Despite Disappointments, Madisyn Cox Still Loves Racing

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

Madisyn Cox was 50 meters from the finish in the biggest race of her life. In the 200 IM final at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she was in third place with just the freestyle leg to go, but she turned only two tenths behind leader Maya DiRado and just a tenth behind Caitlin Leverenz.

“I remember turning after the breaststroke and thinking, ‘I feel good. This is it. Let’s do this last 50,’” Cox recalled.

She had already been fourth in the 400 IM at Trials, swimming a lifetime best time of 4:38.85, but Cox had never expected that she would make the team in that event. So when she got back to her hotel room the night after the 400 IM, she told roommate Maggie D’Innocenzo that she would make the Olympic team in the 200 IM.

“Mag, I’m making this team,” Cox said that night. “And she was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I remember being so confident because that 400 IM felt so good—I had so much energy, I never died, and I felt like my strokes were all put together really well.”

Perhaps those were brash words, but Cox had plenty of reason to be confident. She had won the silver medal in the 200 IM at the World University Games the year before. She had been third in the 200-yard IM in a loaded heat at the NCAA championships.

Carol Capitani, her coach at the University of Texas, could tell that Cox truly believed she was going to finish in the top two.

“I think that belief is all anybody wants at that point going into finals of your best event,” Capitani said. “There are no guarantees—I think she knew that—but you can’t make the team unless you believe you can make the team. You are not going to make any team unless you believe, 100 percent in your heart, that you can do it.”

With 50 meters to go in the final, Cox’s proclamation to D’Innocenzo was on the verge of validation. A top-two finish and a spot on the Olympic team were within reach.

But at that moment when the thought clicked in her head that she was only 50 meters from a trip to Rio, that’s when everything fell apart.

Cox’s final 50 meter-split was the slowest of anyone in the final. DiRado ended up finishing first, while Melanie Margalis touched out Leverenz to pick up the second spot on the Olympic team. Cox was fourth with a time of 2:11.24.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

That was a blow that would take a while to get over—certainly more than the 15 hours Cox had before she was scheduled to swim in the prelims of the 200 breast. She ended up finishing 34th in that event, her time more than four seconds slower than her lifetime best.

But just days after Trials ended, Cox was back in the pool training. She was set on swimming through the rest of the summer and going to the U.S. Open in early August, but coming off such a big blow, Cox found the pool was not the refuge that it typically was.

“I was thinking, ‘I don’t care. Swim this off,’” she said. “Whenever anything’s wrong, I always go to swimming, but that kind of backfired because swimming was what was wrong.”

Eventually, she figured out why it bugged her so much that she had come up just short.

“I was ashamed, definitely. I’m from a small town (Lubbock, Texas), and a lot of what I do is for them and to represent them. I felt like I kind of had let them down a bit,” Cox said.

“I was fine personally,” she added. “I gave it what I had, and overall for myself I was fine with Trials. I think it was more the disappointment I felt I had brought on to others.”

It took a little bit of a nudge from Capitani to snap her out of it.

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Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold/Aringo

“What we just had to figure out was, ‘Okay, here’s what we can do. You can keep dwelling on the past, or you can figure out ways to get better. You have your senior year in front of you, you have a team to lead, and you have a job to do,’” Capitani said.

“When everything’s going well, that’s not when you figure out what you’re made of. It’s when you have to get through the tough times.”

Soon enough, the funk would pass, and Cox did swim at the U.S. Open, recording lifetime bests in her breaststroke events and coming close to her Trials times in the IMs. Life would return to normal as Cox entered her senior year at Texas.

Unlike most college students close to graduation (she has two more semesters of classes to go), Cox has long known exactly what she wants to do with her life—go to medical school and perhaps become a dermatologist.

“I think I’ve always wanted to go to med school,” she said. “Sciences were always my thing growing up, and my dad is in the medical profession, so he was a big influence on me.”

Still, while her passion for medicine can wait a few years, swimming has a finite end-point. Even before she twice finished fourth in Omaha, Cox had planned on swimming professionally and making another attempt at an Olympic team in 2020.

