Written By: Vlada Maznytska
Things do not always go according to the plan. It is a simple truth that is so difficult to comprehend sometimes, partly because most of the athletes try to have as much control over things as they can – the outcome of a consistent and disciplined lifestyle. One of the most prominent moments of my life was the realization that I will never be an Olympian, even though that image of standing on the pedestal with my country’s flag behind my back had been stuck in my head for years every night before falling asleep. And it was not because I did not want to, but because at some point I started viewing swimming as a tool to achieving other goals and shaping myself into a person who can develop and succeed in life outside of the pool.
This is when you ask yourself: “What is my next step?” This is when you come up with a new plan.
When you are sixteen and you get that first taste of big international meets, the exposure to the same competing experiences as the world class swimmers, the excitement and newness can become overwhelming. But what comes after that? The U.S. is the only country that has built an extremely successful training system in college; the opportunities that it provides are unmatched and go far beyond just performance in sport. For the most part, that is exactly what differentiates International and American swimmers – here they have an option to strive in both academics and sport, while a foreign athlete would have to make a choice to focus on either one.
Coming from a very individualistic, much like any other country’s outside of the U.S. border South African training system, after graduating high school Dayen Wilson had to ask himself the exact same question – what do I do now? By that time college swimming programs in the U.S. were already attracting many international students to continue their education and follow their athletic performance goals. He thought that if people have done it before, he can do it too. And he did. Here comes the tricky part.
I remember applying to schools and as a swimmer with some background in performing at the international level I can relate to the fact that your first choice would be a Division I school. You look at the name of the program, you look at their image, coaches and alumni, fast people on the team and you want to be a part of it. It was no different for Dayen, as well as for many other athletes who had the same approach.
“I was not aware of the Division II and III benefits because everyone was aiming at Division I,” shares Dayen. He says that most people overlook the unique opportunities, provided by those schools, because they do not get enough attention. For example, universities in Division II offer both academic and athletic scholarships for students, while Division III schools have some of the best academic programs in the country. “I think this is something that not a lot of people have knowledge about,” adds Dayen. That is why he decided to go to the Division II school and chose the Grand Valley State University.
However, even the most sophisticated plan might need adjustments along the way. I believe that it is an exceptional luck for an international student to find a perfect fit in college on the first try. Apart from the fact that it is not only about athletic program and growth as a swimmer, it also involves aspirations for academic success and assimilation into an entirely different culture. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it does not. Starting his journey at the Grand Valley Dayen came to a realization that his vision of a college experience looked different, and he did a very brave thing, that I know for a fact, not all of the struggling international students are always capable of doing – he took a leap of faith and chose another path that suited him more. The program at Denison University turned out to be the best fit for who he wanted to be academically and still fulfill his goals as an athlete. Moreover, he was able to work through the cultural differences and find his place on the team, adapting to the mix of personalities after only being exposed to one kind in South Africa. “Denison is where I did most of the growing as a teammate rather than as an athlete or a student,” Dayen admits. “I learned to prioritize not what I want to swim, but what I can do to score for the team.”
Being a student-athlete is a constant learning experience, regardless of what sport you are playing or where do you come from. For Dayen, Denison became a place where he met some of the most amazing people among his teammates, successfully pursued his degree in Economics and found his passion in coaching. It has taught him the value of self-awareness and making connections with like-minded people as well as set his mind to share his knowledge with more swimmers, now as a mentor. Transitioning from being a collegiate athlete into coaching, Dayen emphasizes that international students are often more worth taking the jobs on because their previous experiences and challenges that they encounter prior to college shape them to push harder and achieve higher goals: “Everything they went through to even be here is worth giving them a shot.”
Dayen Wilson is a recent graduate of Denison University from Johannesburg, South Africa. In college he was a distance swimmer and successfully pursued a degree in Economics with a minor in Political Sciences.