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Calvin Swimmer Refuses to Let Setbacks Derail All-American Career

Sunday, June 02, 2013

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By Jeff Febus

As Elizabeth Counsell looks back on her four years as a student-athlete at Calvin, it’s quite apparent that she has frequently chosen a different road and as the poet Robert Frost so eloquently concluded in his classic poem “The Road Not Taken:” “That has made all the difference.”

As a senior at Heritage Christian High School in Indianapolis, Ind., Counsell considered attending a larger in-state university where she would give up her swimming career and focus on being a student.

But on a visit to Calvin, Counsell became convinced that a Christian liberal arts college where she could flourish as a student and as an athlete was the right choice for her.

“Dan (Gelderloos) was really recruiting me hard when I was in high school,” said Counsell of Calvin’s head swim coach. “I just didn’t realize that this was the place I needed to be at until I got on campus. Even on the car ride up to Calvin, I wondered why I was making the trip but once I spent a weekend on campus, I knew this was a place where I could make friends in a Christian environment that would support me. I also wanted to major in nursing and I knew Calvin had a great nursing program so that was another important factor in my final decision.”

A standout swimmer in high school, Counsell was uncertain of taking the path forward to continuing her athletic career at Calvin however. In high school, Counsell struggled with debilitating shoulder pain that limited her training and ability to compete.

“I had visited several doctors and physical therapists and no-one could really pin-point what the problem was,” she said. “We had discussed surgery but I decided to hold off on that decision.”

During her initial semester at Calvin, she also stuck with the decision to swim but the shoulder pain came back, often times keeping her from sleeping at night.

“I remember lying in bed crying at night because it hurt so bad and I asked God for an answer,” said Counsell. “It was an extremely challenging situation.”

Counsell’s cry for help was answered when Calvin head athletics trainer Joe Dykstra suggested a new training regimen of training and weightlifting.

“It just so happened that Joe had been at a seminar the summer before, learning about the benefits of new stretches for the body, particularly the shoulder,” said Counsell. “He suggested that I try them and I figured it was worth a shot. The stretches were crazy and I had to come in every day during the week but it started making a difference. By the end of my sophomore year, my shoulders were pain free. When I look back on how everything worked together, it was a miracle. It clarified in my mind that God is faithful and that He wanted me to swim.”

With a renewed sense of purpose, Counsell picked up steam during the second half of her freshman year, earning a spot on the All-MIAA team and later qualifying for the NCAA III Championships in three individual events. At the NCAA III Championships, she earned an honorable mention All-America berth with an 11th place finish in the 200 breaststroke.

As a sophomore, she exploded at the MIAA Championships, winning league titles in the 200 IM, 200 breaststroke and 100 breaststroke. Her time in the 200 breaststroke of 2:19.74 was both a Calvin and MIAA record. She was later named the MIAA’s Most Valuable Swimmer. Despite struggling with illness leading into the national meet a month later, she recorded an All-America berth with an seventh place finish in the 200 breaststroke while also finishing 16th in the 100 breaststroke for an honorable mention All-America berth.

As a junior, she appeared poised for an even bigger break-out year, holding the nation’s top time in the 200 breaststroke through the first semester. After Christmas break, Counsell began to feel constant fatigue which was later determined to be mononucleosis. At the MIAA Championships, she forged on to repeat as league champion in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events while also gaining another trip to the national meet in both events. As the only female qualifier from Calvin for the NCAA III Championships, she was forced to train on her own for nearly a month and wilted at the national meet, failing to advance to the evening final in any of her events.

“I was pretty wiped out,” said Counsell. “Training by myself for a month after the conference meet was very difficult. It was the second year in a row I had to do that and it was hard to stay motivated.”

The motivation to compete during her senior year was also in doubt this summer. With a full load of nursing classes and an upcoming marriage this summer to her high school sweetheart, the thought of giving up swimming seemed appealing.

“I seriously considered not swimming this (senior) year,” said Counsell. “It would have made things a lot easier but a driving factor to continue swimming was my teammates. When I was a freshman, I had seniors who guided me along, especially when I struggled. I didn’t want to let our younger swimmers down this year. I wanted to be a senior leader for them.”

And that she was, helping the Knights capture a ninth consecutive MIAA team title as she won individual league crowns once again in the 100 and 200 breaststroke events. She also qualified for the national meet in three individual events as well as four relays. At the national meet, she claimed All-America honors in the 100 and 200 breaststroke and as a member of Calvin’s 200 medley relay team which placed eighth. Her top finish came in the 100 breaststroke where she claimed a national runner-up finish in a time of 1:02.79 while also placing fifth in the 200 breaststroke in a school record time of 2:16.45.

According to Counsell, the extra boost for her final national meet came from her teammates that joined her in the relay.

“It’s been so awesome to qualify in a relay,” said Counsell prior to the national meet. “When you qualify in a relay, it means you have teammates to train with and that’s huge from a mental standpoint. It makes thing so much more fun and enjoyable, The last few weeks training for nationals has been one of my favorite athletic experiences at Calvin.”

Her training as a junior and senior year has also been done shortly after completing demanding nursing clinicals which can be as mentally draining as swimming. “I won’t lie. It’s been hard to do both,” said Counsell. “The thing that I’ve found is that I have to separate the two (nursing and swimming). I might be coming from a clinical where a patient is struggling to stay alive and then go right into practice. I can’t take my clinical with me into practice and the same is true when I go back into my clinical studies. I can’t take my swimming demands with me there either.”

Counsell has posted strong numbers in the classroom, earning a spot on the 2010-11 MIAA Academic Honor Roll for posting a grade point average above a 3.50 for the academic year.

“I owe a lot to my nursing professors,” said Counsell. “They have been so supportive, even when I have not done as well as I would have liked in the classroom. They have continued to encourage me to keep doing my best, not only as a student but also as a swimmer.”

According to Gelderloos, his senior standout has also been a source of encouragement for all of those around her. “She does so many things behind the scenes, things I don’t find out about until later,” said Gelderloos. “When people on the team are having troubles, she takes them aside and cheers them up. She has a very nurturing nature about her.”

It is that sense of spirit that Gelderloos believes will help Counsell make an impact in her future endeavors. “She’s going to be a great nurse,” said Counsell. “She is a very empathetic individual. She will be the type of person who can help individuals and families through tough times because she’s been through so many ups-and-downs herself. The journey she has been on is something that will help her throughout the rest of her life.”

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