After night six of the US Swimming Olympic Trials, there was a noticeable spike in Google searches for “Erika Brown height.” The former Lady Vol swimmer and 2020 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, graduate had an electric swim in the 100-meter freestyle final, finishing second at trials and qualifying for the 2021 US Olympic Team. As she stepped up to the microphone to conduct her post-race interview, Brown stood shoulder to shoulder with the three other qualifiers who would make up the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay in Tokyo. She was quite a bit shorter than her new teammates, but her face was beaming with pride.
Qualifying as the eighth seed of the final heat, Brown was in an unlikely position to make the team. She rose to the challenge, however, and posted the third-fastest time of her career at 53.59 seconds, just six-tenths of a second from first place in the event. “I felt like it was a real blessing,” Brown said. “I got in at eighth and I really wanted to prove myself.”
Smaller in stature than many of her competitors, Brown has never let her height stop her from breaking barriers and setting records in her swimming career, both collegiate and professional. She credits support from her coaches and the culture at UT for challenging her to reframe her way of thinking about the sport.
“Traditionally it’s been viewed that a longer swimmer’s body is better. There have been a number of people starting to break that mold,” said Matt Kredich, head coach and director of UT’s swimming and diving program. “It’s been fun to hear other people say, ‘She’s for the short guy.’ She’s the one that inspires people who don’t feel like they have the genetic blessing to excel in the sport.”
Brown, whose fiercely competitive spirit defines her much more than her height, began her journey to become a world-class athlete at age 10. At the time, swimming was simply a way to stay busy, but she fell in love with the sport and dreamed of going to the Olympics. But as she progressed, doubts started to creep in and the dream faded.
“I wasn’t competing as well as I wanted to in high school. I started to believe the lies that only some people are good enough to go to the Olympics,” Brown said. “Once I got to college, I realized that wasn’t really true and that I had all the resources I needed to make that dream come alive again.”
Recruited out of her North Carolina high school, Brown was won over during her campus visit by UT’s familial atmosphere and distinguished coaching staff. She noted that the coaches cared about the whole athlete, not just their contributions to the program. UT showed a team-oriented focus that was uniquely centered around service. It made leaving home and taking a chance on an out-of-state school a bit more manageable for Brown.
Her first year didn’t come without its challenges. Brown missed her family and struggled to perform in the water. She was so disappointed with her progress that in the summer after her first year she contemplated leaving the sport she loved.
After long conversations with her parents, Brown recentered on her faith and found new resolve to return to UT with a changed mindset. She focused all her energy on her teammates, embracing the team’s core value of service in a way Brown hadn’t fully bought into her first year. “As I look back, the times that I struggled most were when I was only thinking about myself. When I came back for my sophomore year, I focused all my energy on my teammates; it made swimming so much more fun and I was able to do a lot better,” she said.
That mental shift served as a catalyst for Brown’s breakout sophomore year. She would go on to become a 21-time All American, break the American record in the 100-yard butterfly, be named the 2020 SEC Female Swimmer of the Year, and lead the Lady Vols to their first-ever SEC championship during her senior season.
“Tennessee gave me a reset on the way I think. Being in an environment where we support each other and we try to help each other every day has inspired me to do the same for others,” said Erika Brown.
“Erika pointed her focus from inward to outward into other people. That became her mantra—that she’s doing it all for her team and for Tennessee. When someone who gets a lot of attention continually says that, it sends a powerful message to the rest of the program,” Kredich said. “Her no-excuses ability to compete and rise to the occasion is what everybody aspires to.”
Just as Brown seemed to ascend to the peak of her career, the coronavirus pandemic cut her senior season short. The NCAA canceled its 2020 championships and aquatic facilities across the country shut down, leaving little opportunity to train. Although the Olympics were postponed a year, Brown had to keep moving forward as if they were happening to maintain her momentum.
Knoxville community members and UT alumni rallied to help the Olympic hopeful. Former Vol swimmer Don Bosch, now a defense attorney, offered his backyard pool as a training spot. Brown had to wear a wetsuit to keep warm outdoors during unpredictable frigid moments in the spring. She also used an endless pool, went for open water swims in Mead’s Quarry Lake, and capitalized on pool space offered by the Jewish Community Center.
“Overall, pushing through those challenges made me a lot stronger in the water and mentally. I learned how to be patient, that you might not always get to execute a perfect plan, and that it’s OK to get creative and deviate from what you’re used to,” she explained.
Through an uncertain year, Brown leaned on support from the Volunteer community and Kredich, whom she points to as a key part of her success. The longtime swim coach for the Volunteers carries an impressive record, having led Tennessee to a combined 64 SEC titles and eight NCAA titles. Kredich has coached athletes on the US Olympic Team each cycle since 2008. This year alone he’s had nine current or former Vol swimmers, including Brown, make Olympic teams representing eight different countries (USA, Bulgaria, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, Peru, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago). Brown and Kredich have a strong relationship and have learned a lot from each other.
“Erika meets every challenge with a purity of heart and a joy she finds in the moment that doesn’t allow her to doubt herself at all,” Kredich said. “To me that’s what a competitor is: it’s somebody who sees themselves at their best and gives themselves completely to that moment. That’s Erika.”
Brown’s perseverance and drive all tie back to her passion for supporting her team and her unique approach to swimming. She’s noticed that some of her favorite moments in her career have come at times when she’s able to swim for something bigger than herself. “Tennessee gave me a reset on the way I think. Being in an environment where we support each other and we try to help each other every day has inspired me to do the same for others,” she said.
As the start of the Olympics draws near, Brown will be representing both the Lady Vols and Team USA, an honor she’s especially proud to carry.
“Embodying a Lady Volunteer in all aspects of life is really important,” she said. “I’m excited for the Olympics because I get to share those values with Team USA and the world.”
Brown and the rest of Team USA’s swimmers are in Tokyo preparing for the start of the Olympic Games. The opening ceremonies take place July 23, with swimming events beginning July 24. After the Olympics, Brown plans to continue with her pro swimming career, competing in the International Swim League with the Cali Condors.
UPDATE: Brown earned a bronze medal as part of Team USA’s women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay during the second day of competition in Tokyo.
Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)