Beata Nelson x’20 began her swimming journey where any kid who loves the water might: at the neighborhood pool.
Time spent there playing with friends quickly grew into swimming on club teams, competing for her high school, and committing to Wisconsin. And once a Badger, she found that her teammates offered the strongest support system she’d ever experienced.
“I always love competing for something bigger than me,” says Nelson, a sophomore from Fitchburg, Wisconsin. “I think that just drives me to perform in a way that I never thought I could.”
And perform she does. When she stepped out of the pool after her 49.78-second backstroke leg for the Wisconsin women’s 400-yard medley relay at this year’s Big Ten Championships, little did she know that she had bested a time set by one of her idols.
“If you watch any video or look at any picture after that race occurred,” Nelson says, “I was in complete shock.” The UW sophomore had just clocked the second-fastest 100-yard backstroke in NCAA history. She had surpassed the 49.97-second mark that Natalie Coughlin — a future Olympic gold medalist — had set 16 years earlier, when she became the first woman to swim the 100-yard backstroke in less than one minute.
Nelson followed that with her showing at the NCAA Championships, where she became the only woman in NCAA history with three swims under 50 seconds in the 100-yard backstroke.
Her standout performance at nationals, where she finished second in the race, capped off a series of record-breaking competitions. The accomplishments balanced out a freshman season that Nelson — a superstar recruit who broke national public high school swimming records in the butterfly — labeled “disappointing.”
And something else kept her pushing forward: the comfort she finds in the water. “That’s the whole point of this … to have fun and love it and do it for that reason,” she says. “It’s not for a medal, it’s not for a record or a plaque. It’s about doing it because you love it. And I love swimming.”
For Nelson, there are other benefits of being a Badger: being able to dash home to nearby Fitchburg to do laundry, eat dinner, and advise her younger sister on the transition into college. And she can have lunch near campus with her father, Andrew ’90, JD’93, who also swam for the Badgers. Though his intense academic focus led him away from the team after just one season, the opportunity to swim for Wisconsin as he had remained in the back of her mind as she weighed her college options. Now she knows she made the right choice.
“I go through a lot of hard training throughout the year,” she says. “Then you get to the end, and you stand up on a podium, and you look down, and you’re wearing red and white — and it’s just the best feeling in the world.”
Published in the Summer 2018 issue