Family Sacrifice Opens Potential Olympic Lane for UT Swimmer Licon
By Lauren Barash
For 10 years, Will Licon has been preparing for a matter of minutes.
For Reporting Texas
The 21-year-old University of Texas swimmer will compete June 26 through July 3 for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. He plans to enter four events: 200- and 400-meter individual medley and 100- and 200-meter breaststroke.
“If you are a football player, you want to win the Super Bowl,” Licon said. “If you are a golf player, you want to win the Masters. Swimming for Team USA is like that, but in a sense bigger because the whole world is involved. It’s every swimmer’s dream.”
Licon already is a six-time NCAA champion, a 10-time All-American and an NCAA, U.S. Open, Texas and Big-12 record holder for the 200-meter breaststroke. He edged Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic gold medals than any athlete in history, in preliminary heat in the 200 IM at the USA Swimming national championships in August before finishing second to Phelps in the finals.
He knows he wouldn’t be the record-breaking swimmer he is today without the sacrifices he and his family have made.
Licon, an El Paso native, was a standout from the time he was 10 years old. Before bed, instead of comic books, he read heat sheets — the lists that swimmers get before a meet, listing all all the swimmers, their events and lanes, and often each swimmer’s fastest times.
When Licon turned 12, his father, a former freestyle and butterfly swimmer through high school, decided to have Licon start working out with the El Paso High School swim team. But even those swimmers four to seven years older than Licon were not enough of a challenge for Licon.
So in summer 2009, Nancy Licon packed up her three children and moved to Plano, leaving her husband and home behind in El Paso. Licon was 14 years old and about to start high school in the fall.
“Moving was extremely tough,” Licon’s mother said. “It separated our whole family. But, at the same time we knew how much it would help Will. It was a commitment everyone was 100 percent on board for.”
Licon says swimming in Plano was the turning point in his swimming career, but it had its downsides. He had to move away from friends, he missed quality time with his dad and the family ended up having to sell the house in El Paso.
“Looking back, I wish I could have gone to just one high school and have a solid group [of friends] rather than knowing people for a month and leaving,” Licon said. “But I knew it would be worth it some day.”
While in Plano, Licon met the coach of Nitro Swimming – the leading competitive swim team in Austin. Licon knew swimming with Nitro would greatly improve his shot at swimming for UT and making it to the Olympics.
This time, Licon went alone. His mother and two siblings moved back to El Paso. Licon’s mother began preparing him for life without her by making sure her son knew how to cook for himself, do his laundry and run the dishwasher. And then his parents sent him off to Austin.
“It was extremely hard when my parents first dropped me off,” Licon said. “It was like going to college at 16 years old.”
Licon first moved in with one of the Nitro coaches. The coach lived near Lake Travis, and his house had no cell service, making contact with his family problematic. The 16-year-old was so focused on swimming that he didn’t have time to get his drivers license. To get to practice in the morning, Licon would get up at 5 a.m., while it was still dark, and ride his bike through the woods there.
“I cried so often,” Licon’s mother said. “I could barely keep in touch with him. I knew how stressed out he was, and I was so far away. The situation was not good.”
The Nitro coach asked other Nitro families to take Licon into their home. Greg and Kathy Hemstreet showed immediate interest.
The Hemstreets met in college while swimming for the University of Toronto. They both swam for team Canada in the Olympics before moving to Austin, and their two children were members of the Nitro team. For Greg Hemstreet, Licon’s story hit home. When Hemstreet was a swimmer in high school, he also moved out of his home to stay with a host family and improve his swimming. He felt obligated to pay it forward.
“Other people sacrificed for me when I was in high school to let me have a swim career,” Hemstreet said. “I wouldn’t have had the swimming career I had if I didn’t move. I felt like I could finally give back to a sport that gave me so much.”
Nancy Licon called the Hemstreet’s offer a beautiful gesture. Because they were willing to open their home, her son was going to get a chance to realize his dream.
“Everything started to fall in place from there,” the mother said.
Licon started to get offers from colleges around the country and qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials.
In his three years at UT, Licon has made immense improvements in the pool, including decreasing his 200-meter breaststroke time by more than 10 seconds.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Will wouldn’t even be at UT let alone the swimmer he is today without the sacrifices we all have made,” Licon’s mother said. “This whole process has made him a better person.”
Licon is now fresh off an NCAA Championship win with his team and is excited to prepare for the 2016 Olympic trials.
“It was an honor to go in 2012, but I obviously wasn’t ready,” Licon said. “I am a much stronger, faster and smarter swimmer than I was four years ago.”
Licon’s mother says more than 25 family members plan on flying to Omaha to cheer her son on in June.
“I’m so amazed by him,” she said. “For Will, just having the opportunity to consider the possibility of swimming for the United States–we aren’t even talking going there and getting medals–is a dream.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Licon’s father swam collegiately at Texas A&M University.