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By Brian Fees
Southern Tier Sports Report
If it wasn’t for Molly Craig’s coaches, family and friends she wouldn’t have even been at the national meet.

As she touched the wall first to win her second national title Craig realized what she had accomplished.

A lot had changed in the four years since Craig last won nationals in the 400 IM.

After winning in 2018, she got touched out at the wall in 2019 to take second. And, then Covid hit, changing everything for spring sports.

This year had been a struggle for Craig. An auto-immune disease had caused her times to slow all year long and she didn’t even plan on making the trip to nationals.

“I missed the first half of the season basically dealing with auto immune stuff that came on in the fall,” Craig said. “I didn’t think I’d stay to finish the season, but I committed to stay through conference championships to see how it went.

“January I got Covid and was taken out of competitions and meets for another two weeks. I missed most of the meets this season and training was a lot different than I ever did it before. After the conference meet the coaches were like you should finish out through nationals. I talked to my family and friends and they convinced me to go.”

For Craig winning nationals is always a surprise, but this season really caught her off guard.

“Pretty surreal,” she said. “Because, I won my first one in 2018, got touched out in 2019, it was canceled the next year and it was nice to reclaim the title back in the same pool as when I was a freshman.

“I wasn’t really expecting it. I have had a super untraditional season this year dealing with auto immune stuff and Covid, so I wasn’t expecting it at all. Dealing with health stuff was really hard and has changed everything about the way I trained this season, so I was just debating making an exit after our conference championships, but I’m glad I didn’t.”

This nationals wraps up Craig’s college swimming career.

“This ends my career, I am done with all my eligibility,” Craig said. “I graduated in January, so I am officially a graduate of Williams, so I’m very excited to start the next chapter of my life.”

The fact that she graduated in January played a role in Craig being unsure of if she was going to swim at nationals.

“That was definitely a factor,” Craig said. “Things are still up in the air for me what the next chapter holds. I’m going to go home, deal with some health stuff before I start working. There were a lot more moving parts this season than there were before. It’s been a surreal experience. I honestly didn’t even think winning or going to nationals was possible, it’s been a crazy ride for sure.”

For Craig, once she decided to swim at nationals her hope was just to give it everything she had.

In the end the race because a moment that Craig will never forget.

‘”That was I think the most special race of my career, at least the one I’m going to remember the most vividly the rest of my life,” Craig said. “I didn’t really go into it expecting to win. I just knew it was going to be my last 400 IM ever. It’s been my best event, I wanted to go and leave it all out there in the pool one last time. Finishing on that wall, looking over and I saw all my teammates jumping up and down. People were crying. I started crying, it was a whole big things, it definitely was very special.”

Craig had her mom and dad at nationals to watch her, and for the Notre Dame grad not only was the race special, but the whole national meet was special as it wrapped up her career in swimming.

“It’s awesome, and just to see I have been swimming since I was eight years old and I’m 22 and to have them there, they are the ones who got me into swimming in the first place,” Craig said. “To have them there at the end of my journey was awesome.”

For Craig all these years haven’t just been about the swimming, it’s been about the memories.

“It’s been a crazy journey,” Craig said. “I think I have definitely faced more adversity than probably most collegiate athletes have to get to where they are. It’s about the people who have shaped my journey. My parents that drove me to all those practices, sat through eight hour swim meets. The friends that have kept me in this sport and have become some of my best friends for live. I think the lessons the sport has taught me about perseverance and hard work and determination and you were always capable of more than you think.”

Craig accomplished a lot in her career. She was not just a national champion two times, she was also multiple-time All-American this year, and throughout her career. But, for the Notre Dame grad it wasn’t about the wins in races.

“For me, it’s not about the titles or how many All-American finishes I have,” Craig said. “But, more so, what I’m proud of this season and I know what my teammates at Williams see, and I hope what others see is you are always capable of more than you think. Especially for me competing with the auto immune stuff. You don’t have to let stuff hold you back.”

For Craig, with everything that was going on she still expected stuff from herself at nationals, but just being there was already an accomplishment.

“I think the expectations are the ones I place on myself,” she said. “My coach is like, whatever you can do is good enough for me and I am proud of you no matter what. I think my team had seen how this  season went, so I didn’t see many expectations except for the ones I was putting on myself an dI knew whatever I did was an accomplishment. I think just making it to the meet was an accomplishment.”

