It’s what you do when no one’s watching that determines what happens when everyone is.
And when the former action comes with the help of one of the best athletes in her sport’s history, the latter one might turn out a lot better.
Such is life for Penn gymnastics junior Nicole Swirbalus, who has had the privilege of honing her craft in the presence of one of the sport’s all-time greats. For nearly a decade, Swirbalus has trained with six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, and formed a strong bond in the process.
Though both have excelled in their respective careers, one must take a trip back a full decade to see the origins of the pair’s friendship. Raisman and Swirbalus, only approximately three years apart in age, both grew up in Massachusetts and began their respective gymnastics careers early in childhood.
When Swirbalus was 10 years old, she switched her primary training gym to Brestyan’s American Gymnastics Club in Burlington, Mass., where Raisman had already been for a few years. Though the two didn’t become friendly immediately, one coincidental driving arrangement was all it took to help create a bond that would last for years.
“I didn’t really become friends with her until a couple years later [after I joined Brestyan’s], and over the years, we’ve gotten a lot closer, because we’ve trained together forever and she was always under a lot of pressure,” Swirbalus said. “Being in a gym with someone, you really bond a lot with them, and carpooling with her, we got a lot closer too, because it was a nice way to get to know her outside the gym as well.”
As Raisman, who has recently been in the news for her role in the #MeToo movement, embarked on one of the most elite careers in USA Gymnastics history, Swirbalus was always one of her biggest fans. Raisman was the team captain of both the “Fierce Five” gymnastics team at the 2012 Summer Olympics and the “Final Five” team four years later, where she stole the show time and time again on the world’s biggest stage.
Though her Olympic career may not be over yet, it already is one of the more impressive resumes the sport has ever seen.
Raisman’s six total medals are the second most in USA Gymnastics history, and her three golds are second as well. Raisman and Simone Biles are the only gymnasts in national history to win both at least three gold and five total medals, and the pair combined to lead the 2016 Olympic team, often regarded as the best of all-time.
And as Raisman wowed the world on two straight Olympic occasions, Swirbalus was watching it all from American soil, eager to learn from the best as she embarked on her own career.
“Those were some of the most exciting moments of my life, but also the most stressful. Because I knew her so well, I could hardly watch her on TV because I was so nervous,” Swirbalus said. “I started crying during both Olympics whenever she would do so well, because I saw all of the hard work behind the scenes that no one else really gets to see, so it meant a lot more to me.”
Proving to be more than just a fan, though, Swirbalus has used the years of work with Raisman to her own benefit as she’s quickly risen to stardom for Penn gymnastics. After contributing throughout the year as a freshman, Swirbalus broke out in her sophomore season, securing career-high scores of 9.850 on both the beam and floor events — the latter of which earned her fourth place and first team All-America honors at the USA Gymnastics Nationals.
Though Swirbalus hasn’t yet beaten those personal bests this season, she has excelled this season, most notably with a 9.775 on floor in the team’s Senior Meet en route to helping the team to an all-time school record in the event. And while her own hard work undoubtedly has been the core factor behind such performances, Swirbalus didn’t hesitate to give some credit to her longtime friend.
“She is the most motivating and inspiring person to practice with, because she hasn’t always been the most naturally talented, but she has always been the hardest worker. I’ve practiced with her for almost 10 years, and I think she always motivated me to be better,” Swirbalus said. “Everyone looked up to her and always wanted to be more like her at practice, and I really think she helped me become a better gymnast.”
One of Penn's most consistent athletes on the beam and floor, Swirbalus is set to play a major role as the Quakers seek their first Ivy championship in three seasons. And if the gold medal magic from Swirbalus’ friend, mentor, and training partner can rub off, the Red and Blue just might be in for a big-time podium finish of their own.