Alexei Sancov Living in the Moment and Chasing Goals at USC

Alexei Sancov
Photo Courtesy: Isabelle Odgers

Alexei Sancov entered his freshman year at USC as a top recruit. Already an Olympian for Moldova and a former Junior World record holder, he seemed set to take the college swimming world by storm. After moving to the United States with his parents as a 16-year-old, he taught himself English and began the process of applying to high school and, later, college.

His freshman year was full of new experiences and quickly, the pressure began to mount, as the expectations he had built for himself weighed down on him. The first dual meet of the collegiate season brought on a wave of self-doubt that he had never really experienced in the past.

“I had this false illusion that I don’t really need to work hard to perform well,” Sancov said. “My first dual meet, I had the realization that I’m swimming against guys that are as talented as I am, as fast as I am. It hit me really, really hard.”

With mounting feelings of letting down teammates, coaches, and loved ones, the pressure to perform had never been higher.

“I just put myself in such a big mental hole that I could not get out of,” he said. “That anxiety that I was feeling behind the blocks, it was really, really scary. I realized, ‘I’m scared to swim.’ And whenever I was getting in the water, I was lost.

Skeptical at first, Sancov arranged meetings with a sports psychologist once or twice a week throughout his freshman year. Through the process, he realized how beneficial it was for him and his mental health.

“It’s not spoken enough about,” Sancov said of mental health. “Like, we need to bring this up more because it hurts so much to go through it.”


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

He believes that in order to perform well in any single area, you must take care of yourself in all aspects of life, and the psychologists offered help. After just barely missing individual qualification for NCAAs, Sancov’s freshman year came to a disappointing end. He continued to train and surf over the summer in preparation for the World Championships in South Korea.

Walking to the warm-down pool after a disappointing finish in the 200 freestyle, Sancov felt overwhelmed with failures, negative thoughts, and missed expectations. He remembers watching one of his best friends, Anton Chupkov, win the 200 breaststroke, breaking a world record in the process.

“I actually teared up in happiness,” Sancov said. “I felt so proud of him. In my mind, I wanted the closest people in my life also to look at me like that and feel proud of me.”

This was when he came to a turning point in his mental game and began to dream big again. Through his work with the psychologists during his freshman year, he learned how to control his feelings and emotions by realizing the things he had the power to change.

“I’ve learned to be present in the moment, and control whatever I can control right now, and the things I cannot control, I’ve learned how to not overthink,” he said.

He returned to Los Angeles after the competition in Korea concluded and put all of his energy into working on his mental health and habits.

“I promised myself that I’m ready to make all the sacrifices, every sacrifice that is needed to make,” he said. “Everything that is needed to do, I will do it to get back on the podium.”

Within three months, at his midseason meet, he was back on his best times, breaking school records in the 200-yard butterfly (1:42.20) and the 200 individual medley (1:43.92).

“The amount of positive feelings, how happy I was at the end of the meet, I’ve missed it,” Sancov said. “I haven’t felt like that in about a year, a year and a half. And that was incredible. And that kind of kept me going. That motivated me to go for it.”

One of the biggest things that helped Sancov regain his confidence when racing was learning to be fully present in the moment. Looking back, he realizes that overcoming the difficulties of his first year ultimately helped him to become the competitor and person he is today.

“Everything is a lesson, and we learn through mistakes and (failures),” he said. “And it took me a good two years to understand and know what my body actually needs. As of now, I think I’ve come to a good point to where I know what I need to do to perform well.”

It has been a learning process for him, but through it he has learned so much about himself outside of the pool.

“Everyone is gonna have their breaking moment in their lives, and for some people it comes in college, so it is better to take a step back by failing and learning from your mistakes so you can take two steps forward,” he said. “And the most important thing is just to not give up during this moment.”

After an unrested, yet respectable performance at Pac-12s his sophomore year, Sancov felt ready to take on NCAAs with strong potential to final individually. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the meet never took place, marking a shocking and disappointing turn of events.

Sancov used his newfound mental outlook to take the cancellation in stride.

“I just want to go with whatever I can have right now and be present,” he said. “If I can swim today, that’s awesome. I believe and I hope that I can grow more: physically, mentally, and as a person.”

So, for now, Sancov will continue to live in the moment, ready to adapt to whatever comes his way.

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