For the girls on the Bradley-Bourbonnais swimming and diving team, similar to every other high school school student in America, it’s been a school year unlike any other. Most of the changes, which have been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have had to do with losing out on opportunities. This week was supposed to be homecoming week at Bradley-Bourbonnais. The team isn’t even allowed to participate in relays at meets, which have seen the number of participants capped.
But on Tuesday, the Boilermakers were given a unique opportunity rather than having another taken away. While the coronavirus did force it to happen remotely through a Zoom video meeting, the Boilers had the chance to speak with Olympic swimming medalist Jessica Hardy.
Boilers coach Jena Dudek said the opportunity arose when she spoke with Dan Salkeld, a Bourbonnais resident who is the senior vice president of marketing for BSN Sports, the same company for which Hardy is an ambassador.
“He said he had just gotten off a conference call with her and that she had shared her story with him and that she does guest speaking for teens across the country, and he was curious if we’d like to connect with her,” Dudek said. “I said, ‘Of course,’ and I got her info, emailed her and she replied within 24 hours.”
Hardy spoke with the Boilers from Texas while the team sat together in a classroom at school and were able to pick the brain of one of the most unique American swimmers of the 21st century, sharing stories of an up-and-down career that has made her a prime example of how to overcome adversity.
After qualifying for the 2008 United States Summer Olympics team, Hardy voluntarily left the team before the Beijing Olympics that summer after a positive drug test for clenbuterol, a stimulant compound associated with treating chronic breathing disorders and a substance that’s considered performance enhancing in swimming.
Hardy was given a one-year ban, a time in which her mental health fluctuated. But she rebounded quickly, becoming the first woman to swim the 50-meter breaststroke in less than 30 seconds when she took first place in the event at the 2009 U.S. Open National Championships. By the end of the year, she bettered her own record and became the first woman to swim the race in less than 29 seconds.
After an off year in 2010, Hardy returned to form in 2011 and won the 50-meter breaststroke at the World Championships. One year later, Hardy qualified for the U.S. Olympic team for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and earned three medals — a gold in the 4-by-100-meter medley relay and bronze in the 50-meter breaststroke and 100-meter breaststroke.
Dudek said the chance for her young swimmers and divers to not only speak with an Olympic medalist but also see firsthand how overcoming adversity is possible provided an invaluable experience.
“It’s a great opportunity and something different, just being able to step out of the everyday routine of practice, getting in the water and the weight room and taking a moment to embrace having someone come talk to them who is elite and get her take,” Dudek said. “When Dan reached out and filled me in on her story, I was like, ‘This needs to be shared with my girls.’”
Sophomore swimmer Sam Tomic, who never had the fortune of meeting an athlete of Hardy’s caliber, said hearing her discuss her mental health issues, which were persistent after her positive drug test and during her 2010 slump, and how she overcame them will leave a lasting impression.
“I feel like with my age group and the age I’m at, being 15, mental health is a big thing, especially with COVID and school,” Tomic said. “It can be stressful, but it doesn’t matter what’s going on; you can overcome anything if you put your mind to it.”
Dudek echoed Tomic’s thoughts on Hardy’s mental perseverance, particularly feeling comfortable enough to discuss a topic that has such a stigma attached to it. She also saw the benefits in Hardy’s message about self-motivation.
“I loved when she said to talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend,” Dudek said. “If a friend said you would swim awful or that you suck, would you be friends with that person? Probably not; so, why would you talk to yourself like that?”
Unlike more mainstream sports, often referred to as “stick-and-ball” sports, swimmers often don’t see the peaks of fame and fortune the way some other athletes do. So for Tomic and her peers, speaking with someone at the height of the sport was a rare treat.
“I never thought I’d be able to say I talked to someone like that, especially in swimming, a sport that isn’t a team sport or known as well as others, especially in certain states like ours,” Tomic said. “It was great to see that they’re real, and they’re just like us.”