Growing up in Liverpool, England, Athena Clayson had dreams to travel the world when she was older, and now she is able to accomplish that dream through her natural talent in swimming.
Through Fresno State, she’s been given the opportunity to travel around the U.S. to compete and experience life outside of home.
“I don’t have an undying love for the sport, which I’ve always said, but I’m just using swimming to travel the world and to get an education and to still have good fun while I’m at it,” Clayson said.
Swimming since she was 5, Clayson never pictured herself moving to the U.S. for education or swimming. Conversations with old schoolmates sparked that ambition in Clayson to find that new lease on life.
When she began looking at universities, she ran into a crossroad: stay in “rainy” England and train in a “tin can,” or take on the collegiate experience in America so she could experience the world outside of the pool.
Clayson came to her decision based on her desire to be part of something that was bigger than herself. She said that in England swimming was an individual sport, but here in the U.S., she has been able to swim as a part of a team and win for the girls, for the program and for the school.
“You’re not just doing it for yourself. …I think that is something that I could have never conjured up in my mind as a young girl. I wouldn’t ever have thought, ‘You’re swimming for more than yourself,’”Clayson said.
Fresno State gave her the opportunity to be a part of a team that felt like family. She said she has been able to enjoy swimming much more because she’s not swimming alone.
Having a team that felt like a family was the priority for Clayson when she was looking at universities. Fresno State head coach Jeanne Fleck reassured her that Fresno State had what she was looking for.
“What’s better than having 30 best friends built in? You don’t have an excuse. You’re never going to be lonely. So I think I just really aimed and really wanted a close friend group, and that’s exactly what was guaranteed, that all the girls are so close because you go through everything together,” Clayson said.
She never imagined herself living in California, taking trips to iconic landmarks all over the Golden State.
Clayson noted that she had never anticipated how far her swimming career would take her. On what her 5-year-old self would say if she saw how far she had come, “I think my mind would be blown,” Clayson said.
Clayson was attracted to the outdoor pools. In England, she trained in indoor pools, rarely being able to compete outside, so she emphasized the privilege Fresno has to be able to train outside.
One of the things Clayson was looking for when searching through universities was the facilities, and Fresno State’s caught her attention. Fresno State has a 50-meter outdoor pool, which many schools don’t have.
Now finishing her junior year, Clayson has been able to meet different people through swimming. She never anticipated winning the prestigious awards or conference titles she’s since claimed when she chose Fresno State, but she continues to try to have fun with the sport.
“I put so much hard work in during my younger years that now it’s time to reap the benefits,” Clayson said.
Moving to another continent was hard for her family, especially for Lisa Clayson, Athena’s mom. Moving to the U.S. was moving to another part of the world, and despite having family in California, it was still difficult to see her daughter move so far.
“I totally supported and encouraged her to attend a college in the U.S., but actually found it harder than I wanted to show Athena, but it was a relief to see her settled when I visited in October 2019,” Lisa said.
Athena began swimming at a young age when her neighbor in Liverpool told her mother about Clayson’s natural features that primed her to be a swimmer. Once they measured her arm length, they knew at that moment that Athena was going to have a natural talent for swimming.
Lisa recalled when Athena was first introduced to swimming, along with her sister Antonia, both being tall and their arm width was greater than their height, a sign of a good swimmer.
Her natural talent has landed her multiple awards, and she was able to compete in nationals in 2013 at the age of 12. At 14, she reached the European U.S. Olympic Festival, representing team Great Britain.
At the international festival, Athena was able to interact with different people and cultures, giving her a taste of places outside of home before she moved to the U.S.
The next year, after competing in the Olympic Festival, Athena moved to Mount Kelly in Devon at the age of 16, where she became the national champion in the 100 backstroke.
Despite illnesses along the way, most notably when she contracted vasculitis, a complication of streptococcus when she was 17 years old, she continued to strive for success.
“These experiences have made her into the confident, balanced individual she has become. She enjoys her sport, both in training with her teammates and competing as an individual, and as a relay member for the good of the team,” Lisa said.
Of every person Athena had met in her journey through swimming, her mom remained her constant source of motivation. From driving her to practices and meets and sacrificing time for her to swim, Athena was never put under pressure to succeed in the sport.
“I know it sounds very cliché, but it is hard, because we had to sacrifice a lot, like growing up. There’s a lot that goes into swimming. There’s a lot of hours and early mornings and late nights and long weekends at the pool. So it’s a lot when like, it’s only you and your mom who really buy into it,” she said.
Athena Clayson said her mother was her anchor through her success, and allowed her to make her own choices in the swimming world, including whether she wanted to continue on with it.
“This has been an amazing journey for us all. Many sacrifices of time, family celebrations and social events over many years in order for Athena to train and compete in the various competitions and training camps have been missed,” her mother said. “I’m just so proud of my little girl.”
Through early swim sessions, attending school all day and then going back in the water to train for another two hours after school, Lisa said she was proud of how her daughter continued to persevere through a busy schedule at a young age.
“[Athena is a] truly wonderful human being, who deserves the best of what life has to offer. [She is] an individual who is unpretentious, hard working, supportive and friendly towards all her teammates,” Lisa said.
Athena’s first claim to fame in the local paper was when she swam a mile at 5 years old. Lisa remembered when her daughter saw a picture of the boys’ junior swim team holding a trophy and said, “I want to win one of those trophies when I’m older,” planting the seed at an early age.
Lisa noted that Athena’s Mount Kelly coach once said athletes have to have the three A’s: attendance, ability and attitude. Without all three you achieve nothing, but with all three you can reach your potential.
“How right he was,” Lisa Clayson said.
Athena has won her third straight Mountain West title in the 200 backstroke. During her freshman and sophomore years, she won the MW title for the 100 backstroke, but fell to second place this season.
As she heads into her final season at Fresno State, Athena is striving to take back the 100 backstroke title once again.
“At the end of the day, I know that all I want to do with my final season is finish it and be happy with it. I want to know that I put all my all into my athletic career,” she said. “My career is not finished.”
Lisa Clayson and her husband have tremendous pride for their daughter and her accomplishments through swimming.
“Talent and luck can get you so far, but what Athena has achieved is the fruition of many years of hard work, in and out of the pool. We, as her family, are so proud of what she has accomplished, not only here in her home country, but now as Mountain West Champion for the third consecutive year,” Lisa Clayson said. “Who’d have thought a young girl who wanted to win a trophy for her school would reach such heights on both sides of the Atlantic? [It] is truly remarkable.”