RCW: Necessary toughness
The pain doesn’t bother Sammie Schurig anymore. Its constant howl, emanating from her left shoulder, falls on deaf ears. For more than six years the pain has been a perpetual part of her life, making the hours in the water throughout her swimming career as much of a mental battle as it is a physical one. Her values, rooted in faith, family and football, drive her to keep battling every day and are why she has emerged as a team leader.
Schurig’s left shoulder injury, a degenerative condition called Teres Minor Tendonitis, will never subside until she stops swimming. Yet she has continued partaking in the sport she loves, knowing the pain will end alongside her career at Kansas. A few minutes learning about her background explain why and how she is able to keep on swimming.
A seven-year old Schurig rolls down the hills that adorn Washburn University’s Yager Stadium. Though she will later spend four years of her life climbing and descending the hills on the University of Kansas campus, shoulder pain is the last thing on the youngster’s mind. For now, the tickling blades of grass and accompanying dizziness at the bottom of the hill will occupy her while the cracking of helmets and sharp blows of a whistle fill the air. It is the sound of a new era of Washburn football, one built by her father, Craig Schurig.
The elder Schurig, in his career debut as a head football coach in 2002, had an almost insurmountable task ahead of him; instilling a winning culture into a team with only one winning season in the 13 years prior to his hiring. The hundreds of afternoons spent on the practice field, where his daughter and two younger sons would tag along, would leave an incredible impact on Sammie, who would soak up many of the life lessons Craig taught his players.
With a football coach for a dad, who also lettered four years as a defensive back at the Colorado School of Mines, and a mother who was a collegiate cheerleader, sports were destined to play a major role in the lives of the three Schurig children. Sammie did a little bit of everything; competing in gymnastics, volleyball, track, softball, basketball and soccer in addition to swimming.
“All of our kids growing up, we valued team sports and tried to get them involved in a lot of different activities,” Craig said. “She really enjoyed it, it seemed like she had a lot of fun competing and the socialization. We really encouraged it, she seemed to like the atmosphere and the competitiveness.”
The move to Topeka for her father’s new job from Pittsburg, Kansas, where he was an assistant for nine years, began Sammie’s swimming career. She started in summer league, competing for two years until a couple of summer league friends convinced her to join the year-round team with them. When she arrived to her first team practice, her friends were missing. Turns out they had second thoughts about the full-year commitment.
Sammie stayed on the team despite the absence of her comrades as well as her initial struggles to keep pace with her more-experienced teammates, who had already been training year-round for quite some time and were above of her skill level. Her persistence with the sport would pay dividends three years later, when she made the USA Swimming junior national cut at the age of 13, something the teammates lapping her at her first practice couldn’t boast. It was at this time that she started seriously considering swimming collegiately.
“A couple of girls from my club team, who were a lot older, would come back from their college teams and be super encouraging to me that I could go to college and get it paid for,” Sammie recalled. “They talked about how it was difficult, but they were thankful for the opportunity. I think it was just a lot of encouragement from the older girls on my team that made me realize that I can do this. I made it a goal of mine to swim in college.”
At this time, faith developed into a large part of Sammie’s life when she started attending a youth group in seventh grade. She encouraged her family to become more involved in the church. Her faith strengthened in high school as she started forming strong relationships with people who shared her values.
During her sophomore year of high school, Sammie’s plans met their biggest anchor, her left shoulder. She ignored the pain, pushing herself to the point where she could not move her arm through the water. The diagnosis of Teres Minor Tendonitis meant that the excruciating pain in her shoulder would have to be endured for the entirety of her swimming career. For the aspiring collegiate swimmer, that meant a six-year sentence of ice bags, pain medications and grueling morning swims that punished her body more than most.
“There’s no perfect formula for an injury. It stinks no matter what because you want to be doing what your teammates are doing,” Sammie said. “For athletes, stopping for injury can be seen as a sign of weakness and you don’t want that as an athlete. It’s hard when you’re in the middle of a set and you’re doing really well but you know you should stop because your shoulder hurts too much.”
Sammie leaned on many foundations during her adjustment to the injury, especially her faith, family and, yes, football. She wove three of the biggest components of her life into something that propped her up through her most difficult times.
