Erika Brown reacts after finishing a race.
Erika Brown didn’t get the traditional college graduation she hoped for. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed her senior year at the University of Tennessee. But the USA swimming national team member did have the opportunity to address her fellow 2020 graduates when she appeared in YouTube’s “Dear Class of 2020” graduation special in June alongside celebrities like former President Barack Obama, Beyonce and Bill Gates.
“I thought it was a joke,” Brown, who appeared just before University of Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, said. “It was just such a neat opportunity I didn’t think it was possible, but it was real, and I was just super honored to be able to be a part of something. I thought it was so nice of them to even be doing that video to try and help honor the class of 2020 considering everything that happened.”
Brown and her teammates were fresh off winning the program’s first SEC women’s swimming and diving championship and three days away from heading to Athens, Georgia to compete in the NCAA Championships. The Lady Vols looked to be a contender for the team title before the NCAA announced all remaining NCAA championships were canceled due to the pandemic.
“There was a lot of silence, tears,” Brown said. “We had an amazing season. We were going into NCAAs with the intention to win, so it was definitely tough to think about all our hard work we had put in that whole season and what we expected just wasn't going to happen anymore.”
She didn’t get her fairytale ending, but her historic college career still has her name stamped in the Tennessee records book forever. During her four years, Brown, a Charlotte, North Carolina native, won 23 SEC medals, including 18 golds, NCAA relay champion, a 4-time all-SEC honoree, a 21-time AllAmerican and is the reigning back-to-back SEC Female Swimmer of the Year.
“Each year at Tennessee I had I grew into a better athlete and a better teammate,” Brown said. “Going into my senior year I really just wanted to lay it out all on the table for my team. This was my last shot to give everything I had for my girls.”
Brown’s success has been a steady climb since her freshman year. She didn’t even qualify for the NCAA Championship as an individual her freshman season, and in her final SEC championship, her time of 49.38 broke Louisville’s Kelsi Dahlia’s 100-fly American record. She joined Olympian and Stanford graduate Simone Manuel as the just the second woman ever to swim a sub-46 seconds in the 100-free.
“It means a lot to me to see my name up there with amazing athletes; I think growing up that’s every little kid’s dream as a swimmer as any athlete to be at the top of your sport, but sometimes it does
become kind of hard to imagine that as a reality,” Brown said. “When I got to Tennessee, they truly made me believe that was a possibility.”
Brown credits her time in college and learning under her coaches for preparing her to swim at the sport’s highest level.
“I don’t think I ever would have even gotten to the level I am without collegiate swimming,” she said. “It really challenges you in so many more ways than just swimming as a club swimmer. You really have to learn how to work as a team; it’s not all about you anymore you have to put energy into others.”
Now, she’s ready to regroup and while still training at Tennessee, college is behind her and the Tokyo Olympics are in front.
“Making the team would mean everything,” she said. “I've just put in so much work and there are so many people that have invested time and energy into my swimming career, so I would love to make that team not only for me and my family but for everyone that has helped put energy and time into my swimming career.”