CSU swimmer Haley Rowley, overwhelmed by outside pressure, utilized counseling and the love of her team to find success

by Tony Phifer
Published May 17, 2018


Perhaps the person most surprised to learn that Colorado State University’s Haley Rowley had been named the Mountain West’s Swimmer of the Year was, well, Haley Rowley.

The award – a first for a CSU swimmer in more than a decade – was as unexpected as Rowley’s performance at the conference championships in February, when she seemingly emerged from nowhere to win two events and share the honor of scoring the most points during the weeklong meet in San Antonio. She set four school records, became CSU’s first individual event winner in six years and won Swimmer of the Meet.

The performance was so out of the blue, rival coaches came up to Rams coach Chris “Woody” Woodard and asked him where he’d been hiding the phenomenal distance swimmer who won the 400-yard individual medley and the 1,650 freestyle and finished third in the 500 freestyle.

“The other coaches weren’t that aware of her; Haley wasn’t a household name in the Mountain West,” Woodard said, smiling. “But I can guarantee you, they all know her now!”

The coach was so stunned by Rowley’s performance that he dared nominate her for conference Swimmer of the Year.

Rowley thought Woodard was crazy – the other coaches in the Mountain West, she surmised, weren’t about to give a swimmer from a fifth-place team the league’s highest honor. So, Rowley’s reaction to the news wasn’t all that surprising.

“I literally gasped when I read the text,” she said. “Honestly, I still can’t believe it.”

Haley Rowley text
Haley Rowley

The irony of her reaction – and, quite frankly, that of Mountain West coaches – is that Rowley was anything but an unknown for much of her swimming career. She was not only one of the most recognized swimmers in Colorado but also a rising star on the national stage after qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials at age 15. She returned in 2016 after leading Centaurus High School in Lafayette to the state title and being named Colorado’s Swimmer of the Year.

So, how does Colorado’s best swimmer – and a potential Olympian – fall off the radar, only to rise again, lifting an entire college program in the process?

It’s complicated

Rowley’s story is complex. It begins in Boulder County, where she was a prodigy in the pool, separating herself from her peers shortly after starting to swim competitively at age 6. She was the first 8-year-old to qualify for the state championships in the butterfly, and she continued to dominate multiple events throughout her teens.

Rowley has twice qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials – in 2012, she finished a remarkable 26th out of 186 qualifiers in the 200-meter backstroke. She had a unique style that she still favors today, racing hard right off the block to break her opponents’ will early.

“I’ve always swam a ton of yardage and done some crazy workouts,” she said. “When I race I like to pretend I’m by myself; I don’t want to let anyone else think they can beat me. I try to go until I die – as fast as I can for as long as I can.”

Woodard described Rowley as “relentless,” saying she has no interest in coming from behind to win a race. She’s short for a collegiate swimmer – at 5-foot-4, she’s the shortest on the CSU roster – and her full-speed-ahead style is anything but conventional.

Relentless in every way

Most swimmers in the 1,650 – 66 laps of seemingly endless agony – pace themselves early to make sure they have enough energy left for a strong finish. But Rowley uses a remarkably fast stroke rate – 1.25 per second, while most distance swimmers fall into the 1.3 to 1.6 range – to jump into the lead.

“When Haley was swimming the mile at conference, she went out so fast that everyone was watching her because she was 4 seconds ahead of everyone after just a couple of laps,” said teammate and friend Ida Donohue. “That’s just unheard of in the mile – but she never let up.”

But while Rowley, now 21, has been a force in the pool for 15 years, her journey has been anything but smooth. Her home life has had more than a few ups and downs, and she describes her relationship with her mom – Rowley has never met her father – as “complicated.”

Still, after competing for Boulder High School as a freshman and sophomore, then focusing on her club team (Denver Hilltoppers) as a junior, she reminded everyone of her immense talent and will to win in 2015 when she led Centaurus High School to the Class 4A title. Rowley was prepared to continue swimming for Purdue University – one of several colleges that heavily recruited her. She did not consider CSU at the time.

Her career at Purdue, however, was over almost before it began. Homesick and unable to connect with her team, she lasted just one semester in Indiana.

