Favorite athlete: Katie Ledecky
Favorite team: Philadelphia Eagles
Favorite memory competing in sports: Breaking the 500 freestyle school record at Suburbans sophomore year.
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: Losing my cap and goggles while competing in my first 1650.
Music on mobile device: Khalid & Post Malone
Future plans: Attend college and swim
Words to live by: “Don’t let the fear of what could happen make nothing happen.”
One goal before turning 30: Travel outside of the United States
One thing people don’t know about me: I love the beach.
By GORDON GLANTZ
The oboe is universally accepted as one of the most difficult musical instruments to master.
But Robert Guthy was among the few who could make the instrument heard from film scores to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” sound as described in the play “Angels in America” -- like “that of duck if the duck were a songbird.”
And then came the day he just could not play it, at least not in front of an audience, anymore.
The cause was performance anxiety.
According to Cheltenham senior Olivia Guthy, her father always regretted it.
It seemed like fodder for a Greek tragedy when she developed some of the same issues, putting her to the brink of giving up competitive swimming.
“Last year, definitely,” said the two-year captain. “Throughout the entire season, I was ready to give up.”
Drawing strength from a support system – her mom, Beth; current coach, Karen Wirtshafter; and her teammates – she worked to successfully wrestle her demons to the ground and return.
“I would have felt incomplete,” said Guthy. “Doing it three out of four years seemed wrong. I have so many great relationships on the team. They are my best friends. I just didn’t want to end on a bad note.
“As a group, they always told me I didn’t really want to stop swimming.”
But when it came to the most decisive reason in coming back for what has been a strong senior season, it was all about dad.
She didn’t want to live to regret giving up swimming.
“My emotions go through him,” said Guthy of the man people love to love at meets because of his infectious personality. “He was as upset as I was. If there was a reason I couldn’t stop swimming, it was because of him.”
A record-setting phenom from the time she first started competing for the Cheltenham Aquatic Club, Guthy entered high school with almost messianic expectations before ever setting her big toe into the pool.
“When I was a freshman, the coaches were excited about me,” said Guthy, a career-long successful competitor at the US Swimming level. “I got there, and expectations were high.”
The usual progression is the Suburban One League meet, then the District One meet and then states.
With Guthy’s advance billing, it was presumed that reaching states was a foregone conclusion.
“Everything was always about states,” she said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
But she had to get through districts at La Salle University first, and that’s where the mental block – the performance anxiety – became more of a hurdle than rival swimmers.
Coming up short of states meant all the hours – the “meet” days that sometimes run from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. – felt wasted as her seasons of expectations ended in extreme disappointment.
“I was extremely overwhelmed,” said Guthy. “At districts, I shut down. It was horrible. I was too stressed out.”
Swimming Back to Shore
A coaching change to Wirtshafter after Guthy’s freshman year has made as much of a difference as the earbuds blasting whatever music comes to mind to block out the world before a race.
“She was a little down and glad I was going to be coaching her,” said Wirtshafter, who has coached Guthy since the age of 6, creating bond that is hard to break.
“She was a phenom,” said Wirtshafter. “She was really being built up, but she bombed at districts.
“That’s a tough thing when you are that good. She said that maybe it was the pool. I told her that it wasn’t the pool. I know her mom and dad really wanted her to overcome it. It’s a hard thing. She is one of the best swimmers to ever come through here.
“Some kids would give up and quit. She never quit. She still loves the sport, and the camaraderie.”
Wirtshafter had a plan to maintain that love of the sport. She decided to make Guthy a team captain as a junior to “get her more into a leadership role.”
While it started off a little shaky, it played out perfectly.
“It did help out,” said Guthy, who takes AP literature and several honors classes but has little time for school activities. “I still haven’t done so amazing at districts yet (since the coaching change), but Karen is good at talking me off the ledge. She cares about me as a person, not just as a swimmer. I think it was part of her plan. Karen is always a few steps ahead of me.
“It was a learning experience as a junior. I was a different captain then than I am now. I was told, ‘People look up to you,’ but I didn’t want to believe it. I just tried to accept that, and tried to help others. I know what it’s like. I’m supporting people more than last year.”
Wirtshafter feels a sense of satisfaction for the experiment working out.
“She has a totally different attitude,” she said. “She’s a senior captain now, and she gives speeches. I saw something happening with her. She found her love for the sport again.”
In addition to being a captain, Guthy’s senior mindset is shaped by a little grace.
An 8-year-old swimmer named Grace broke one of Guthy’s long-standing records from the Cheltenham Aquatic Club and, to the surprise of Guthy, the feat was viewed by Grace with the same verve as a basketball player breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record for 100 points in a game.
“It was awesome for me,” said Guthy. “It was exciting. It was a good thing for me to see, and it opened my eyes. It was like, ‘Wow, maybe people do look up to me.’ I was thinking, ‘Why does she even know who I am?’ But she was so excited to break my record for an 8-year-old. It was cool for her, and it was cool for me.”
Added Wirtshafter: “They are all aspiring to be like her. The 8-year-old was thrilled to break Olivia Guthy’s record.”
“Shipp” Comes In
Despite her natural gifts, not reaching states put Guthy at risk for not being seen as the right pedigree for the collegiate level.
“Before this year, she was really concerned that no one would want her,” said Wirtshafter.
But Shippensburg did.
It’s not officially official but …
“It’s pretty close to definite,” said Guthy. “It’s a lot of weight off my shoulders. As a junior, I was always worried. Now that I know I’m going to swim for a college, it feels pretty good.”
And Wirtshafter, while believing that Division II Shippensburg may have pulled off a major heist with a Division I talent, has seen the difference.
“I see a calm over her now,” said Wirtshafter. “It’s a steal they are going to get with her. I don’t think they even realize what they got. She can do anything.”
Guthy stands out in the 500, 200 and 200 Medley relay. Any and all are on the table for a postseason run, which means breaking through at districts and on to states.
While she is taking a one-stroke-at-a-time approach, Guthy is determined to “block out the noise” and make everyone – coach, teammates, mom and especially dad – proud.
But mostly, it’s for herself.
“I’m definitely positioned to get there,” said Guthy. “I don’t know why I wouldn’t.”
She adds that the experience, the road back, has “changed her as an athlete” because “I have a better understanding of who I am.”
Wirtshafter – already lamenting next year without a senior class led by Guthy -- always understood, and is anxious to see it all unfold.
“We’re really excited,” she said. “She’s been on fire.
“To me, she should have already been to states, and she has not – as of yet. The thing is to get her to states. She’s really a wonderful kid, and she really overcame a lot. This is such a hard sport, but she doesn’t seem to feel the stress anymore. A lot of things have seemed to have come together for her.”