It’s hard to fathom, but Sue Walsh is about to send her youngest child off to college. Shawn Stankavage is headed for Vanderbilt on a football scholarship. Kids these days would compare him to Johnny Manziel, but his mother’s generation would see the next Fran Tarkenton.
It’s hard to fathom because it seems like yesterday when Walsh was going off to college after pit stopping in Moscow for a gold medal. At least that was the plan when the former swimming prodigy from Hamburg graduated early from Mount Mercy Academy and skipped prom to train for the 1980 Summer Olympics.
“And I’d do it all over again,” Walsh said by phone last week.
Of course, doing it all over again would mean enduring one opportunity taken away and another missed by a millisecond. She was a tortured athlete for years before motherhood showed her that swimming wasn’t life and death. But to this day, at age 52, swimming remains a key component in her life.
You wonder what Michael Phelps is thinking when he keeps coming back for more even though he has a treasure chest filled with gold medals and more money than he could count. Phelps has nothing to prove to anyone, but he continues for one simple reason: He doesn’t know how to stop.
The same is true with Walsh.
“I don’t know that I’m good at anything else,” Walsh said. “Michael can still compete at a high level. At 52, there are some things that you can’t do anymore to stay in shape. For me, this is something you can do for a lifetime. You just might be a bit slower. It’s a lifestyle more than doing it for competition or recognition.”
Walsh vowed to quit umpteen times over the years but she continued jumping back into the pool for the very reasons she did when it all began. The pool was her sanctuary, the place she felt most comfortable, where she solved the world’s problems and hit the daily reset button.
Why would she abandon the water after the water carried her on a wave that has lasted a lifetime?
Swimming led her to the University of North Carolina, where she became the best swimmer in Atlantic Coast Conference history. She won eight NCAA titles and 23 conference championships in four years. It led her to the quarterback of the football team, which led her to marriage, which led her to three children.
Walsh was married to Scott Stankavage, who spent two seasons with the Broncos behind John Elway. They have since divorced. Walsh lives in Durham, N.C. and oversees The Rams Club, which raises money for scholarships for the UNC athletic department. The job ensures she’s never too far from the pool.
Looking back, swimming gave her everything. Sure, there was some heartache along the way. It made her a stronger woman.
In 1980, she made the U.S. Olympic team and was among the favorites in the 200-meter backstroke when President Carter decided to boycott the Games in Moscow. To this day, seeing Phelps’ family cheering in the stands triggers emotions about her own parents not being able to do the same for her.
Four years later, she missed making the U.S. Olympic team by one one-hundredth of a second after a nasal infection left the tank empty at the finish. The time needed to snap her fingers separated her from competing in the Summer Games in Los Angeles. Imagine getting that close to a dream – twice.
“I made peace with it,” Walsh said. “Once you have children, your perspective really changes on what’s important. Granted, it would have been wonderful to actually have been able to compete, compare yourself to the rest of the world and have that experience.
“I generally don’t regress too much to that because I can’t change it. Everything has a purpose in directing us and developing us into who we are. But who knows? Could I have had my picture on a Wheaties box? Maybe, maybe not.”
Walsh came to realize that the pool wasn’t just for swimming. It was for living. Swimming was her identity, and it took her a few years to fully transition into the real world. She came to understand that the sport helped shape her into a better person.
Swimming provided her with discipline that carried into other aspects of her life. It kept her head above water without drowning in stress that came with raising three active kids, a busy work schedule and the end of her marriage. She was a voice of reason when UNC was rocked by scandal involving athletes and poor academics.
Forget about the records she set or the Olympics she missed and consider the results that matter.
Her daughter, Sarah, is a personal trainer and engaged to be married. Another daughter, Shelby, recently earned her master’s degree and is teaching in Memphis. Shawn is getting ready for Vandy after passing for 3,564 yards and 34 touchdowns and rushing for 13 more TDs in his senior year alone.
“There’s a lot going on, and sometimes you feel like you’re not going to come up for air,” Walsh said. “For me, it’s about taking a deep breath, getting my arms around it all and attacking. I really do think back to swimming. Is this what really prepared me?”
It’s why she sets aside time nearly every day for swimming, which keeps her physically and mentally strong. Her parents may have put her into the sport, but apparently nobody can take the sport out of her. All these years later, she’s still swimming at an elite level.
She was drawn into masters swimming in the Raleigh-Durham area several years ago by three friends who were hoping she could help them win a relay. It gave her incentive to train, sharpened her focus and sparked a competitive spirit that drove her to succeed in the first place.
Seven years ago, she broke six world records in the 45-49 age group in the U.S. Masters Swimming Championships. A few months ago, she set a world record in the 50 freestyle among swimmers between the ages of 50 and 54. She’ll keep swimming until she figures out how to stop.
“It gives you an anchor, something you can count on,” she said. “Everything else might be falling apart around you, but you set aside that time. Even though it’s physically exhausting, it’s emotionally invigorating. And if I swim a couple miles, I’m not going to beat myself up in a few weeks when I go to Antoinette’s.”