For sophomore Izzy Pytel, swimming at the University of Pennsylvania is a dream come true. As a junior in high school during a stressful collegiate recruiting process, Pytel still recalls the shock she felt when she was first contacted by one of the assistant coaches for Penn’s swimming and diving team.
“I just remember freaking out,” she said. “I was like 'is this actually UPenn?' because I was looking for school that valued both academics and athletics, and I could see that they really wanted me to be a part of their team.”
For Pytel, getting the opportunity to swim at a Division I school was the product of nearly a decade’s worth of commitment to the sport, and years of training in and out of the pool. Pytel got her first taste of competitive swimming at age nine, when a neighbor convinced her to join the local club team.
Earlier in her childhood, Pytel also participated in gymnastics and dance at a competitive level. She enjoyed gymnastics, but ultimately didn’t have the joint health needed for prolonged success. And for a few years, Pytel both swam and danced, but when she realized her potential lay in the pool, she quit dance at age 12.
Since coming to Penn, Pytel has enjoyed the people and sense of community that she’s found on the team. Her favorite memories with the team focus on the time she spends bonding with teammates at away meets such as the Zippy Invitational in Akron, Ohio. The team has also given Pytel one of her biggest role models: Grace Estabrook, a breaststroker who graduated last year.
“There was always just a smile on her face,” said Pytel. “Whether I saw her in the pool or walking on my way to class. She was constantly trying to make sure everyone was having an okay day even if hers wasn't super great.”
Pytel has done her best to emulate Estabrook’s energy — to be that person that others on the team can lean on for support when they're going through tough times. And while that's been hard at times, balancing a challenging biology-focused course load with intense practice sessions, Pytel is proud of her ability to achieve her goals both academically and athletically.
“I love her enthusiasm and excitement,” coach Mike Schnur said. “She loves competition [and] loves to race and she always gives you 100% every time the bright lights come on.”
One of Pytel’s greatest accomplishments in her young swimming career at Penn occurred at the Zippy Invitational, which took place last December, early in this year's season.
“I had almost no expectations going into that meet,” Pytel said. “I had been going pretty fast at practice and faster in dual meets than I had been last year, so I knew I was going to go fast, but I didn't know how fast I was going to go before the race.”
Exactly how fast did Pytel go? Fast enough to set the school record for the 200-yard breaststroke with a time of 2:13.98. In one of her best performances in the event yet, Pytel swam smooth and strong en route to breaking the first women’s swimming and diving team’s individual record of the season. Her time replaces sophomore Anna Boeckman's previous mark of 2:14.75. This season, she would also break the program's 100-yard breaststroke record at the Ivy League Championships with a time of 1:01:63.
“She has great talent, great competitiveness,” Schnur said. “She’s got the world ahead of her the next two years.”
Looking back on her journey thus far, Pytel has very few regrets.
“This is the sport that I love,” Pytel said. “And since [recruiting], I’ve definitely come to love it more… At the end of the day, if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t still be doing it.”