“Purdue is a great school and they have great team but I never felt like a Boilermaker,” Rowley said. “I found out how much I love Colorado, how much I love the mountains. Purdue just didn’t feel right.”

Before reaching out to Woodard about becoming a Ram, Rawley met with the coaches at the University of Denver, but still didn’t find a good fit.

“I visited CSU over Thanksgiving break and it felt like home,” she said. “I loved the team culture, I loved the campus, and everyone was so nice. It felt right.”

Better than imagined

Woodard couldn’t believe his good fortune. Rowley turned out to be better than he ever imagined.

“Haley’s the type of athlete who can change a program – and she’s done that for us,’’ the sixth-year Rams coach said. “In my 23 years of coaching she ranks right up there among the most talented swimmers I’ve worked with. Her combination of mental and physical toughness rank in the top two or three I’ve ever been around.

“We weren’t sure how Haley would fit into our team culture but the team quickly accepted her. She’s very much bought in to the ‘team first’ approach we follow and has never held herself above the rest of the group.”

Rowley had to sit out the 2016 season due to NCAA transfer rules but made up for lost time as a sophomore, breaking school records in the 1,000 and 1,650 freestyles and 400 IM, and helping the 800 freestyle relay team set another record.

‘Motivated by fear’

It was during that season that Rowley’s personality manifested itself during a memorable day at practice. The distance swimmers are coached primarily by former Rams standout Mackenzie Novell, who has individual swimmers lead what she calls “Ram Rallies” – brief team-building exercises in practices.

“The Rams Rally that day was to have everyone write down their fears on the top half of a piece of paper, then write on the bottom half what they believed could be accomplished if they had no fears,” said Novell. “Then, they were instructed to tear off the part with their fears and throw it away.

“Everyone else did that, but when it was Haley’s she wouldn’t do it. She said, ‘My fears are what fuel me, every day.’ Everyone was kind of stunned, but it made sense. It gave everyone a new perspective on what motivates Haley to go fast.”

That incident notwithstanding, Rowley was loving life. She was regaining her status as a top swimmer, and she loved CSU and her new team. She was thriving in the pool, and her performance in the classroom – she’s always been a dedicated student – was outstanding. Despite switching majors three times, she carries a 3.6 GPA in human development and family studies and hopes to work on a master’s degree after graduation in 2019.

“I pride myself on time management; I’m a perfectionist,” she said. “I don’t understand people who take shortcuts in their classes. I can’t turn in something that isn’t my best work.”

She seemed poised for greatness in the 2017-18 season.

Giving herself a break

Pressure is an odd thing. You can hide it – sometimes for years – without anyone noticing. Eventually, though, it becomes too great to ignore. For Rowley, that moment came in September.

Faced with ever-mounting difficulties with her home life – she doesn’t like to talk about her challenges with her mother but admits they are not close – and other issues, she felt herself breaking down. The girl who had felt at home in the water since age 6 was drowning in a pool of personal despair. She decided to talk to Woodard about stepping away from swimming.

“I had never done anything like that,” she said. “I just told Woody I couldn’t do it anymore. For the first time in my life I couldn’t just swim off my problems. There were some traumatic events, and a lot of feelings that I buried over the years. I just really needed some time away to deal with things.”

Woodard recognized that Rowley needed help. He told her to stop swimming and come back to the team when she was ready, and helped her connect with counseling services through the CSU Health Network.

While her teammates were busy training and getting ready for meets in the fall, Rowley took nearly two months away from the sport to focus on herself. It was a transformational experience.

“I felt conflicted about it because there was always a small voice in my head telling me that I didn’t need help, that I could get through this on my own, and that putting myself in a vulnerable position and facing these emotions was a negative or weak thing,” she said. (She had first gone to a counselor at the end of her sophomore year following the death of her grandfather.)

“This year I sought it out on my own due to the desperation and seriousness of my condition, because I knew I was out of superficial ways to cope, and I feared that I would not make it another day on my own without reaching out. And with time, I was able to build a genuine and trusting alliance with my counselor which allowed me to open my eyes to the idea of changing the way I dealt with problems and to changing my perspective on a wide array of concepts.

