A journey to confidence


Kate Walkup

Matthiesen-Johnson spending time in the water post season.

“I just wanted to swim,” Alexis Matthiesen-Johnson said. 

When the Linfield junior started her swimming journey with lessons at her neighborhood pool in Eugene, Ore., the swim instructors soon told her parents that she needed to be swimming for longer than swimming lessons allowed. 

The next day, Matthiesen-Johnson found herself at her first swim team practice. 

The expectation of joining a swim team is that participants attend practice consistently and compete in swim meets. While attending practice was easy for Matthiesen-Johnson, she had no interest in competing. Lining up alongside other swimmers on the blocks and trying to beat them across the pool didn’t seem like fun to her. 

“I just wanted to be in the water and practice with my friends,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “But the day after I turned 13, I went to my first meet.”

Turning 13 meant she had to compete in the 13-and-over category. Having the first meet of her life be in that category might sound intimidating enough, but Matthiesen-Johnson wasn’t your average 13-year-old swimmer either. 

Instead of standing 6 feet tall like some swimmers her age, Matthiesen-Johnson’s ponytail barely scraped the 5-foot mark. 

Just before Matthiesen-Johnson competed in her first meet, her coach invited her to join the high schoolers for some of their workouts. Her coach at the time, Bill Kuzmer, took notice of her work ethic and decided to reward that.

Matthiesen-Johnson swimming breaststroke. (Kate Walkup)

“The high school morning practices were just for high schoolers,” Matthiesen-Johnson said.  “But my eighth grade year, I was invited to go to the morning practices, and I wanted to go to every single one.” 

Everything Matthiesen-Johnson’s eighth grade year seemed too perfect for her. She had a close-knit group of friends in middle school, her swimming career was taking off, and her parents were almost more excited than she was. 

“For my thirteenth birthday, my parents got me the North Eugene swim team sweatshirt, which I wore in middle school and felt really cool,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. 

“Most people hate middle school, but I loved it,” Matthiesen-Johnson. “I had a lot of friends. I was taking leadership classes and was super involved.” 

However, when she reached high school, Matthiesen-Johnson’s approach to swimming shifted. While she now felt like she belonged at the high school swim practices, she was no longer comfortable with her daily routine. High school was a completely different experience for Matthiesen-Johnson. 

Everything about high school wasn’t as advertised for her. She felt lost in the crowds of cliques in the hallways, and high school swimming wouldn’t start until a few months into the school year. 

Matthiesen-Johnson felt empty without her alarm waking her up before sunrise every morning for swim practice. Arriving at school with dry hair felt wrong, and she missed the need to scarf down an energy bar on the car ride from the pool to the classroom. 

“I’ve always been young for my grade,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “So going to high school being a freshman in high school is one thing, but being only 13 is a whole different thing. It was just scary. Overwhelming. Lots of people, like high school seniors to a 13-year-old—that’s scary!”

Even though swim season hadn’t started yet, the relationships Matthiesen-Johnson had built the previous year on the swim team helped her navigate her first few weeks of high school. The older swimmers would say hi to her in the hallways, eat lunch with her, and make her feel as welcome as they could in this new foreign place. 

The summer before the start of her freshman year, Kuzmer asked her if she would be interested in joining the water polo team. Matthiesen-Johnson’s first instinct was to say no, but she agreed to try it out even though she didn’t even know the rules of the game. 

At her first practice, Matthiesen-Johnson thought that she wouldn’t be seeing

Matthiesen-Johnson at one of her first water polo games freshman year. Her coach later gave her the nickname “beast” and rarely called her Alexis from then on.

much playing time. 

“It was insane. There was a group of like, six senior girls that were so good, like, insanely good,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “So there’s six senior girls. There’s two juniors who are also very good. Not a single sophomore, and I was the only freshman, so that was terrifying.”

Matthiesen-Johnson started out the season on the bench just like she’d imagined. Even though her swimming was above average, she had no ball handling skills or any clue what was happening while she was playing. 

“I was also very, very tiny, like I was skinny. I looked like I was 10,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “They’re big girls that play water polo. They’d drown me in an instant—just with one finger, and boop, there I’d go.”

However, as the season went on and Matthiesen-Johnson learned how to handle the ball and play the game, she began to see some playing time in the games and eventually started some of the games later on in the season. 

While water polo was an outlet for Matthiesen-Johnson to get exercise and compete in a fall sport, swimming still took up the majority of her time. Unlike water polo, swimming never really had an off season. She was either training for club meets or participating in high school swimming. 

“Since I started high school, I went to every single practice, 11 practices a week, morning and afternoon, Monday through Saturday,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “I never missed a practice.”

The never-ending hours in the water paid off her sophomore year. Matthiesen-Johnson dropped significant time in her 200 and 500 freestyles at high school districts, qualified for high school state, and later qualified for club state by a significant margin that summer. 

However, the year that followed took Matthiesen-Johnson on an entirely different journey. Water polo season went as expected. She was now one of the leaders on the team and had a positive relationship with the sport, her team, and the coaching staff. But when the water polo season ended and swim season began, Matthiesen-Johnson desperately wanted water polo back. She had no motivation to train in the water like she’d had the previous year. 

