Nov. 15, 2010
By Brad Rudner
Like most high school seniors, Adrienne Bicek didn't know how much distance would play into her college choice.
An extremely gifted and versatile swimmer, Bicek took three official visits coming out of Downers Grove North High School (Downers Grove, Ill.), going to Michigan, Arizona and Georgia. Arizona was eliminated from her cut, leaving Michigan and Georgia as her possible college destinations.
In the end, swimming for Georgia following its second-place finish at the 2009 NCAA Championships was too big to pass up, so Bicek chose the Bulldogs.
"I saw it as an opportunity to challenge myself and my swimming," she said. "They always place at a high level, which was something I thought was important. The SEC is a very tough conference and there are some very fast swimmers there. I saw it as a challenge."
But after just one season at Georgia, Bicek came to the conclusion that it didn't feel like home.
Downers Grove, Bicek's hometown, is a western suburb of Chicago and is 785 miles from Athens, Ga., where the University of Georgia is located. There were times when the distance gap was too much for Bicek to handle.
"Last year was difficult in the sense that it was my first time being away from home for a long period of time," she said. "When I started looking at other schools, it was more reopening doors and checking things out one more time."
She returned to Ann Arbor last May for an official visit, her first following a transfer from Georgia. She didn't need to take any more. She found her home away from home.
"For me, that was missing in some ways at Georgia," Bicek said. "Coming here now, I know that this has been a great fit for me. Everyone involved with this program has made the transition so much easier. I feel a lot better about the situation now."
Bicek instantly connected with the girls on the team. A transfer to a new college might be difficult on some, but Bicek made the transition easy. Her new teammates made it easy, too.
"You know, honestly, you can come in and you aren't judged by anyone," she said. "You can be the person you want to be. Every time you step on the deck, someone different smiles or starts a conversation with you. You feel like you can go to anybody at any time."
You might have to look hard to find Bicek on the pool deck. Standing at only five-feet tall, she's not likely to be noticed among taller competition, but when she gets into the pool, look out.
"I don't look at that as a problem," she said. "I see myself like everyone else. It's something that's unique about me. I don't use it as an excuse."
She'll always have at least two fans in the stands at every meet in her parents, Paul and Gale. Now that Bicek is back in the Midwest and closer to home, her parents come to every meet, home or away. That didn't always happen at Georgia.
Adrienne is the youngest of five siblings, having two older brothers and two older sisters. One of her older sisters, Erin, who is 10 years older than Adrienne, swam collegiately at Division III Illinois-Wesleyan and helped give Adrienne the exposure to the sport.
She started swimming when she was four years old, "I was thrown into the pool right away."
The Bicek family belonged to a pool in their neighborhood where Erin was a summer manager. Adrienne would spend her summer days at the pool under the watchful eye of her sister and grew fond of the sport.
Bicek then swam for Express Swim Team, where she blossomed into one of the brightest young swimmers in the nation. She was a member of the U.S. Junior National team and swam in multiple international competitions, including the Junior Pan-Pacific Championships and the 2008 Olympic Trials. In high school, she was the 2008 Illinois Swimmer of the Year and a 10-time All-American.
This season, she has emerged as a star on a Michigan team that features only one senior swimmer (Natasha Moodie). Bicek has already met the NCAA 'B' qualifying standard in four races (500-yard freestyle, 200-yard butterfly, 400- and 800-yard freestyle relays) and has team-best times in four races. She was named Big Ten Co-Swimmer of the Week on Nov. 2 after helping the Wolverines knock off defending conference champion Indiana, 188-182, in a double-dual meet Oct. 30.
Like every swimmer, her goal is to win an NCAA title and place in her three events at the NCAA Championships. And with the season she is having so far, it's not out of the realm of possibility.
"Everything happens for a reason," Bicek said. "I'm really glad it has worked out."
Attending the University of Michigan was always in Sam Pearson's mind. It just didn't happen right away.
Call it a detour.
Pearson has always been a skilled swimmer. Even at five years old -- the age in which she started swimming -- she was at such an advanced stage that she was put with an older age group.
She remembers her first-ever race, the 50-yard backstroke. She also remembers that it couldn't have gone any worse.
Pearson swam in the wrong heat, swam in the wrong lane and to make matters worse, turned over on her stomach, resulting in an automatic disqualification.
She told her mother than she would never swim again. It didn't stick.
She tried her luck at other sports. There was dance team, tennis, softball, karate, horseback riding and soccer, among others. None of them provided her the rush that swimming did.
"I was terrible at soccer," Pearson said. "I wasn't good in any of them, actually. But I was good at swimming."
Fast forward 10 years to high school. Pearson was a four-time Nevada state champion in the 100-yard backstroke and a three-time USA Swimming All-American while attending Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas. When it came time for Pearson to choose a school, there were many suitors.
Michigan stood out, but it wasn't time.
Instead, Pearson decided to take her skills to the University of California-Berkeley. It was a good year, but in the back of her head, she always felt something was missing.
"I fit in but didn't completely fit in," Pearson recalled. "There wasn't really one specific reason."
Maybe it was the city itself. There were days when Pearson would leave her apartment go to class only to find homeless men sleeping on her porch. There were student protests and picket lines. There was even an incident involving a S.W.A.T. team, which barricaded itself outside of Pearson's building, preventing her from going to classes for a week.
Then, last June, Pearson decided it was time for a change. It ended up being the most difficult decision of her life.
"I cried over it," Pearson said. "I built some fantastic relationships at Cal and it's not easy to leave those behind. It's hard thing that you go to one place thinking that it's where you're destined to be then knowing that you need to change. It was scary to make that decision."
She spoke with her parents about the possibility of transferring and where she might want to go. In the end, there was only one option: Michigan.
"I didn't even look at any other schools," Pearson recalled. "I knew that Michigan was the place where I needed to go."
Pearson's path to Michigan was not without drama. She was accepted through the dental school (not her intended field of study) the day before classes began. She went through orientation designed for international students and didn't get priority registration for classes.
But none of it mattered. It took a while, but she found her new family, even though its 2,000 miles away from her real one back in Las Vegas.
"This team is amazing," Pearson said. "There's no drama, no tension. Everyone accepts you for who you are and makes it really enjoyable to swim in meets and train here. I couldn't have walked into a better situation."
This season, Pearson has specialized in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, but more importantly, she's adapted extremely well to the change and to Ann Arbor. She doesn't regret the decision she made, but with her transfer behind her, Pearson now looks toward the future, and at least another two years in the Maize and Blue.
"All in all, it's definitely been a good experience," Pearson said. "It taught me a lot about myself and made me realize what I wanted. Everything about this program is what I wanted all along and I'm really glad it worked out in the end."