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American Personality: Ashley Tappin

She's "Just Doing It"


Russ Ewald

There were days two years ago when Ashley Tappin wasn't able to finish a swimming workout because her left shoulder hurt so badly. Sometimes this would happen two days in a row. Sometimes three. It got to the point where her goal became to finish a practice. Instead, there came a moment during a workout at the University of Arizona pool when she couldn't move the shoulder at all. She felt like someone was sticking a knife in it. She kicked to the side of the pool where Wildcat head coach Frank Busch had to pull her out of the water. For five minutes, Tappin sat on the side of the pool in shock. The tall, slender swimmer had been enduring pain in the shoulder ever since high school. A regular in the training room, she tried everything. She would ice the shoulder daily. She got cortisone shots. She took anti-inflammatory drugs.

Who knows how good Tappin could have been without the bad shoulder? Under coach Alan Smith, whom the sprinter followed from Tampa to Brandon, Fla., and then to New Orleans, she was an early standout. She was the youngest qualifier for the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials. She made the U.S. Olympic team in the 400 free relay as a high school senior in 1992 and swam on relays at the 1991 and 1994 World Championships. After transferring from Florida to Arizona, she won the 50 and 200 yard freestyles and took second in the 100 free at the NCAAs as a sophomore.

But, by 1996, the pain had become too acute for the Arizona swimmer to tolerate any more. With the Olympic trials and NCAA back-to-back, she decided to pass up the trials and focus on the college championships. "I owed it to my teammates," she says.

Ashley Tappin at the U.S. Nationals
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Tappin managed to take third in the 50 and 100 fly and swam on three relays, anchoring the winning 200 free squad in 22.29. After the NCAAs, she underwent arthoscopic, rotator cuff surgery and took the summer off. She returned to the pool only to finish her final year of eligibility with the Arizona team. She placed second in the 50, third in the 200 free and fourth in the 100 free at the 1997 NCAAs before retiring.

Tappin still swam some, doing triathlons. "I didn't put in the work to be all that successful at it," she says. "I wanted to get away from the competition stuff. It was nice to come in 30th and have someone congratulate me." But the desire to compete in swimming remained. Tappin kept talking about it when, last September, a friend suggested she just do it. She showed up a practice the next morning and hasn't let up since. "I felt there had been no finish to my career," she says. "I hadn't accomplished what I thought I could."

Her comeback got off to a roaring start when she upset Olympic champion Amy Van Dyken and triple gold medallist Jenny Thompson back-to-back in a special 50-yard free "shootout" (competitors swim match races and the winner advances) at the Kerr-McGee meet last December in Oklahoma. Tappin, who was timed in 22.18 in the final, won $6,000. At the spring nationals this April in Minneapolis, Tappin became the first woman in six years to win four events at a U.S. championships. Moreover, she swam personal bests in the sprints (25.54, 55.28) and 100 fly (59.84). She also won the 200 free in 2:01.99. "We're training at a higher level and more consistently than she'd done before," says Rick DeMont, the sprint coach at Arizona. "She's pulling deep, long water and using her legs, an amazing power source for her. We'll see more drop in the 50 as she gets more comfortable with the six-beat kick. She's already made a quantum leap in the butterfly." It's been quite a transformation for Tappin. She was a high-tempo, two-beat kicker in high school. Before her comeback, she avoided using kickboards and paddles. The only weights she handled were five-pounders for rehab purposes.

Ashley Tappin, USA
BIRTHDATE December 18, 1974
PLACE Tucson, Arizona
HEIGHT 5 ft. 10 in. / 179 cm
WEIGHT 140 lbs / 63 kg
REPRESENTS Hillenbrand
COACH Rick DeMont
Long Course Progression
Year 50 Free 100 Free 200 Free 100 Fly
1998 25.54 55.28 2:01.99 59.84
1997 retired
1996 retired
1995 25.81 56.58 2:02.91 1:01.09
1994 26.34 57.08 2:01.40 1:02.39
1993 26.42 57.59 - -
1992 26.45 55.47 2:03.53 1:02.80
1991 - 56.51 2:04.01 1:03.52
1990 26.50 56.35 2:02.89 1:04.29
1989 26.86 56.94 2:06.93 -
1988 26.94 57.29 - -

"She was conservative in the her approach to training because she was worried about being sidelined and letting down the team," says Busch. "Now, she's swimming for herself and excited about her career. She is at a different level. There is nothing wrong with postgrads in the sport if they are focussed like she and Jenny Thompson and not relying on the past for getting it done."

Tappin says she's currently lifting more than a lot of her teammates and has tripled her running workouts, covering at least 3 to 4 miles four times a week, one of those times doing stadium stairs. While the team runs twice a week, she goes two more days with the coaches before swim practice. The running helps Tappin increase her aerobic base without taxing the shoulders.

"She's pushing the limits," says DeMont. "Her thinking is if something breaks, she went out going hard. She's become more receptive to coaching, too. With the chance to win some money, she's very motivated." Besides prize money, Tappin supports herself with endorsement contracts with Tyr swimwear and Oakley sunglasses as well as working part-time in marketing for Competitive Engineering, a firm in Tucson. Her attitude, she notes, has changed "180 degrees." She says, "I'm older and know what it takes. I'm prepared to go through the pain. It's not like before when I had a really hard day and it surprised me. I know I'm going to feel like I'm going to throw up. That's why I'm more successful now. My head's there. I can deal with it. My goal is to never get upset and look on the bright side of everything." Tappin is setting her sights higher, too. "I want to be on top," she proclaims. "I'm returning not to just be third. I've always been third. I'm going to be the best in several events. That's what I've made up my mind to be."

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