This story was contributed by Liberty sophomore swimmer Alicia Finnigan, sharing about her graduating teammates. Today's feature is about Rachel Rippey. Looking Back with Rachel Rippey "I was not known as a fast swimmer."
These are the words of Liberty's Rachel Rippey, one of two graduating seniors on this year's swim team, but they only offer a small glimpse of her story. If people were only to look at her times, it might be the only part of her story they ever saw. However, Rippey's testimony extends far beyond what happened in the pool, and anyone who knows her personally can attest to it.
Danielle Boothe, a junior on the Liberty swimming & diving team, notes qualities that go beyond speed and ability.
"Rachel is very enjoyable to be around and very encouraging, especially when things are tough," Boothe said. "When things were difficult, she was really great at encouraging us even if she wasn't doing well herself."
Rippey had plenty of reasons to be discouraged herself, but things didn't start out that way. For Rippey, the journey all started like it does for many athletes: with a genuine love of her sport.
"I just really loved [swimming]," Rippey said. "I don't know what it was, but I wanted to swim."
She showed promise from a young age, and trained well throughout middle school and high school. As her senior year of high school approached, Rippey knew college swimming wouldn't be a guarantee, but she had her heart set on one school.
"Going into my senior year, I really knew I wanted to come to Liberty, and I didn't care if I swam or not," Rippey said. "But I met with Jake [Shellenberger] and Jess [Barnes] over the summer and they told me I could walk on to the team."
It seemed almost too good to be true, and Rippey didn't take the opportunity for granted.
"I didn't really care that I was going to walk on, because it was just my dream to go to college, and to swim at college was just an amazing opportunity," Rippey said. "I felt like it was crazy that it would happen to me, and that I'd be able to go to a program that was a lot better than some programs I was looking at that were like, ‘No you're not fast enough to come here.'"
Swimming for Liberty became a significant milestone in Rippey's life, but it also marked a personal victory. When facing her fair share of challenges, disappointments and setbacks leading up to college, Rippey had refused to quit.
"I don't know what in me wanted to push through, but I just have never been a quitter," Rippey said. "A lot of people I knew got frustrated with swimming when they weren't getting any better and when they hit their plateaus. They were like, ‘You know, it's not for me.' But for some reason I had that sense of destiny that I was supposed to keep doing it and keep pushing through."
How hard was it to push through? To Rippey, it seemed as though her heart was always one step ahead of her abilities, and time after time she fell just short of reaching the next level.
"Something I really struggled with when I was younger was a feeling of inferiority, because I just didn't think I was that good," Rippey said. "And it was so sad, because I had such a love and a heart for [swimming], and I practiced so hard, but when it came to racing, I had such a mental block that I could not race. I was always at the top of the average people."
In high school alone, Rippey spent three years agonizingly close to a national cut without seeing her work come to fruition.
"From freshman year to junior year, I was within a second of the national cut in the 100 back," Rippey said. "I could not break 1:01. It was really heartbreaking and there were so many times that I wanted to quit. I didn't know why I wasn't making it. I knew I could do it; it just frustrated me that I wasn't getting there."
It was disappointment after disappointment, some cutting more deeply than others.
"Junior year, I missed the cut by a couple tenths of a second," Rippey said. "And they put my teammate in the relay instead of me."
Having to watch as her best opportunity to make the cut was given to a faster teammate, Rippey managed to keep the big picture in mind.
"That kind of showed me my purpose in swimming, in that it was never about swimming," Rippey said.
With the promise of a chance to swim in college, Rippey's senior year went noticeably better, and she was finally able to qualify for nationals. Going into college, it seemed like the worst was over.
"I just wanted to see how fast I could get," Rippey said. "I was so excited with something new, something different. I knew that I function really well in an environment that pushes me. I do better when I'm the underdog."
Things were picking up for Rippey as she continued to train and develop, and at her first conference meet she saw huge improvements in all her events, a result she attributes completely to finally trusting in God.
