“Emily Escobedo, world champion” has a nice ring to it — even if the subject of the title is still grappling with it.
“It’s definitely weird,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not normal.”
The label is appropriate considering Escobedo’s turn Dec. 21 at the 15th FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where the 2017 UMBC graduate won the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke event in 2 minutes, 17.85 seconds — the second-fastest time recorded by an American this year, trailing only Lilly King’s time of 2:17.06 during the 2021 season of the International Swimming League.
Escobedo, who also earned a silver medal for swimming a leg of the 200-meter medley relay in a qualifying heat and celebrated her 26th birthday Dec. 17, said the accomplishments are still sinking in.
“It feels good,” she said. “It doesn’t feel too different, but it was definitely exciting.”
Escobedo’s promise was on display early. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in 2012 and finished 58th in the 200 breaststroke with a time of 2:36.07. At the 2016 trials, she placed 10th in the same event with a time of 2:27.03.
In four years at UMBC, Escobedo improved from 2:14 to 2:05 in the 200 breaststroke, 2:07 to 1:55 in the 200 individual medley, and 1:04 to 0:58 in the 100 breaststroke. She credited former coach Chad Cradock, who died in March, and Chris Gibeau, a former UMBC assistant who is now the coach at Hood College, with molding her as a swimmer.
“The mentors that you have, the coaches that you have, they do shape you to be the person that you are, the leader that you are, and the athlete that you are,” she said. “I’m really lucky that I had Chad and Chris to help me become the person I am. They’ve definitely helped me make it far in this sport, but more importantly, they helped me become the person that I am, which is a lot more important than athletics at the end of the day.”
Brittany Coughlin, who participated in the breaststroke as a freshman in 2016-17 when Escobedo was a senior, said Escobedo was so talented that she frequently trained with the men’s team to get the competition she needed. Coughlin said she was “a role model for all of us.”
“She was always swimming so fast,” Coughlin said. “She never really seemed nervous. Maybe she was, but she was always very confident, and she just knew how to make everyone feel like they could accomplish things. And she was always so bubbly. She loved to joke around. I can’t even think of a time when she was upset at practice. There were plenty of times when I would cry at practice, but I can never think of a time when she was upset or anything. She was there to work and to give her best every day.”
When she graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s in psychology, Escobedo, who hails from New Rochelle, New York, left with six school records, six America East Conference gold medals and an NCAA bronze medal in the 200 breaststroke. She collected a silver in the 200 breaststroke and a gold in the 400 medley relay at the 2019 World University Games in Naples, Italy, before taking aim at competing in the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials with an eye toward representing the country at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
But then the coronavirus pandemic ravaged much of the world, changing her plans. After taking a semester off from Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, where she is pursuing a master’s in early childhood education with an emphasis on special education to train for the trials, she had to wait until 2021 when she placed third in the 200 breaststroke, finishing one spot out of being invited to Tokyo.
“Obviously, it was a little bit of a punch in the gut,” Escobedo said. “It was a tough pill to swallow, but being the third-fastest in the U.S. is pretty incredible. It was definitely hard, but I’m thankful to have a lot of swimming left in me because I don’t let that define me. I’ve never defined myself because of swimming. We made it through, and I got to take a step back and say, ‘OK, I’ve given so much of myself to swimming and now for the next few months, I’m going to do what I want to do.’”
After getting married in September, which also had been delayed by the pandemic, Escobedo concentrated on the FINA World Swimming Championships. After posting the fifth-fastest qualifying time, she edged the Russian Swimming Federation’s Evgeniia Chikunova by .03 seconds and Great Britain’s Molly Renshaw by .11 seconds in the final.
“There was a lot of cheering going on, but you can kind of hear the announcer say your name,” Escobedo said. “So I heard the announcer say my name, and I just assumed that meant I got first. But I definitely double-checked with the scoreboard, and I was just really excited when I knew how close it was and when I looked at the actual time.”
Coughlin said her former teammate was deserving of the victory.
“With COVID, it was such a tough year,” she said. “She wanted to finish last year with her wedding and everything, but that all got delayed. With how it’s going so far, it seems like it’s all working out, and I’m just so happy for her.”
Escobedo is scheduled to graduate with her master’s in May and is considering swimming through the 2022 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. She might dabble with coaching but is eager to begin her career as a teacher.
If this year is her last, Escobedo said she will have no regrets about her career path.
“I think a lot of people — myself included — never expected me to make it to this level,” she said. “I didn’t get really fast until I got to college, and I didn’t make the national team until after I graduated from college. So the story that I have with swimming is a lot different from many others that professional swimmers and Olympians may have. I’m really proud of the accomplishments. I’m grateful to swimming for giving me opportunities for traveling, meeting new people, and just crazy experiences that many people won’t have to do in their lives. So it’s really cool.”