Dec. 2, 2013
by Christian Anderson
As she sits inside Arvin Gymnasium and reminisces about her Army swimming career, Paige Brink cannot help but smile. Not many athletes in any sport are able to go out on top, the way that she did at the 2012 Patriot League Swimming and Diving Championships.
The vivacious Brink, who instantly lights up any room she walks into, had a hand in shattering six Academy records at the conference championships en route to earning a spot on the All-Patriot League first team for the second time in her decorated career.
A native of Markle, Ind., Brink capped her remarkable weekend at the Patriot League meet by winning the 100-yard freestyle in a school-record time of 50.74 seconds. She also broke Army standards in the 200-yard individual medley (2:04.64) and 200-yard freestyle (1:50.08).
In addition to her individual success, Brink was also a part of three Black Knight relay teams that took down school records. She helped obliterate Academy marks in the 200-yard freestyle relay (1:34.62), 200-yard medley relay (1:46.18) and 800-yard freestyle relay (7:35.14).
"The Academy records are amazing," says Brink. "I especially love that we set so many relay records, because those actually might stay around for a while. I love relay records because it shows four girls working together to do something really big. At the same time, I grew up believing that records are meant to be broken. I hope they stay up there for a little bit, but I won't be at all disappointed if they don't."
After all was said and done, Brink had racked up an astounding 51 points at Patriots and helped Army achieve its highest score at the league meet (422.5) since the 2005 squad totaled 446 markers. The lone senior on the 2011-12 squad, and one of the team's co-captains, Brink also took some satisfaction in leading the young Black Knights to their best Patriot League Championship performance in seven years.
Brink's natural ability is obvious to anyone who sees her swim. When watching her move effortlessly through the water, it is sometimes hard to imagine that less than two years prior she underwent surgery to alleviate soreness that developed in her left shoulder.
Brink burst onto the scene as a freshman, breaking five individual "Plebe" records and earning a spot on the All-Patriot League first team. She also copped the conference's Female Rookie of the Meet award after authoring three top-six finishes at the championships.
The butterfly and freestyle specialist continued her standout career as a sophomore, earning All-Patriot League second-team plaudits after scoring points in six different events at the conference meet. But it was near the end of that sophomore season that Brink began to feel soreness in her left shoulder.
When the decision was made to go ahead with the surgery, Brink was overcome by emotion. It was at that moment that she saw her entire swimming career, which began when she was five years old, flash before her eyes.
"I simply could not believe it," says Brink, who had visions of qualifying for the Olympics following her outstanding freshman season. "I was supposed to go to the NCAA Championships, and I was supposed to break Patriot League records. When the injury happened and we decided to opt for surgery I was completely devastated and very shocked."
Brink was further discouraged when the scheduled six-to-eight week rehabilitation lasted twice as long and she was forced to miss the entire first half of her junior season.
"The surgery was invasive, and the doctors told me that would help me heal faster," she says. "Then, I didn't recover, and I didn't have a lot of flexibility in my shoulder. What was supposed to be six-to-eight weeks turned out to be an entire semester of me trying to figure out why my shoulder wasn't flexible anymore, and why I couldn't work with it like I was used to.
"At that point, I started thinking that something went wrong, and actually thought that I might need another surgery. I began to think my swimming career was over. I thought that I was never going to recapture the form I had established as a freshman, and that was terrifying."
All of her doubt and frustration melted away, though, when she got back into the competition pool for the first time since the surgery in January 2011.
"My first meet back was amazing," says Brink. "None of the girls were around my freshman year, so when I finally got in the pool and swam for them, it was the best feeling ever."
The ultra-competitive Brink was unable to round into top form in time for Patriots, and she failed to earn all-conference honors for the first time in her career, but just being back in the pool and competing at the conference meet after several months away from the sport made it worthwhile.
"Even though I didn't do well at Patriots that year, I did better than I thought I would after only having two months in the water," says Brink. "It ended up being a really, really good year."
Her tumultuous junior season set the stage for a memorable senior campaign. After seeing how fragile her career was,
and how quickly it all could be taken away, Brink soaked up every single moment she had with her team in the pool as a "Firstie."
Brink's final season, which culminated in her winning the last individual event of her career, the 100-yard freestyle at the Patriot League Championships, was difficult for anyone to envision after all she had endured.
Standing on top of the medal stand as the 100-yard freestyle champion after all of the ups and downs she had experienced over the previous 18 months was a little surreal for Brink. She finished ninth in the 100 free at the conference meet as a junior, but through her grit, hard work and determination, found a way to take gold in that same event 12 months later.
"Standing up there on the podium felt amazing," says Brink. "When I dove into the water I told myself that no one was going to take this from me. I'd been waiting four years to get a first-place medal, and I'd been so close a couple different times.
"I think it proved to everyone that I had toughed it out and made it through," adds Brink. "To come back after the surgery and win an event was such a huge triumph for me over the injury. It was incredible. Now, I'll always have that little gold Patriot League medal, which is the biggest thing that's ever happened to me."
Brink admits that she would have liked to have had a shot at the NCAA Championships, and sometimes wonders where her swimming career might have gone had she not been injured and forced to undergo surgery.
"In a perfect world, I wouldn't have gotten injured and I would have made it to NCAAs," reflects Brink. "But the biggest learning experience of my life has been my injury. At times, it was the most defeating thing I've ever experienced, but coming back from it has been the most rewarding thing in the world. I wouldn't change that experience, that challenge and what I've learned from it, for anything."
Brink graduated from West Point in 2012, owning 10 Academy records, five "Plebe" standards and that one elusive Patriot League gold medal. And it's a safe bet to assume that big shining smile remains painted on her face even today.
Stay tuned tomorrow for PETER CAREY: Man On A Mission.