There was no question in his mind that Athena Liao ’12 belonged at Yale.
Don Galluzzi, the assistant coach and women’s recruiting coach of the swimming and diving team at the time, recognized the potential in Liao from the first time they met.
“It was a no-brainer. She was a good student and a great kid. I saw she had fun with the sport.”
Liao’s season to date includes multiple pool records, NCAA “B” qualifying times and personal best times. In the Ivy League Championship meet this weekend, Liao is a favorite to compete for the top spots in the breaststroke events, seeded third in the 100-yard breaststroke and second in the 200-yard breaststroke.
But stymied by injuries, she has had an uphill battle to get to where she is now.
Three and a half years ago, Liao, then a senior in high school, limped into Galluzzi’s office for the first time. She had just undergone surgery for an ACL injury suffered at the end of her junior year. Liao knew she wanted to swim in college but was concerned about the prognosis of a full recovery and her ability to contribute to the team.
“Don wasn’t bothered by the injury and just told me, ‘You’ll recovery quickly,’” Liao explained. “Once other universities found out about the injury, they stopped talking to me. Yale was one of the only colleges that stuck with me to the end. That’s why I’m here.”
Her freshman season did not pan out as well as she had hoped. Having just recovered from the ACL injury, she unexpectedly had to undergo surgery on her wrist, which had not healed properly after a bike accident during her senior year of high school. Sitting on pool deck for all but two meets of the season was not the introduction to college athletics that Liao had envisioned. She longed for the day when she could be in the water with the team.
By the beginning of sophomore year, she was fully healed and determined to climb back to her previous fitness level and the times she had attained in high school. By the end of the season, she not only had reached those goals but exceeded them, achieving lifetime best times at the 2010 Ivy League Championships in what she considers her proudest moment in swimming.
“I ended up doing a lot better than I thought I would,” Liao explained of her fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke events. “It was one of my first times racing in three years because of all my injuries. It was really reassuring. … [I]t’d been a long while but I was still able to go fast.”
This was no fluke performance. At U.S. Short Course Nationals this past December, she eclipsed her personal bests from last season, finishing with times of 1:03.43, 2:15.23 and 2:05.78 in the 100-yard breaststroke, 200-yard breaststroke and 200-yard IM respectively. By early last month, she was breaking pool records, creating her own momentum, and leaving prior injuries and competitors in her wake.
At dual meets this season, Liao consistently topped the scoreboard and was counted on to swim at her best times in every race. At the dual meet against Cornell on Jan. 8, she won both the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke races with meet record times of 1:03.94 and 2:16.47. Those performances were particularly outstanding since the meet took place at the end of two weeks of intense training.
Liao has continued to dominate the breaststroke events. In the 200-yard breaststroke, which she perceives as her best event, she has been beaten only twice this season, once by Laura Gorinski of Navy and once by Olympic Trial qualifier Andrea Kropp of Princeton. Usually, she has easily outpaced her competitors and won by margins of over five seconds.
Not only has she catapulted herself onto the Ivy League stage as one of the fastest breaststrokers, she also swims a strong 200-yard IM. The consummate team player, she swims these three events — the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke, and 200-yard IM — in nearly every meet.
“She has not complained once,” complimented head coach Cristina Teuscher. “It’s boring to swim the same event over and over again. To take each race as a fresh attempt, it’s very hard to do that. We could have put her in the 100 fly or the 100 free, or even take her out of a third event, but we were 20 girls and needed her in those events.”
It is in her training that Liao has had the opportunity for variation and self-focus. She often opts to train butterfly instead of breaststroke — which to many teammates is a more challenging alternative — and incorporates a variety of drills into her practice and meet warmup routine. She even chose to train with the men’s team one day a week to practice under a different coach and workout regime.
“When I think of Athena and what’s she’s done this year, it’s all her,” Teuscher said. “It’s her commitment. It’s how she works hard. She feels things out for herself of what she needs and what she wants.”
Liao realized many years ago that she swam her best when she was relaxed and confident. To this day, unlike many swimmers, she does not scrutinize heat sheets or rankings before meets and rarely glances at her opponents before a race. Her goal in each event is to focus entirely on herself and her race, to concentrate on pacing and technique, and to get to the wall as fast as she can.
Liao’s personality is not what you might expect from such a highly accomplished, determined athlete. To her teammates, friends and coaches, Liao is one of a kind — a mixture of humility and confidence, seriousness and spunk. She embraces the team aspect of her sport. Whether it be team dinners or making posters for Senior Day, Liao is there. She is as much a presence on pool deck during meets cheering for her teammates as she is winning races in the pool.
Teuscher believes that Liao has struck the perfect balance between individual intensity and spirited support, as well between swimming and other extracurriculars. After swim practice, she often heads to rehearsal with her dance group, Dance Works. Members of the group said Liao is an invaluable member and, because of her fitness, can handle challenging moves that other members cannot.
“She’s really strong and clean with her movements so I can always put her in the front,” Dance Works choreographer Yanyao Fu ’11 said. “She also has a really great mind for it. I’ve seen her teaching other members, clarifying some of the moves.”
Teuscher confirmed coach Galluzzi’s initial impressions about Liao as not just a talented athlete but outstanding student and person.
“She’s a role model. She’s humble. She’s a team player. She’s consistent. She does a great job balancing and is simply a wonderful personality.”