"Being confident in my swimming ability and my character and my personhood, it was all because of God," Rippey said. "I just remember giving it up to God before my races, like, ‘God, you got this. I surrender it all.' That's where I found victory in my mindset when it came to my races, and I was really excited to carry that with me for the rest of my time at Liberty."
However, her excitement was cut tragically short when an unexpected injury struck the very next season.
"One day at practice something happened, and after I got out of the water and I couldn't really feel my legs, I knew something was wrong," Rippey said.
Rippey had experienced some back pain throughout her freshman year, but like many athletes used to working through the pain, she ignored the discomfort and trained through it. She would later find out that her pain was due to constant tearing and re-tearing of some ligaments in her back, a condition that kept her out of the pool for much of her second season, including the conference meet.
"I was really confused; I'd get really mad at God but at the same time I had never been closer to God in my life, because he was literally the only one I could rely on in that time," Rippey said. "Every day I'd go to him."
Slowly, things began to fall back into place. Body and soul were mending, and when Rippey was finally allowed to swim again, she found renewed determination to keep fighting to the finish.
"I started to swim, just five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes [at a time] throughout the spring semester," Rippey said. "Over the summer I went to physical therapy and I swam almost every day, whether it was for a half hour or an hour, and I was going to come back in the season and maybe I could swim normally again."
Hope took hold of Rippey, and because she had plans to graduate in three years, she knew this season would be her last opportunity to swim.
"I was just really serious because I wanted to get better and I wanted to finish strong," Rippey said. "In my heart, I wasn't going to quit, even though a lot of times I struggled with thinking I should."
It was a tough final season for Rippey. Though she obtained an official diagnosis and was able to undergo some treatment, she was still very limited in how hard she could train, something that frustrated the naturally hard worker.
"I would swim for an hour a day," Rippey said. "I couldn't race my events, I was not able to do the main set, and I couldn't race to my max, which was probably the hardest thing for me. I didn't want to not give it my all, but I wanted to be smart."
The injury ended up never fully going away, but when the end of the season rolled around, Rippey was able to compete in the 50 free and 100 free at her final conference meet, a testimony to her incredible perseverance in the face of obstacles. However, for someone who had continuously hoped to return even better and stronger, the victory of reaching the finish line was tainted by that unfulfilled expectation.
"I always saw my story being a comeback, and I would give all the credit to God…but obviously that's not how it happened," Rippey said. "I realized that my destiny was not my own success."
Swimming in her final meet at last gave Rippey a new perspective on what had really been important throughout it all.
"I had this whole long swimming experience, yet swimming was such a small part of it," Rippey said. "Once you're out and you've swum the last race of your life, you realize that all those hours spent crying and chasing after something that your heart wants so bad is not what you remember. You remember the people you were around, and the feelings you get when you watch someone else swim the best race of their life, or when you get to be there for someone who had a bad race—the experiences you go through apart from the water."
Though Rippey still struggles to make sense of it all, she knows that her story and her purpose were part of something bigger.
"My greatest passion in life is probably just to make a difference in other people's lives," Rippey said. "I want people to feel like they mean something to me, because I think that's what my calling is. That's how Jesus loved us and that's how I see myself loving other people."
Rippey has a quote by Maya Angelou hanging on her wall in her apartment, and it captures the reason she knows she fulfilled a purpose on the team:
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Sophomore Siani Null, a teammate who shared a lane at practices with Rippey, certainly remembers how Rippey made her feel.
"From the very first day I was on the team, Rachel made me feel comfortable, and I loved every practice with her and any time I got to spend with her because she has such a bubbly personality and inviting heart," Null said. "So many times she would bring joy when the atmosphere might have been down, even when she was in pain and not feeling too joyful herself."
There may be no better testament to Rippey's impact than the smiles of her teammates when she's around, and that's a great impact to have.
"No matter what you're going through, it doesn't matter if you're the best at what you do, because at the end of the day, nobody will remember that," Rippey said. "I was not known as a fast swimmer. I was known for who I was as a person."
Rippey's times tell part of the story, but her impact on the lives of her teammates and friends continue to tell the rest.
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