If she had any hesitation about the decision to commit to three more years, those doubts were erased at the Short Course World Championships in Windsor, Canada, where she won bronze medals both the 200 and 400 IM. It was the 400 IM of which she was the proudest, especially after a prelims swim that she called “the worst-feeling race I think I’ve ever had in my life.”

“I remember vomiting afterwards. It was absolutely terrible. Didn’t even think I could walk down stairs. It was a moment where I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not made for this race. I can’t do it.’ And I remember seeing the board and seeing that I made the A-final, and at first my heart just dropped, and I was like, ‘I can’t do it again,’” Cox said.

“I kind of had this little heart-to-heart with Carol. We were like, ‘That race plan didn’t work. It sucked, honestly.’ We just totally turned it around. I had one of the best night 400 IMs of my life, and I think that right there really taught me, it doesn’t matter how you feel or what’s going on.”

That race gave Cox a glimpse into her capabilities.

“It’s not like everyone in the world was at Short Course Worlds, but there were some pretty heavy hitters there and knowing she could medal was big,” Capitani said. “Knowing that she’s better long course, I think that gave her a boost of confidence looking forward to this World Championship Trials.”

Those Trials will be Cox’s target meet for 2017, and she will again aim for a spot on a team more prestigious than any she has made before. But before that, Cox had one final NCAA championships—and some unfinished business—to attend to.

One year earlier, the Longhorns had bottomed out at the national championship meet, finishing 15th. Cox described that meet as “the worst it can ever be and will ever be.” The Longhorns had more than just small improvements in mind for the 2017 championships.

“We took a lot of heat after last year’s performance. A lot of things were said, and it kind of hurt a little bit, but I think it fueled us more than anything,” Cox said. “I couldn’t be prouder leading that team.”

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Photo Courtesy: Brooke Wright

Texas ended up finishing fifth, just a half-point behind fourth-place Georgia. Cox’s college career was over, but less than four weeks later, she was back in the racing pool, competing in her preferred long course for the first time since August—and for the first time ever, as a professional—at the Arena Pro Swim Series event in Mesa, Ariz.

Life, though, really has stayed the same as it would be any other summer, and Cox figures she won’t notice any difference in the pro lifestyle until the next college season starts and she cannot compete in dual meets.

“I don’t have to go to compliance meetings anymore,” she added. “That’s a perk.”

Cox plans to stay in Austin and continue training at the University of Texas for the next three years. After almost four full years together, she has full confidence in Capitani.

“She’s really not an intimidating person, but I remember being recruited and even through my freshman year I was so scared of her,” Cox recalled. “Obviously, she’s not intimidating at all. She cares about us as people more than anything, and once I realized that it was easy to start trusting her. We just figured each other out, and I think 95 percent of my progress is due to that.”

Cox first arrived at Texas having never made an international team, and three years later found herself just on the outside of a trip to the Olympics. It’s the work that she put in over that span and even since that gives Capitani such firm confidence that Cox’s upward trajectory will continue.

She has figured out the commitment and effort required to become an elite swimmer, Capitani explained, so her mindset is to “outwork everybody.”

“She loves to race, she loves to go fast, and if she stopped loving that, she would be done,” Capitani said. “She’s not motivated by times—she’s motivated by racing and learning how to get her hand on the wall first.”

Capitani describes Cox as “particular” and “superstitious,” explaining that she has certain rituals that she will go through before every race and certain colors of clothing and swimsuits that she will and won’t wear when she’s at meets—and one food item she absolutely has to eat.

I eat a turkey sandwich before I swim every single race,” Cox said. “Jimmy Johns is what I try to go for. Sometimes I have to be flexible—when I go to international meets and what not and they don’t have Jimmy Johns. Make sure it’s a turkey sandwich but preferably Jimmy Johns.

“I did it one meet, I swam a really good race, and I just never stopped doing it.”

Next month, Cox will visit the same Jimmy Johns location in Indianapolis that she ate at before her final NCAA championships, as she prepares to battle for a spot on the World Championships team in her best event, the loaded 200 IM.

But whatever happens in Indy—if she makes Worlds or not—her long-term plan won’t change. She will keep on swimming—and eating Jimmy Johns turkey sandwiches—until her love of racing fades away.

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Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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