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Air Force Academy: Where People Come First

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

Written By: Tom Higdon

Senior Emily Bardak remembers her first visit to Air Force Swim and Dive well. As a Junior in high school Bardak knew she wanted to swim in college but she wasn’t sure where she would end up until she made the trip to Colorado Springs. She remembers meeting the team and hearing their experiences at the academy. She remembers her hosts preparing their dorm room for inspection, a task that an outsider may think brings stress. Her future teammates were able to inject a positivity and enjoyment out of it though. After seeing what the school had to offer and speaking with assistant coach Athena Miller, Bardak became the first in her family to attend a military academy. “I really had no idea what I was getting myself into” said Bardak with a chuckle.

One thing she learned very quickly was that her time at the academy would be her biggest challenge yet. As a freshman she was immediately plunged into the disciplined and rigorous curriculum demanded of cadets at the Air Force Academy. She felt that there was a distinct period of adjustment where the balancing act of being a student athlete at the academy at times felt overwhelming. One thing that she could always fall back on though was her team.

“It's all about Time management and learning how to, on a bad day, still have a good attitude,” said Bardak.

After she adapted to her knew way of life, no doubt due to her experience with the demands of the sport, she set her sights on becoming the leader that she is today. She had already found a way to balance swimming and the academy but there was a new challenge in front of her. The challenge of learning to be a leader amongst your peers. It's one thing to lead a group of strangers but leading your friends and teammates can be a nearly insurmountable task. How do you balance the friendships with your responsibilities as a leader?

For Bardak the answer was simple. She focused on the people. Many college swimmers have come in as freshman and been faced with upperclassmen who seem to covet the air of superiority that the title of “Senior” brings. Many of us have run into the kind of upperclassmen that for whatever the reason are averse to any kind of change. For Bardak, one of her top priorities as a leader for Air Force Swim and Dive was to ensure that newcomers could lean on any of their teammates for support.

“When you get put in leadership positions it's hard to be the bad guy to your friends. I didn’t want the freshman to be scared of me but I still had to do the right thing,” said Bardak. She was able to coordinate a system where during the first month of the academic year the upperclassmen would take all of the freshmen to dinner and afterward have a mandatory study hall. It was so successful that beyond the first month freshman continued this tradition of community study. She also helped many of her teammates find the same balance that she found in her first year at the academy.

Legacy is something that many seniors reflect on at the close of their college swimming careers. Bardak hopes that her legacy will be a culture shift at Air Force Swim and Dive where the people in the lanes next to you are what matter. A team that is dedicated to every member's development. A team of leaders who will leave enter into their military careers with the skill necessary to lead their friends and peers. A team where people come first.

Emily Bardak is from Long Island, NY. She went to Saint Anthony's high school and swam for Three Village Swim Club before coming to the Air Force Academy. She swam the 100,200 Fly and 100,200,500 Free in college. She is honored to have had the opportunity to swim for as long as she did and for all the amazing people she met along the way!

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