How impressive what Craig did was may be hard for many to understand.

Because of her auto immune issues Craig completely cut out a lo ton training this year. Her times were way off most of the season.

“It was a huge battle this year,” Craig said. “For contest, I totally changed my training, I didn’t do a single morning practice. I didn’t do any lifts, no dry land, I tried to swim once a day and I tried to keep the yardage pretty low. There were some days I couldn’t come in because I had a flare up of my symptoms. Training for me was different than in the past, with that comes mental doubts.

“Doing less than before, not doing strength training, no way I can be as good at an elite level, but wanting to compete at an elite level like I wanted to. But, for me, I have a deep trust in myself and my ability. I leaned on that a lot to get through the hard days and when there were good days, I celebrated those. Just the support of people around me got me through.”

Craig did not want to let her teammates down, so she said she’d compete through the conference meets.  But, it was that support system that talked her into going to nationals.

“I made a commitment to go to my conference championships to honor my commitment (to the team) and finish out my career,” Craig said. “I told my coaches I didn’t want to go to nationals, because it was a struggle to get through meets and I wasn’t sure I could do that again.

“My teammates, my sister (Bucknell swimmer Catherine Craig), my parents are who convinced me to go. They trusted me and knew what I was capable of and I am so glad they convinced me to go. After my morning IM at nationals I was going to scratch nighttime (the final where she won her title) because I wasn’t feeling great. I think I went to finals seeded fourth, so I was expecting to be somewhere around there. It was my sister who was like, you should honor yourself and finish it out, it’s your race and go out and do one last one, even if it’s bad or you are not yourself.”

The one thing for Craig in the 400 IM was that because of her health, because of the doubts, she went in feeling relaxed and just ready to enjoy the race no matter what happened. And, once the race got going her competitive nature kicked in.

“I stepped up onto the blocks and I think in the ready room before the race everyone is nervous,” Craig said. “I felt very calm, which I snot always how I feel before races. I just felt excited, this was my last one.

“I had an overwhelming confidence the race is going to go the way I wanted it to and I dove in and I have always been so competitive in the pool. So, once the race got started I knew I had to lay it all out there and put it out fast and I wanted to see if I could hang on.”

For Craig college swimming is over and as hard as that is, she’s ready to move on.

“I think I’m definitely ready to retire and move onto other things,” Craig said. “I think I know that I’m entering what we call it the swamer life. All the lessons it taught me are going to stay with me the rest of my life, even if I’m not competing in the pool. I can’t be more grateful for the sport or the people it’s brought into my life.”

For Craig next year it will be a chance to go back and watch Williams meets and see her teammates swim.

“I am so excited for that I can’t wait to go back to meets and just be in the stands for a chance and whoop it up for some friends and support my sister in her last season next year,” Craig said.

And, next year is a chance to watch her sister swim at Bucknell, something she hasn’t gotten a chance to do yet with her season at the same time as her sisters.

“It’s definitely on my bucket list for sure,” Craig said. “I actually haven’t been to any of her college meets so next year I hope to do that, but she’s also been awesome amazing support. She’s texted me all through nationals with support and encouragement and has been a rock for me this season when I needed one, so I’m so thankful for her, she’s my best friend.”

For Craig she learned a lot over the years from her coach, Steve Custer.

“Coach is like a second dad to me,” Craig said. “He’s been above and beyond supportive with everything that’s happened this year and just continues to be one of the best people that have come into my life. I’m so thankful swimming has brought him into my life and I’ll miss him a lot post grad.”

For Craig it’s still sinking in what she accomplished.

“Definitely still sinking in because I have been in this period of my life,” Craig said. “I took a gap semester so about five years now and even longer before that being just a swimmer. Definitely a little anxiety about the unknown next aspect of my life, more excitement about seeing where life is going to take me and what I am going to do.”

Now that Craig is a college graduate she’s looking at what’s next in her life.

“I graduated with a major in biology and public health on the pre medical track,” Craig said. “I took my MCAT’s and am set to go to med school if I want to, I think next year or two I’ll try and do research in public health in the Boston area.”

While she’s done swimming, Craig may consider one day getting back involved. Craig was coached by her dad growing up, and she’d consider maybe coaching one day in the future.

“We’ll see, I definitely need a couple years away from the pool to form new identities outside the pool,” Craig said. “But, I’m not opposed to it, I love the sport so much and can see myself coaching one day.”

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