When Sarah Henry destroyed her knee for the second time she was told that swimming the breaststroke, one of her best events, probably would not be possible because of the strain it put on the knees.
It’s a good thing the West Johnston High School graduate didn’t just write off the breaststroke as a thing of her past.
Henry, a senior at Texas A&M University, won the NCAA Division I 400-yard individual medley national championship Friday at the Greensboro Aquatics Center, taking control of the race during the third discipline of the event: the breaststroke. She posted a time of 4 minutes, 2.47 seconds to win her first national championship, holding off a bevy of challengers in the final 100 yards of freestyle work.
“Thinking back to tearing my ACL after my junior year in high school, then tearing it again – really finding out that it never fully took after the first tear – it’s just crazy,” Henry said from College Station on Sunday. “I was told so many times that the breaststroke wouldn’t be good for my knee, especially the way I dealt with some atrophy – basically out of swimming for eight months, unable to do anything – the second time around.”
After injuring her knee while playing Ultimate Frisbee after her junior year at West Johnston, Henry came back to win two NCHSAA 4A state titles (the 200 and 500 frees) at the 2010 state championships, earning meet MVP honors. After accepting a scholarship at A&M, Henry suffered another knee injury. She missed the 2011-12 season at A&M but made it back in time to place seventh in the 400 IM at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
As a redshirt sophomore, she was the runner-up in the 1,650 free at NCAAs. A year later, she posted three top-eight individual finishes (eighth in both the 1,650 and the 500) and was fourth in the 400 IM, behind a trio of seniors.
“I knew everybody who beat me last year when I finished fourth, so I knew where I stood all season,” Henry said. “I had this intense mental focus about that race and that’s been a lot of what has created my fire this season.”
That approach is great during the build up to a race, but doesn’t work so well for Henry in competition.
“It can be hard to switch that off, but I make sure I don’t think about outcomes in races,” she said. “Then I got on the starting blocks and there are cameras all around me and it made me start thinking about all of the family I had in the stands.”
She was fifth after the first two legs of the 400 IM (the butterfly and the backstroke).
“I initially had a panicked feeling, but I remembered what (Texas A&M) Coach (Steve) Bultman had told me before the race,” Henry said. “He talked about how he thought a lot of swimmers in the race would go all out for the first 200, so I shouldn’t be surprised by that. I just tried to stay underwater as much as I could on by breaststroke and I was able to catch up and get ahead.
“I just used all of my will power after that to charge home.”
There was little time for a post-championship celebration then, however. She was a member of A&M’s 4x200 relay squad, which swam later in the evening.
“I had to get back in the water and stay warm,” Henry said. “I knew we needed to get some key points in the relay and I was anchoring the team. I just tried to not get too up.”
The Aggies finished fourth in the relay with Henry anchoring a group that included Sarah Gibson, Meredith Oliver and Lili Ibanez.
On the last day of the competition, Saturday, Henry had another key task ahead of her, eyeing more key team points in the 1,650 free. She took fourth in a season’s best time of 15:46.83, just missing out on breaking her own school record. It was her third top-four finish of the meet: Henry took third in the 500 free (4:34.34) on the opening day of the meet.
The Aggies finished fourth in the women’s team competition for the third straight season in a meet highlighted by a University of California win driven by the Olympic champion Missy Franklin who won three individual events (becoming the first woman to swim under 1:40 in the 200 free) and swam on two winning relay teams.
Henry will graduate with a degree in physics in May and plans to start work on her Masters degree in the fall as part of an intense research group. She plans to remain in College Station to train with Bultman in the lead up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
She will compete in the World University Games in South Korea in July, then the Summer Nationals in San Antonio. From there, her focus turns to the Olympic Trials next summer.
After graduation, she will become a professional swimmer, opening up sponsorship opportunities with swimsuit companies, clinic appearance fees and banquet speaking appearance fees.
But for now, she’ll finally take some time and enjoy her national title.
“Once I found out the NCAAs were going to be in North Carolina my senior year, it was almost too good to be true,” Henry said. “I worked all year to be ready for this opportunity. And I couldn’t have asked for it to turn out any better than it did.”