“Definitely my junior year of high school was my lowest point,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “I was super stressed with my classes. I was taking like all IB classes, and I was not enjoying swim at all because there was so much drama and I was just so bored with it after the water polo season.”

Matthiesen-Johnson continued to go to 11 practices a week even though she had no desire to be there. She was going to bed as late as 3 a.m. and waking up only two hours later to get in the water to start the next day. With all of the school and social stress, Matthiesen-Johnson’s eating habits suffered much like her sleeping schedule. 

“I was just going through the motions,” Matthiesen-Johnson said in regard to swimming. “I was there but I wasn’t really there.”

Matthiesen-Johnson playing some water polo at the Linfield pool. (Kate Walkup)

“I didn’t want to keep swimming, but I felt obligated to because I’d made a commitment to my team and my coach.”

Matthiesen-Johnson wasn’t a quitter. It just wasn’t in her blood to not finish what she’d started. But she also knew that she needed to change something in order to not have her senior season be identical to her junior one. 

Since she was looking ahead to where she might be the next year in college, Matthiesen-Johnson decided to take a step back from the intensive practice schedule she’d been on since her freshman year of high school. Instead of attending 11 practices each week, Matthiesen-Johnson chose to take a few afternoons off each week to focus on school and friends and her plans moving forward. 

Matthiesen-Johnson didn’t know if swimming was going to be a part of her life post-graduation, so she decided to put the most into her final high school season. She didn’t want to end it the way her junior season had ended, so she chose to focus on taking more time for herself and really making the most out of what could be her final competitive season of swimming. 

College decision time was just around the corner, and Matthiesen-Johnson still wasn’t set on swimming or not swimming. Ideally, she would have played water polo in college, but there weren’t any schools that offered the sport close to where she wanted to go. 

“I was looking at colleges in Oregon and Washington, but then I decided I wanted to stay in Oregon because I didn’t want to pay sales tax,” Matthiesen-Johnson said with a laugh. “It sounds crazy but that was actually my deciding factor.”

Then it came down to whether or not swimming was going to continue to be a part of Matthiesen-Johnson’s life. She knew she would end up at a small, private school in Oregon, but the deciding factor ultimately ended up being the sport she was certain she would quit just a year earlier.

“My identity was swimming,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “I felt like my whole personality was based around that.” 

When it came decision time, Matthiesen-Johnson was certain that swimming needed to be included in her college experience. The swim program at Linfield ultimately solidified her decision of where she would be spending the next four years of her life.  

Fast forward to August of 2019. A new chapter. A new outlook on her sport. Yet everything seemed the way it had four years back. The too-young freshman entering an unknown place with no friends. But make it worse—no familiar faces on the swim team to turn to between classes or at practice. 

Matthiesen-Johnson on the block ready to dive in. (Kate Walkup)

College swimming didn’t end up being the big, exciting thing she’d hoped it would be. The season came and went, her times were slower than they had been in high school, and she felt like she had no role on the team. 

Right when Matthiesen-Johnson didn’t think her freshman year could get any worse, she found herself on I-5 headed back home to Eugene for a two-week spring break. However, this turned into online school, pools closed for the unforeseeable future, and nowhere to go except for home. 

“All of the things from junior year came back,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “I had a lot of body image issues because I wasn’t able to do any sort of workout I was used to.”

Just when she thought it was finally time to hang up the goggles after a disappointing freshman season, not being able to get in a pool was the most unexpected obstacle that Matthiesen-Johnson had thrown at her.

“I think that was the biggest mindset-changing swim experience for me,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “Being forced to take almost six months out of the pool made me realize how much I do really love swimming.”

Coming back to school in the fall of her sophomore year, Matthiesen-Johnson knew the swim season would look different, but her perspective and mentality had spun around. She was enjoying the sport again. She had the feeling of the little eighth grader parading around in her North Eugene swimming sweatshirt. 

“I was really determined to make it a good season regardless of what we got,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to make the most out of every single time I’m in the water.’ That mindset really took me far during my sophomore season.”

Junior year was going to be her first actual swim season that wouldn’t be completely interrupted by COVID. Going into it, Matthiesen-Johnson had mixed feelings because of how her first two years of college had resembled her first two years of high school.

“I’ve been scared since my freshman year of college that my junior year was going to be like my junior year of high school,” Matthiesen-Johnson said.

Matthiesen-Johnson mid swim practice. (Kate Walkup)

Matthiesen-Johnson was so determined to not go down the road she had gone down in high school that she surprised herself in more ways than she realized. Every time she lined up behind the blocks to race, she had confidence in herself. She felt like she not only knew her teammates, but she also saw herself as a leader on the team. And she felt herself enjoying the sport more than she thought was possible. 

Ending the season with best times, best friends, and the best relationship she’d ever had with the sport she’d been participating in since before she could walk only made her more excited for her senior season. 

“I’m just really excited because it’s the last one,” Matthiesen-Johnson said. “Everything I’ve learned from little eighth grade swimmer me, to all the stuff I’ve gone through with my relationship with swimming, I think I can really put together what I know about myself and training and motivation and have a really great season.”

Matthiesen-Johnson brought back that little girl who eagerly woke up at the crack of dawn to practice with the high schoolers and looks forward to racing in her final competitive swim season not for her coaches, her parents, her teammates, but instead for that little girl who overcame her fears and stepped up on the blocks to race in her first swim meet.