Growing up in Liverpool, England, Athena Clayson dreamed of traveling the world when she was older, and now she is able to fulfill that dream thanks to her natural swimming talent.
Thanks to Fresno State, she had the opportunity to travel across the United States to compete and learn about life outside of her home.
“I don’t have an eternal love for sports like I’ve always said, but I just use swimming to travel the world, to get an education and to keep having fun while I’m at it. “, said Clayson.
A swimmer since the age of 5, Clayson never imagined moving to the United States to study or swim. Conversations with former classmates sparked this ambition in Clayson to find this new breath of life.
When she started looking into universities, she found herself at a crossroads: staying in a “rainy” England and training in a “tin can”, or undertaking the university experience in America in order to that she can experience the world outside the pool.
Clayson made her decision based on her desire to be part of something bigger than herself. She said that in England swimming was an individual sport, but here in the United States she was able to swim as a team and win for the girls, for the program and for the school.
“You’re not just doing it for yourself. …I think that’s something that I could never conjure up in my mind as a young girl. I would never have thought, ‘You swim for more than yourself,’” Clayson said.
Fresno State gave him the opportunity to be part of a team that felt like family. She said she had a lot more fun swimming because she wasn’t swimming alone.
Having a team that felt like family was Clayson’s priority when considering colleges. Fresno State head coach Jeanne Fleck reassured her that Fresno State had what she was looking for.
“What’s better than having 30 best friends on board?” You have no excuse. You will never be alone. So I think I was really aiming and really wanting a close group of friends, and that’s exactly what was guaranteed, all the girls being so close because you go through everything together,” Clayson said.
She never imagined herself living in California, taking trips to iconic sites all over the Golden State.
Clayson noted that she never planned how far her swimming career would take her. On what her 5-year-old daughter would say if she saw how far she’d come, “I think my mind would be blown,” Clayson said.
Clayson was drawn to outdoor pools. In England, she trained in indoor pools, rarely being able to compete outdoors, so she highlighted the privilege Fresno has of being able to train outdoors.
One of the things Clayson was looking for when researching universities was facilities, and Fresno State caught his eye. Fresno State has a 50-meter outdoor swimming pool, which many schools do not have.
Now finishing his junior year, Clayson was able to meet different people through swimming. She never planned on winning the prestigious awards or conference titles she has since claimed when she chose Fresno State, but she continues to try to have fun with the sport.
“I worked so hard in my younger years that now is the time to reap the rewards,” Clayson said.
Moving to another continent was difficult for her family, especially Lisa Clayson, Athena’s mother. Moving to the United States was like moving to another part of the world, and despite having family in California, it was still difficult to watch her daughter move so far away.
“I totally supported and encouraged her to go to college in the United States, but actually found it harder than I wanted to show Athena, but it was a relief to see her settle down during my visit in October 2019,” Lisa said.
Athena started swimming at a young age when her neighbor from Liverpool told her mother about Clayson’s natural characteristics which started her off as a swimmer. Once they measured the length of her arm, they knew at that moment that Athena was going to have a natural talent for swimming.
Lisa remembers when Athena was introduced to swimming, along with her sister Antonia, who were both tall and their arm width was greater than their height, a sign of a good swimmer.
Her natural talent has earned her multiple awards and she was able to participate in the national championships in 2013 at the age of 12. At 14, she reached the European Olympic Festival in the United States, representing Team Great Britain.
At the international festival, Athena was able to interact with different people and cultures, giving her a taste of places outside her home before moving to the United States.
The following year, after competing in the Olympic Festival, Athena moved to Mount Kelly in Devon aged 16, where she became national champion in the 100m backstroke.
Despite illnesses along the way, including when she contracted vasculitis, a complication of strep throat at the age of 17, she continued to strive for success.
“These experiences have made her the confident and balanced person she has become. She loves her sport, both training with her teammates and competing as an individual, and as a member of relays. for the good of the team,” Lisa said.
Of all the people Athena met on her journey through swimming, her mother remained her constant source of motivation. From driving her to practices and meets and sacrificing time for her to swim, Athena was never pressured to succeed in the sport.
“I know it sounds very cliché, but it’s hard because we had to sacrifice a lot, like growing up. There are a lot of things that go into swimming. There are a lot of hours and early in the morning and late in the evenings and long weekends at the pool. So it’s a lot when like, it’s only you and your mom who really buy into it,” she said.
Athena Clayson said her mother was her anchor through her success and allowed her to make her own choices in the world of swimming, including whether she wanted to continue.
“It has been an incredible journey for all of us. Many sacrifices of time, family celebrations and social events over many years so that Athena could train and participate in the various competitions and training camps were missed,” her mother said. “I’m so proud of my little girl.”
Through early swim sessions, going to school all day, then getting back in the water to train for another two hours after school, Lisa said she’s proud of how her daughter continued to persevere despite a busy schedule at a young age.
“[Athena is a] truly wonderful human being, who deserves the best that life has to offer. [She is] an unassuming, hardworking, supportive and friendly person to all of his teammates,” Lisa said.
Athena’s first fame in the local newspaper was when she swam a mile at age 5. Lisa recalled when her daughter saw a photo of the junior men’s swim team holding a trophy and said, “I want to win one of these trophies when I grow up,” sowing the seed at a young age.
Lisa noted that Athena’s coach at Mount Kelly once said that athletes should have the three A’s: attendance, ability and attitude. Without all three you achieve nothing, but with all three you can reach your potential.
“How right he was,” Lisa Clayson said.
Athena won her third straight Mountain West title in the 200m backstroke. In her freshman and sophomore years, she won the MW title for the 100 backstroke, but fell to second place this season.
As she enters her final season at Fresno State, Athena is striving to reclaim the 100m backstroke title once again.
“At the end of the day, I know that all I want to do with my last season is to finish it and be satisfied with it. I want to know that I have put everything into my sports career,” she said. said “My career is not over”
Lisa Clayson and her husband are extremely proud of their daughter and her swimming accomplishments.
“Talent and luck can get you this far, but what Athena has achieved is the result of many years of hard work, in and out of the pool. We as her family are so proud of what she has accomplished, not only here in her home country, but now as Mountain West Champion for the third year in a row,” said Lisa Clayson. “Who would have thought that a young girl wanting to win a trophy for her school would reach such heights on both sides of the Atlantic? [It] is truly remarkable.