O’Toole perseveres over injuries and tragedy on road to nationals
Last season, Shippensburg University’s Stephanie O’ Toole etched her name in the SU women’s swimming record book, smashing five school records at the 2016 George Mason Invitational before finishing the season with a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championship in the 200-yard individual medley (IM).
Battling injuries, O’Toole defended her title in the 200-yard IM, finishing first in the finals with a time of 2:01.71. The 2018 conference championships Feb. 21-24 proved to be one of O’Toole’s greatest performance at SU.
While fighting through pain, O’Toole’s fantastic performance was one that meant more to her this season since she had struggled to stay healthy this year.
“Honestly, I really wasn’t expecting anything,” O’Toole said. “I’ve been hurt all season and I was just excited to be able to compete. I was out for a couple of big meets this year, so it was just exciting to be able to cheer on the team.”
SU women’s swimming coach Tim Verge was particularly impressed with O’Toole’s ability to battle through the pain and perform by putting the pain in the back of her mind by just going out and competing.
“That was such a gutsy, tough race from Steph,” Verge said of her performance in the 200-yard IM. “She has been battling some stuff through the year and she did a great job of starting the meet by just blocking it out and focusing on racing. She’s tough.”
The victory meant even more to O’Toole, who lost one of her best friends in SU student and track-and-field athlete Tamara Ovejera when she died on Nov. 30. The SU men’s and women’s track-and-field teams also honored Ovejera Feb. 24-25, as both teams claimed conference championships in the indoor season and the team posed on the podium wearing T-shirts with “4 TAM” embroidered across the back.
“It was pretty emotional and not just with me being injured,” O’Toole said. “We all lost a good friend this year, so we weren’t just going out there and swimming for ourselves, we were also swimming for her. It’s not about me. I put my injury behind me and just tried to move forward.”
Before the 200-yard IM final, O’Toole hit the final 50 yards of the event with Ovejera on her mind, battling excruciating physical and emotional pain, to smash the competition. O’Toole’s finish was her second title in the 200-yard IM, with her time qualifying her for nationals.
“The free is the toughest stroke for me to do being hurt, so the last 50 of the 200 IM I was just thinking of her the whole time,” O’Toole said. “It was just a lot of fun.”
“She had a great challenge tonight and she stepped up,” Verge said. “That last 50 freestyle she had was one of her best in a long time, and I could tell that she really wanted to win that race.”
O’Toole continued to dig deep and put up multiple outstanding finishes as a part of two school-record relays over the course of the four days of competition at the PSAC Championships, while also finding her way into the ‘A’ final of both the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard breaststroke.
She finished in second in both events, earning a first- or second-place finish in each of her individual swims for the Raiders. Finishing in second place in the 100-yard butterfly was also a special accomplishment, with the stroke causing her extreme amounts of pain.
“In the 100 fly, I really wasn’t expecting to go that fast,” O’Toole said. “I was completely OK with getting second. Honestly, second has never really felt so good. It’s really about being a good person and a teammate.”
For O’Toole, the relays were more exciting in breaking school records alongside her teammates.
“I think that’s the most fun that you can have in this sport,” O’Toole said. “It’s really an individual sport, but when it comes to relays it’s really not about you at all. It’s really when you can just go out there and cheer on your teammates.”
With the incredible performance at the PSAC Conference Championships, O’Toole now shifts her attention to the NCAA Swimming National Championships, after hitting qualifying times in the 200-yard IM and the 100-yard breaststroke. O’Toole is the first swimmer since Julie Brown in 2014 to compete for SU at nationals.
While it has been an extremely difficult season for O’Toole physically and emotionally, her perseverance has helped elevate her to compete at the highest level.
“I just try to go out there and always leave it out in the pool,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole will travel to Greensboro, North Carolina, to compete at the championships March 14-17. She will compete in the 200-yard IM, the 100-yard butterfly and the 200-yard breaststroke.