Erika Brown has a lot to be proud of, but she is nowhere near done. With both silver and bronze Olympic medals to call her own and world travels under her belt as an international athlete, this 23-year-old is inspiring other female athletes to give their all to their sport and stand up for what is right.
For most people, your 20s are about finding your passion or working your way up to the place you dream of being. For Knoxville swimmer Erika Brown, however, she’s living her 20s in the place she always dreamed: in the pool competing around the world.
Erika takes time from an International Swim League competition in the Netherlands to hop on to a Zoom call with me. In fact, her hair is still visibly wet when we talk. This woman lives and breathes competitive swimming. “I started swimming when I was 10 years old,” she tells me. “There was a local YMCA. (My parents) really just wanted me to have a way to make friends and get some of my built-up energy out.” She tried almost every sport they offered, never finding the right fit. But then she found swimming; and it seemed as if she finally found what she was missing. “I really fell in love with it,” she says. “I just kept going from there.”
Erika entered the competitive space almost immediately. She recalls being inspired by collegiate athletes when she was a girl, which encouraged her to pursue collegiate swimming and begin setting her sights on something greater. “It wasn’t until college that those dreams really started to come together for me,” she says.
Erika began studying kinesiology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, finding her rhythm in the water as a collegiate athlete. “That was a really pivotal moment for me, getting to go to college and experience what it was like to do something bigger than yourself,” she says.
It wasn’t always easy though. I often wonder how young athletes fare in such a high profile and competitive environment. I’ve thought about it even more since the topic of mental health came into the public sphere during the Tokyo Olympics; thank you, Simone Biles. Erika surprises me with her openness on the topic. She tells me that she went “through a depression during my first year in college. I was very homesick and lonely so after that first year I went home and wasn’t sure if I would come back.” But time with her family helped her remember why she swam, and when she came back in her sophomore year she ended up having what she calls her “breakthrough season.”
It was her sophomore year at UT and Erika was excelling in the pool as a Lady Vol, “but I wasn’t totally comfortable bringing everyone on board with me, having that voice and standing up for what I knew to be right.” I imagine it’s challenging for athletes, especially ones new to the limelight, to distinguish themselves in their field, outside of the number of points they score or the record times they set. “You just have to stand up for what’s right,” Erika tells me, adding later, “You can accomplish things a lot quicker by having that voice.”
Her voice and leadership paid off, as Erika helped her team to their first ever SEC Championship in 2020. But senior year didn’t quite go as planned. “We missed our NCAA (championship) due to COVID.” Erika was devastated. “I had to remain focused on that end goal,” which of course was the Olympics, though things there were still in question.
The Olympics—and the trials—were eventually postponed to 2021, and the pandemic forced athletes, like Erika, to train alone or in very small groups. She trained where and when she could, often at night when they could get access to the pool. She entered the trials more ready than ever and earned her place on the USA Olympic Swimming team.
When the 2020 Olympics were held in Tokyo—in 2021—Erika got into the pool and came out with two medals: a silver in the 4×100 medley relay and a bronze medal in the 4×100 freestyle relay.
As I sit and listen to Erika tell her story, it’s hard to believe she’s reached such incredible milestones at such a young age—she’s only 23. But this is the life of many athletes, diving in, so to speak, to huge moments early on in their professional careers. There’s a very genuine feeling of humility that comes across as you speak to her. “Actually getting to be there and swim alongside such amazing athletes and be on the podium with those women, it was really life changing,” she says.
Erika remained in Knoxville after graduating from UT, where she continues her training with other pro athletes. And she’s already looking to the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France, at this point only two years away. “I’m getting back to work and getting focused.” But the work of an athlete doesn’t start and end with the Olympics. If you’re looking for her this next year, she’ll be training for international trials in April, and back in Japan in May for the FINA World Championship.