“Woody and my teammates were so supportive of me. They realized I just needed some time away,” she added.

Rowley began working out in October, away from the team. She attended the team’s meets, and did her best to keep up in classes, but the feelings of despair made every day a challenge.

“It’s hard to be around people when you don’t feel like yourself,” she said. “I kept running into this wall and kept expecting to break through it, like I always had before. But I just couldn’t do it this time.”

Triumphant return

When Rowley returned, she was a full three months behind her teammates – and her competition – in training. The Rams, who entered the season with high expectations, had gone 2-3 in dual meets with her on the sidelines.

Then suddenly, she was back. The Rams ripped off six consecutive victories to close the regular season 8-3 – their best record in years. Included in that run was a stunning upset of Mountain West powerhouse San Diego State.

“We were a totally different team with Haley,” Woodard said.

Despite her surprisingly strong performance in the regular season, Rowley was hesitant going into the conference meet, which began Feb. 14 in San Antonio. She had tried to cram months of training into a six-week window.

Haley Rowley
Rowley began swimming competitively at age 6. Her first major competition was the state meet in Grand Junction.

“I wasn’t even going to go; I wasn’t in shape, and I didn’t think I was ready,” she said. “Woody talked me into going, and I went with no expectations.”

“Why not me?”

On Day 1, Rowley helped the Rams’ 800 freestyle relay team break the school record. On Day 2, she broke her own school record in the 500 freestyle – twice – and finished third.

“That’s when I got excited, and my own expectations kicked in,” she said. “The next day was the IM (400 individual medley), and I thought, ‘Why not me?’”

Why not, indeed. She broke the CSU record twice that day, beating defending champion McKenna Meyer of San Diego State in the final by nearly two seconds.

Rowley had already shattered any expectations she had for herself. One race on the final day remained – the 66-lap torture test that is the 1,650.

“Haley woke up that day sick as a dog – she had the flu and was just wiped out,” Woodard said. “But she insisted on swimming. I couldn’t believe it.”

And thus began the race of her life. She immediately grabbed the lead and never let go, beating top-seeded Adriana Palomino by nearly seven seconds. She shattered yet another school record with her finish in 16:15.50 – the second fastest time in Mountain West history.

“That race always makes you feel like you are shriveling up; it’s horrible pain,” she said. “I just went out fast and tried to hold on.”

Added Woodard: “It was one of the guttiest performances I’ve ever seen.”

Remarkable performance

Rowley scored 91 of CSU’s 709 points, broke four school records and was named Swimmer of the Meet – a first for a Ram since Kristen Schneider in 2004.

Rowley has been smiling pretty much nonstop ever since. She narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships in a couple of events and will use that as motivation for her senior year.

More importantly, with the support of coaches, teammates and her counselor, she rediscovered Haley Rowley. The young woman who was so beaten down that she nearly quit the sport she loved is back.

“It took me a long time to feel proud of myself, but I’m proud of what I accomplished this season,” she said. “I’ve always trained super-hard but my mind wasn’t in the right place; I had never taken care of myself mentally. Before the conference meet, honestly, I felt worthless and insignificant. But I finally started to believe in myself. I climbed out of this deep, dark hole and found happiness.”

She hopes her experience will inspire other students – not just athletes – to open up and seek help when life seems unbearably challenging.

“I was so terrified to talk to Woody about my problems but it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Ultimately, I learned that surrendering to and accepting internal struggle, and allowing others to help me was a great way to become more self-aware, actually heal (instead of just slapping a bandage on it) and – hopefully – achieve even greater feats in the future.”

Where students can get help

CSU offers counseling services to all students regardless of their insurance plan via the CSU Health Network. Student fees allow students to access up to five counseling sessions per semester at no cost. CSU also offers 24/7 crisis intervention via phone (970-491-7111) or walk-in at Summitstone Community Crisis Clinic, 1217 Riverside Ave., in Fort Collins.

Photography: John Eisele/CSU Photography

Video produced by Reno Boyd and Zach Balside, Athletics

Design: Gretchen Menand, Joe Rymski, CSU Web Communications