That Riley Cowperthwaite would be an athlete was almost a forgone conclusion from the start, according to her mother Elizabeth.
“I was a PE teacher, so she had to do something,” Elizabeth says. “She was a ballerina until age 11. She took tennis lessons too, and I’m also a swim instructor, so we had her in the water right away.”
By age 11 however, it was swimming, and the time commitment that came with swimming for a club team that lead Riley to decide to focus on the pool. A natural sprinter, she found she was simply good at it.
“My best event is the 50-meter freestyle, that’s down and back. Also, the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly,” she says. “I like the competition because of the other girls that I have to swim against that might be faster than me and really push me to get my times.”
Now a sophomore at Middletown High School, and a competitor at Fox Swim Club, Riley has realized that her goals in the pool are ambitious enough that she needs to work on her basics and shore up her weaker events if she is to reach her full potential.
“A stroke I really needed to improve on would probably be back stroke. I am not too great at it and it should actually be one of my better strokes. Another weakness would be I need to be more aggressive off the blocks when I dive in. I am always scared behind them and I need to work up not being scared,” she says. “I wanted to get stronger so that I could really become a better swimmer.”
Two years ago, that desire to get stronger lead Riley to Players Fitness and Performance, in Frederick, MD.
“My first impression walking in was it was very welcoming,” she says. “When I went in for my first workout everyone was just very happy and very nice.”
PFP often works with young athletes in field sports, such as baseball, soccer or field hockey, and with Riley being a swimmer meant the coaching team had to develop a more personalized approach to training Riley, according to PFP Coach Travis Bewley.
“It’s certainly not an orthodox sport, so what she has to do is different than the other athletes. I don’t need her working on agility so much. It’s a different skill set,” says. “It challenges me as a coach, to go and meet her swim coach and educate myself.”
Another complicating factor of Riley being a swimmer was that she had a specific set of nagging injuries that had to be dealt with before she could move on to more advanced strength training, according to Bewley.
“Swimmers at the club level, they are literally getting pounded in the pool. It’s a very demanding sport,” he says. “Initially when she came in, she was extremely beat up, for lack of a better word. She couldn’t do many foundational movements without pain in the knees. She couldn’t skip.”
“She’s really tall so she’s always had trouble with her knees,” Elizabeth adds. “She was seeing a physical therapist and the folks at PFP worked with the physical therapist to help her with that.”
Bewley got Riley to focus on soft tissue work after her punishing swimming workouts — six days a week, often two hours a time — using a foam roller and building up her core stability.
“She went through an initial jump in the pool as she got stronger, more stable. Her times improved pretty drastically,” Bewley says. “She went from someone who couldn’t do a lot of the foundational movements to now she is probably one of the stronger girls we have.”
But some of the biggest changes for Riley have come not in the form of physical strength, but mental and emotional fortitude.
“The motivational messages — they stick out. They’re really good,” Riley said of PFP’s mindset training. “They’ve definitely helped my confidence level in sports. A lot.”
She’s now found the confidence to be aggressive off the starting blocks.
“I think the biggest thing with Riley is the confidence and maturity she has gained throughout it all,” Bewley says. “The physical stuff has been great, but her mental growth has been by far the most impressive feat.”
It’s the mental growth, further physical gains and mature focus is what lead PFP to name Riley the Athlete of the Month for February.
“I was surprised, because I just feel like every time I go there, I go and do my workout,” Riley says of the honor. “Like I don’t do anything special to be athlete of the month.”
But it’s that very consistency in doing her workout, in focusing on the little things that are not so flashy, Bewley says, that made her stand out for the recognition.
“She’s really bought into the little things she needs to do. The corrective work, the soft tissue work,” he says. “It just shows you the mental fortitude she’s forged in her time in the program.”
It’s a mental fortitude that will serve her well in pursuing her next ambitions.
“I’m really working hard to go to a Division 1 college for swimming, that’s a big goal of mine,” Riley says. “I am working to make a national level meet by my junior year, so I can really start to stand out to some college coaches.”
“She wants to be a Texas Longhorn. That’s a really top tier swimming program,” Bewley adds. “She has the frame for it and her times are getting closer and closer to where they need to be, so that’s definitely not out of the picture.”
In the meantime, Riley is focusing on where she needs to be right now, in the gym, in the pool and in life, “to become a better version of myself, a stronger version,” she says. “To really improve in swimming so that I can go further with it in my life.”
That's Riley Cowperthwaite’s why. What’s your why?