World Record Holder Sarah Wellbrock (GER) on How to Prioritize as a Student-Athlete


World Record Holder Sarah Wellbrock (GER) on How to Prioritize as a Student-Athlete

By Vanessa Steigauf, Swimming World College Intern

Last week, you could find most world class swimmers racing in Budapest at the 19th FINA World Championships. But some might have noticed that a well-known name was missing in the heat sheets of the women’s distance events. Sarah Wellbrock (nee Köhler), is one of Germany’s most successful swimmers. She is the current world-record holder in the short-course 1500m freestyle, an Olympic medalist, and was a defending champion in the 5km open water team relay. After impressive achievements at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, she was in position to fight for some medals at this year’s World Championships.

Yet, she decided against swimming in Budapest this summer and is instead spending most of her time in the library, studying for her final law school exams. How does a world-class swimmer make such important decisions, not only concerning big events like the World Championships, but also seemingly little decisions every athlete is facing day by day? How can she juggle between athletics and academics, both on such a high level?

I had the chance to talk with her about the stresses and rewards that come with prioritizing school and swimming and find out more about the strategies that help to fit it all in a 24-hour day.

Only Do What You Really Want to Do

“I only have a few weeks left until my final law school exams – I am on the final stretch of my studies now,” Wellbrock said. Undoubtedly, this is the most stressful phase of someone’s life in university. Having World Championships scheduled right before such an exam only adds more stress to the situation. Sometimes, you need to prioritize. That’s what most student-athletes come across in their day-to-day lives. But Sarah has a strategy for such situations that might sound simple but can get challenging very fast: “Only do what you really want to do. Be prepared for hard work and stick to it if you have a goal.”

According to her, that’s the cornerstone for success in the pool as well as in the classroom. Such an attitude definitely helps in situations that make it hard to prioritize. It gives you a guideline for decisions. For Sarah, it is clear that the life she is leading is her dream and she wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on anything she experienced during the past years. Even if it included hard practices and early nights in bed instead of a night out with friends.

School or Pool? Our Daily Dilemma

The crux for student-athletes oftentimes is not about school or sports and other activities. What really makes up the hard situations are decisions about juggling between what we really want. Most student-athletes have that intrinsic perfectionism. They want to give 100% in all they do, especially sports and academics. And sometimes when the hard decision on prioritizing school over sports (or vice versa) is made, there is that inner feeling of restlessness. You spend a lot of time in the library because you decided to focus on academics this time, so you have less time in the water. But you know that everyone else is in the pool. Your competitors stay in shape, and will be ready to race at the next meet. How do you stick to your decision and don’t feel too stressed about what you miss in one area while you prioritize the other?

“It was my own decision,” Wellbrock said. “It’s always easier if something is your own decision, not something that was imposed on you.” According to Sarah, you have to remind yourself that this was what you wanted. And most importantly, you need to trust yourself. Trust yourself that you made the right decision. And trust your abilities that you will come back strong after a break. She knows she will be full-time in the water again soon, and that makes her feel calm about what she is missing out on right now.

What she has also learned from these situations is that sometimes a planned break is valuable. Your body has some extra time to recover. You can focus on things that need more than they get during a normal season, like technique or athletic training. And right now, Sarah is rewarded for her patience and trust. The hours she spends in the water are going very well. It looks like her body can work with the extra recovery and during practices, she even swims faster than before her break.

The Good Parts About a Student-Athlete’s Life

Wellbrock didn’t only learn from those special situations that involve big decisions. The day-to-day routine as a student-athlete taught her a lot. Being a competitive swimmer since high school, she learned early what it means to deal with pressure and nervousness. For university, she says, it helps her to stay calm in situations that require a big load of attention and that shouldn’t go wrong. As opposed to other students, she has dealt with such situations several times already and knows how to stay calm. But the combination of sports and school also bring her other advantages. The focus that is required for studying is very different from that needed in practice. That way, she has variations throughout her day that help her to stay focused for a longer time and work more efficiently.

Motivation and Discipline as a Student-Athlete

But even for a world-class athlete and strong student like Sarah, there definitely are days when she wakes up and doesn’t feel any motivation to get out of bed. And she doesn’t belong to the group of people who are insanely disciplined and jump out of bed when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Instead, she takes her time on hard days to remind herself of her goals and dreams. “You know what you want to achieve and that gives you a reason to get out of bed every morning,” she said.

A Student-Athlete’s Support Network

Ultimately, what really helps in difficult situations as a student-athlete is a supporting environment that keeps you on track once you might lose sight of your ambitions. For Sarah, her group of friends has always been very supportive, especially those friends that don’t come from an athletic background and admire her motivation and respect her goals. They always invite her out and give her the opportunity to join the group for fun adventures, even though they know she will likely go to the pool instead.

And that’s fine for her. She does that for herself, for her goals. “If you really want it, go do it!” That’s part of her motto and also advice she would give anybody struggling with the stress in the life of a student-athlete. And in the end, she knows it was worth it. Both, when she is standing behind the blocks, ready to race, but also when she is picking up the pen to write that final exam.

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