races and many depend upon success for their livelihoods. Knowing both that she still has a deep love for competition and that she is more recognizable to younger swimmers, Madden says she tries to ground herself and remember to swim for the sake of swimming, to “compete and love the spirit of competition.”

Ultimately, then, Madden’s core message to rookie professional swimmers is to “enjoy it.” Despite the pressure put on swimming well now that she’s found a source of income from it, she looks to the connections she has made and says she wants to “enjoy it and enjoy the travel and the friendships” as well as the challenge because “yes, this is my job now, it’s my livelihood, but I’m also very young and have the rest of my life to look forward to.”

Madden hopes to continue her education in PA school — once she’s ended her swimming career with a “cherry on top.”

Paige Madden grew up in Alabama, setting state records since she entered high school. While she quickly stepped onto the national stage in the pool, her success is merely a reflection of her personality, work ethic, and grit. She's a true challenge seeker and swims for the sake of the day-to-day challenges. She is very adaptable; throw an obstacle in her way and she'll find a way to overcome it. Having won an NCAA title in the 1650 free with a migraine attack or when she made the Olympic team after having COVID 2 months prior are a couple prime examples of this. Outside the pool, Paige is compassionate, loyal, and will do anything for her friends and teammates. She is a great leader and was elected captain of the UVA swim team as a junior. All the while, she was involved in 6 different service clubs during her time at UVA. She loves to travel, explore, and try as many new foods as possible. Health is a priority for her, and her lifestyle reflects that.

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