Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have long been the faces of Olympic swimming, but another will soon join the professional swimming ranks.
Texas A&M senior breaststroker Sydney Pickrem said she will pursue her professional swimming career as she attempts to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics at the Olympic Trials in June.
Her road has been paved with awards, accolades and record-setting performances, but it hasn’t been without its share of bumps. Pickrem said anxiety, panic attacks and depression made her contemplate ditching the swimming world altogether.
“Just in November, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep swimming,” Pickrem said. “I didn’t know if it was the best thing for me; I didn’t know if I was happy in it.”
She then spent a couple weeks away from swimming to reevaluate her future plans. Pickrem said the brief hiatus reminded her that she needs to put herself before swimming in order to maintain a balance between work and fun.
“It’s been pretty good now for me to actually prioritize myself over swimming,” Pickrem said. “I just have to keep that focus.”
Pickrem’s struggle with her mental health emerged in 2016 when she began truly feeling the pressure of competitive swimming, and it started to affect her races.
“I’ve always been good under pressure, but I also tried not to let it get to me,” Pickrem said. “I tried not to acknowledge it, but it did come up at one point where mentally, I wasn’t in it. I wasn’t mentally healthy with swimming.”
That year, she spoke to sports psychologists and seemed to get better, she said, but a relapse in 2017 made her realize it was something she needed to seriously address.
“Some days were terrible; some days were okay,” Pickrem said. “I just had to talk a lot with my coaches, my team and my sport psychologists. I found out that keeping it all in definitely wasn't the best thing to do.”
For Pickrem, her anxiety stems from a desire to not disappoint anyone, whether that’s her team, her family or the fans.
“I always put a lot of pressure on myself,” Pickrem said. “When you’re sacrificing what you actually want is where you have to draw the line. That was my biggest thing — making sure this was something that I wanted, not something I did because I don’t want to let this person down.”
For young athletes struggling with their mental health, Pickrem said her best piece of advice is to prioritize self-care over athletics.
“Making sure I put myself first before swimming — I never really did that until this year,” Pickrem said. “Make sure you put yourself first. In the end, swimming is only swimming. If you’re not happy doing it, it really isn’t worth it no matter how much you think it might be.”
There is a silver lining in the struggle, though. According to McKenna DeBever, A&M senior backstroker and Pickrem’s longtime friend, Pickrem has helped her face her own mental health challenges.
“Mentally, with swimming, I was struggling,” DeBever said. “With [Pickrem], she’s been through a lot. She’s faced a lot of adversity, and that’s made her very wise and mature. I opened up about my struggles, and she always knows what to say. She’s very invested in her friends. I think being like that really helps her to help you.”
Pickrem’s impact on the team is her willingness to help those around her, DeBever said.
“She’s easy to go to,” DeBever said. “She knows how to attack a lot of situations — good and bad. She’s been a great asset to the team this year. She just has this natural leadership quality in her, and she really utilizes that in a positive way.”
That leadership quality has been instrumental to the Aggies’ success over the past four years, A&M head coach Steve Bultman said.
“Leadership is important, [not just] as a swimmer, but also as an example [of] hard work,” Bultman said. “And [she’s] a vocal leader as well. She’s been outstanding.”
Pickrem’s time with the Aggies isn’t complete just yet, as she said she will continue to train with the team while she prepares for the Tokyo Olympics. As a senior, Pickrem has two semesters left to complete before she can graduate; however, she is ineligible to compete at A&M another year.
This won’t be Pickrem’s first time at the Olympics, though. She competed as a sophomore in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, placing sixth in the 200-meter Individual Medley and 12th in the 400 IM.
Pickrem said she still has the voicemails her teammates left her after she qualified for the 2016 Olympics.
“I remember the moment of relief,” Pickrem said. “For the whole year before trials, you try not to say anything — you just try to not jinx it. To finally make the team, it just meant everything. It is the biggest stage in swimming.”
Pickrem has accomplished much over her four short years at A&M in addition to her 2016 Olympic appearance, but she said nothing was as sweet as bringing four consecutive Southeastern Conference Championships home to Aggieland.
“Getting to come here my first year and just making history like that, and then be able to repeat and do it all my four years, is just the least I can do for A&M for everything they’ve done for me,” Pickrem said. “They gave me an opportunity to go to school and train with some of the best coaches in the world, and I just want to prove that their investment was worthwhile.”
After their fourth SEC title win, the Aggies went out to a 13th-place showing at the NCAA Championships, in which Pickrem broke one school record in the 400 IM and added two runner-up performances.
It was after this outing that Pickrem was contacted to sign with the London Roar of the International Swimming League, which was founded in 2017 and begins competition in October. Pickrem said she is excited to be a part of swimming history.
“As much as I love the NCAA and everything, I am really excited to move on to a different chapter of pro swimming,” Pickrem said. “When you finish [your collegiate career], it’s like, ‘Will anybody want you to swim on their teams?’ I was really excited because it’s like, ‘Okay, there’s a future past NCAA swimming.’”
Even after her collegiate career was officially over, Pickrem was still picking up accolades. On April 10, she was named SEC Co-Swimmer of the Year, sharing the award with Tennessee’s Erika Brown.
Just five days later, Pickrem earned Co-Female Athlete of the Year at A&M’s Building Champions Awards gala alongside women’s basketball sophomore Chennedy Carter. This was Pickrem’s third consecutive Female Athlete of the Year honor.
“To be honored like that, not just from the swimmers, but from the university throughout all sports is definitely one of the high points [of my career] for sure,” Pickrem said.
On her left hand, Pickrem wears her Olympic ring, and her newly received Aggie ring adorns her right — a reminder of where she comes from and all she has left to achieve.
“It just represents everything that I’ve strived for and to be a good Ag and also an Olympian,” Pickrem said. “To have both of those on my hands, it really means a lot.”