March 23, 2004
When Ilkay Dikmen's parents sent her off to summer camp over ten years ago, they had no idea that the trip would end up taking Ilkay from her home in Izmir, Turkey to half-way around the globe.
Now a senior on the swim team at the University of Illinois, Ilkay (pronounced E-kye) is preparing for her third NCAA Championships in College Station, Texas and the final meet of her collegiate career. She will compete in the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststrokes, two events in which she holds U of I school records. At the Big Ten Championships last month, Ilkay placed sixth in the 100-yard event and fourth in the 200.
When Ilkay arrived at camp that summer 13-years ago, she didn't have aspirations of being a competitive swimmer. But after a week of playing in the pool at camp, the coaches pulled her out and placed her on the swim team. It didn't take long for her career to take off and within a few years, Ilkay was a Turkish national champion and record holder.
Her swimming success continued through high school, but with graduation approaching, Ilkay had to make a choice.
"In Turkey, they wouldn't have cared if I was still swimming for my club team," she said. "It's kind of expected that once you go to college, you are done. But I didn't feel like I was ready to be done."
She certainly was not done. In 2000, the year she graduated high school, Ilkay represented Turkey at the Olympics in Sydney, finishing 23rd in the 100-meter and 24th in the 200-meter breaststroke. Soon after the Games, Ilkay left for her long journey to Champaign.
"My family was very supportive and my parents were really happy," she described. "They wanted me to go to the United States for a couple of different reasons. First, it was a good opportunity for me to improve a second language. Second, they thought it was just a little bit safer here. In Turkey, things are up and down a lot, with finding a job and everything, but in coming to the U.S., I would be able to come home after going to a good college."
The same hard work that propelled Ilkay to the top in Turkey, has paid off for her while at Illinois. At her first Big Ten Championship, less than two months after arriving in the U.S., she placed in the top-eight in two events, and has moved up ever since to become a dominant swimmer in the Conference.
"I'm not satisfied with being in the middle of anything. If I'm going to do something, I want to be the best at it, so I have to train hard and I know that. So when I'm done training, I will still swim for fun, but I won't compete."
Ilkay was used to the difficult practices and early morning workouts that are staples in the life of a swimmer. Going to Illinois, she had to learn to combine that with a tough academic slate as well. As Ilkay has plans to attend physical therapy school upon graduation, she has learned to maintain the student-athlete balance in her life.
"It's really not that hard when you're just thinking of practice. In the time when I'm not studying or practicing, I really wouldn't be doing much anyway, plus I don't sleep much! So, it's not hard to manage my time around practice. Traveling to meets is a little more difficult, but if you plan ahead and talk to your teachers, it doesn't have to be a big deal."
Ilkay will return home to Turkey this summer to complete the training to attend her second Olympics, this time in Athens. But she leaves behind a piece of advice for young athletes who wish to accomplish the same things, in college and beyond, as Ilkay has.
"Do something that you love to do and set your own goals. If you find something that you love, it will be easy to want to work hard and be the best. The goals that you set have to be your own, if they come from somebody else, they aren't going to mean anything to you and will be easy to forget."