The fact that Arlyn Upshaw considered quitting was not unusual.
Swimming at the collegiate level for a full four years is an accomplishment in itself – the early mornings and year-round season have a way of taking a toll on even the toughest athletes.
“Coming out of high school, it never really crossed my mind that a lot of swimmers end up quitting,” Upshaw said. “I didn’t know until I got here that most swimmers do not make it all four years.”
The 2016 UCLA swimming senior class entered Westwood with seven swimmers, but dwindled down to four by their senior year.
The class could have been one smaller if Upshaw followed through on what she was feeling after her first two years.
“After freshman year, I never really considered quitting or transferring, but it did cross my mind,” Upshaw said. “Again, after sophomore year I kind of thought about quitting because it is hard to stick with something without the results to show – even though you are dedicating 25 hours a week to it.”
Upshaw’s first year in Westwood was dampened by the fact that she was unable to secure a spot in the Pac-12 championship as one of the Bruins’ top-20 point scorers. She ended up 21st, left on the outside looking in and having to go so far as pay for her trip to compete.
The grind of each day’s grueling routine and the disappointing results simply created more questions as to whether or not Upshaw wanted to continue swimming at UCLA.
Despite her doubts, Upshaw did not give in – her competitive nature kicked in.
If you ask her teammates, that competitive side can be traced back to the fact that she is – of all things – an only child.
The “only child” narrative is a running joke among the team, a humorous reason for each of Upshaw’s decisions or personality quirks – no matter how outlandish the situation may seem to be.
The teasing isn’t limited to just her fellow swimmers. Even coach Cyndi Gallagher is in on this running gag, attributing the senior swimmer’s determination to her childhood.
Whatever the motivation, Upshaw’s drive to succeed isn’t hard to see.
“When she keeps her focus and sets a goal that she really wants to achieve, she will get it done,” Gallagher said. “She gets what she wants.”
What Upshaw wanted, though, wasn’t what she was physically able to give. Her junior season was a revival, a year where she found success inside the pool as she set career-best times in both the 200-yard butterfly and the 200-yard individual medley over the course of the short season. She capped off her junior year with three top-15 finishes at the 2015 Pac-12 championship, placing sixth in the 400-yard individual medley.
But, just as things were looking up, her body started to break down on her, as she suffered a back injury at the end of the year. She was out of the pool for approximately three months, losing crucial training time as her final year in Westwood fast approached.
The rust showed at the beginning of the fall season, as Upshaw was no longer performing up to her lofty expectations. With so much time out of the pool and with such a long road of recovery ahead, the easy way out would have been to call it a career.
“She was not her usual self this past fall because she was out of shape since she had not been in the pool,” Gallagher said. “And it is not easy to be so good for so long and then drop so far back.”
But Upshaw persisted. Not only did she fight back to where she was before the injury, she even surpassed it.
The Bruins’ winter training session was the first glimpse of a now-fully healed Upshaw. Fellow senior Katie Kinnear was one of many to notice the drop in her teammate’s times.
“Arlyn raced a lot more in the winter training, and pushed herself harder than she normally does,” said Kinnear. “She chose to do every single challenge set offered which was really impressive. We also had one of our old teammates come back during training and when they did the 400 IM set, Arlyn was winning by a lot which never used to happen.”
Upshaw continued her string of impressive performances, qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 200 IM during the Texas Invitational back in December. The qualification marks the second time that Upshaw has qualified for Olympic Trials – the last time being 2012.
“In 2012, I focused that entire year on making the Olympic Trials cut and I finally got it right at the very last possible chance,” said Upshaw. “This year was different because I was mostly focused on college since this is my last year. So, I had trials in the back of my mind and I think letting go of that pressure helped me.”