Brentwood grad Sokol juggles swimming, studies at California (Pa.)
Melissa Sokol was a captain on the Brentwood girls' swim team that won a section title in 2011 for the first time in school history.
Sokol graduated that year, and moved on to study psychology at the California University of Pennsylvania.
Unwilling to end her swimming career, Sokol secured a spot on the California women's swim team as a walk-on.
In her two collegiate seasons, Sokol has impressed her coach with her commitment.
Sokol reached a hard-fought goal last month when she qualified for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship meet in the 50 freestyle.
The PSAC finals will be held this weekend and will be hosted by Indiana (Pa.) University in Mechanicsburg.
Sokol, 19, has a passion for swimming. Most athletes give up their sport if there is no scholarship money offered in college. But Sokol just wants to swim.
“I can't imagine my life without swimming. It's something I love and enjoy doing,” she said.
Edward Denny has been the head swim coach at California for 11 years. According to Denny, increased pressure to have more women join the team prompted “open invitation” tryouts.
Another former Brentwood High swimmer, Lauren Arnold, encouraged Sokol to try out.
Arnold swam for California from 2008 to 2011 and knew Sokol through older brother, Matt Sokol, another former Brentwood swimmer.
Sokol met with Denny and soon began practicing with the team. After two weeks, she received word that she had made the team.
Sokol started out on relays, but has proven herself and worked her way into individual events.
Denny admits the transition from high school to college swimming can be difficult for some.
According to Denny, athletes are living away from home, eating institutional food, and may not have had a lot of time to work on technique during high school.
“Melissa has done a lot of work on technique and it shows,” He said. “Our goal is always to swim as fast as possible with the least amount of effort.
“Another year of maturity and confidence is what she's showing.”
Sokol loves being part of the team and has made a lot of friends, including Alyssa Novotny and Brittany Reamer, who already were team members when Sokol participated in the tryouts.
Both Novotny and Reamer were on the West Mifflin girls' swim team that lost the section championship to the Brentwood Lady Spartans in 2011.
“It's still a sore spot for them,” Sokol said, laughing.
However, Sokol and Novotny have become close friends.
“You become so close with your team, they become like family,” Sokol said.
Sokol says being on the California swim team also keeps her focused and able to manage her time effectively between classes, studying and practice.
“It keeps me up on my studies and on top of my game,” she said.
Sokol's parents, Walter and Darlene, of Brentwood, have made it clear to Melissa that her schoolwork comes first.
“My parents tell me all the time if my GPA drops, swimming is out,” Sokol said.
She is juggling it all well, and loves every minute of it.
Sokol cried when she qualified for the PSAC meet by finishing with a time of 25.54 in the 50 freestyle event at a recent meet.
It was a goal she had set for herself shortly after making the team.
“It was the best feeling ever,” she said.
There are 21 women on California's swim team. Of those, four are considered walk-ons, and 14 others who receive some sort of scholarship assistance.
Jennifer Goga is a freelance writer.