The Making of a Champion: Heather Wong Makes Waves at Bryant University

heather-wong-bryant
Photo Courtesy: Bryant Athletics

By Lucas Alvarez, Swimming World College Intern.

Nearly every swimmer who starts young has big dreams of making it to the Olympics or becoming a champion. But the percentage who actually do make it is quite small. What sets champions apart from the rest is consistent determination, hard work and a love for the water. Bryant University’s Heather Wong – breaststroker and school record-holder – embodies each of these qualities.

Just a few years after Wong learned to walk, she learned to swim. By the time she was five years old, she had joined her local recreation swim team. And by the time she was nine, her recreation coach had convinced her to join the local club team. Less than a decade later, Wong would break the county record in the 100 breaststroke as a freshman in high school. She followed that up by breaking her college’s record in the 200 breaststroke in her inaugural season. These accomplishments can largely be attributed to Wong spending so much of her life in the water and consistently working hard.

heather-wong-ramsey

Photo Courtesy: Ramsey Swimming Program

Wong has lived in Ramsey, N.J., for her entire life. It’s here where her passion for swimming was born. Like most people, Wong’s earliest participation in swimming was just for fun. She also participated in other sports but eventually chose to focus on what she thought was the most enjoyable. “When I was younger, I did all the sports, but I didn’t like them as much [as swimming],” Wong said.

Wong showed great swimming potential at an early age, so she was encouraged to swim competitively and join a club team. Because she lived in Bergen County, she joined the local Bergen Barracudas club team for kids ages 6 to 18. A unique aspect of this team is that it was open to swimmers all around the county, giving Wong the opportunity to meet people outside her hometown. “I had a lot of friends that were all over Bergen County,” she said.

nicole-cicalo-decaro

Photo Courtesy: TeamUnify

One of the club coaches was Nicole Cicalo-Decaro, a woman who became almost like a second mom for Wong. Cicalo-Decaro taught Wong, her sister and her two cousins everything there is to know about swimming:

“She was the primary reason I had joined club in the first place, and she’s been by my side ever since. I’ve known her for so long. She’s not only seen me grow as a woman, but I’ve gotten to see her kids grow up too. There’ve been a few coaches that I’ve had through different age groups besides her, but she will forever be the woman that started it all for me.”

Under Cicalo-Decaro’s watchful eye, Wong stuck with the team all the way through high school, and remained with the Barracudas even after she joined her high school swim team.

bergen-barracudas-team

Photo Courtesy: TeamUnify

It was in high school where Wong really began to shine. As a freshman, she broke the county record in the 100 breaststroke. Wong said it was an incredible feeling to break a record, but she actually had no clue that her previous times had been so close to breaking it. She just wanted to do her best. “I wanted to be the fastest one there,” she said. “I had friends from all different high schools cheering me on during the race and just a combination of all my adrenaline and nervousness, I got it.” Wong said that breaking that record was big for her, but it was also big for her high school. “It was also a monumental moment for Ramsey because we had finally been put on the map for high school swimming,” she said. “Some students at the high school didn’t even know we had a swim team and then after that people started talking.”

The next year, her record would be broken by a girl from a rival school. As a junior and one of her team’s captains, she would reclaim her record with a time of 1:04.66 and win the 100 breaststroke title in the process. Wong says that determination and practice are the main factors in becoming a championship caliber breaststroker. “Your mind and your body have to be trained to want your goal and by the time it’s race time it should be your routine and you shouldn’t doubt yourself one bit,” she said. Wong finished her high school swimming career as a two-time 100 breaststroke champion and held the 100 breaststroke record at the time of her graduation.

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Photo Courtesy: Teresa Kilday

A star swimmer in high school, Wong knew she wanted to continue competing and honing her craft in college. Despite her prowess for swimming, Wong also considered her education and wanted to attend a school with a good business program. She is currently majoring in global supply chain management. She also wanted to go somewhere that was between three to five hours away from home. Additionally, financials came into play. “I knew I was going to be competing in Division I or Division III, but the difference is that Division III doesn’t give money for your sport.”

Wong also knew that she didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond. Instead, she wanted to truly compete against people who would challenge and better her. She started looking for schools that fit her requirements and she came across Bryant University, a private school in Rhode Island, at a college fair event during her junior year. The school’s representative was very knowledgeable about the swim team, which Wong described as a breath of fresh air. “Every other school’s table was either not sure about the program or didn’t even have a swim team to begin with,” she said. Wong later went to the school for a recruiting trip and said that it sealed the deal for her:

“Everyone was so welcoming and fun, and I could tell they all really enjoyed being together like a family. I wanted to be a part of that family. My mom says that the morning she and my dad came to pick me up to go home, I had this huge smile on my face just watching the team swim their morning practice. In that moment I knew and even she knew I was gonna end up there.”

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Photo Courtesy: Bryant Swimming & Diving

Wong couldn’t be happier with her decision to attend Bryant and swim in Division I. “I’ve met so many people through swimming in college and in high school that I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said. She quickly made her mark on Bryant’s swimming program, breaking the school record in the 200 breaststroke (2:18.18) as a freshman.

Wong’s advice to high school swimmers looking to continue swimming in college is to “find your home away from home. Most of us all stop swimming after college because there’s not a whole lot left for us to do, but make those four years wherever you go worth it. No matter the cause, my teammates at school will always have my back, always be there for me even when it doesn’t apply at all to swimming.”

A rising junior, Wong has two years of college eligibility remaining, and we can’t wait to see what she does next!

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Larry DeCaro

    Congrats on a job well done and the garden work to achieve your goals. I am also very proud of my daughtet-in-law, Nicole Cicalo DeCaro.