“She just loved the sport. She didn’t want to give it up and she had the talent for it so we would talk as a family a lot,” Craig explained. “She used her faith then and it takes a lot of mental toughness to push yourself through that. Her background in seeing what went on with our team, in football a lot of kids have to overcome a lot of injuries, I think she grew from that. It’s a part of athletics when you commit to something and put a lot of time in it, it’s tough on your body and you have to be able to overcome it.”
A renewed determination to overcome her painful obstacle and join the college ranks in swimming led to Sammie being smarter with her training. With the help of her father she started weightlifting and learned to find the balance between pushing through an injury and knowing when to stop. Her dominance in the pool resumed and she closed out her high school career with five state titles. Colleges came calling. Though she seriously entertained swimming out-of-state, Sammie knew she still wanted to call Kansas home and to be close to her family. The University of Kansas was the only school in the Sunflower State she considered.
“I asked my parents where they would want me to go and both of them told me that selfishly they wanted me to come to KU and watch me swim and be a bigger part of my college experience,” Sammie remembered. “I thought I really owed it to my parents to go somewhere where they wanted me to go because they gave up a lot of time, commitment, money and effort to help me reach my goals in swimming. No other place that I visited had something (student-athlete support) so conveniently located on campus for student athletes. KU goes above and beyond for its student-athletes, which was really cool and really drew me here.”
Kansas allowed Sammie to be close to her family while building a new one. She still was able to go to almost all Washburn football games, where she continued her tradition of running onto the field after each game and greeting her father with a hug, win or lose.
Most of her hugs over the years have been celebratory; her father having led Washburn to 10-straight winning seasons, including two bowl wins, three playoff appearances and a conference championship. Craig owns the title of winningest coach in program history, using the same philosophies that made his daughter a collegiate swimmer to forge one of the most respected programs in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. Washburn football has become even more of a family affair with middle child Mitch Schurig joining the team as quarterback this year.
Kansas swimming and diving head coach Clark Campbell knew that, in Sammie, he recruited more than just depth in the freestyle and backstroke events. He added someone who knew the importance of team chemistry and could lead through her strong personal connections with her teammates.
“She’s very much a positive sparkplug on the team and definitely can brighten the day for the whole team just by her smile and being invested in each of her teammates in a positive way,” Campbell said.
Sammie has gained the trust of her teammates by proving her selflessness and devotion to the team. One of four elected senior captains for the 2016-17 season, she regularly uses the leadership skills she gained from observing her father’s practices at Washburn.
“One of her strengths as a captain is to be very inclusive of everyone and making everyone feel like they have a place on the team, which they do,” fellow senior captain and roommate Hannah Angell said. “She’s just kind of the mother and the nurturing one of us four captains.”
Sammie and Angell have formed an especially close relationship through their shared faith. Angell recently joined Sammie and her mother, Louisa Schurig, in the stands for a Washburn football game. Like Sammie, Louisa has helped form a family-like atmosphere for Kansas swimming, hosting the team around the holidays for a home-cooked meal. But during Washburn football games, the hospitality ends.
The two Schurigs had formed a pact with each other to tone down their intensity during games. The results this season, a special one during which Craig notched his 100th career win, have been a mixed bag. Angell witnessed Sammie leaving her chair multiple times during the game to prevent a verbal assault on her favorite target, the referees.
“She’s extremely into it, I was very surprised,” Angell said. “I had heard stories of how her mom and she are into it, but I didn’t know she was that into it. I think that’s really cool, it shows how close her family is.”
Sammie’s Kansas career, entering its final lap, has mirrored her father’s at Washburn in that both have had a hand in raising their respective programs to new heights. Kansas swimming is coming off its second top-two finish at the Big 12 meet in three years, its best stretch in recent program history. Sammie’s focus will be on the 200-yard backstroke, 200-yard and 500-yard freestyle and 800-yard freestyle relay. By now she has managed her training regimen well enough to minimize her pain, though her teammates are still impressed by her mental toughness that allows her to block out the pain.
“She is extremely mentally tough,” commented Angell. “Our trainer freshman and sophomore year said Sammie has one of the highest pain tolerances she had ever seen in an athlete. She is really tough. The fact that she’s pushed through the past six, seven years is insane.”
Sammie’s toughness stems from her passion for swimming and the greatest lesson she learned from her father; to pursue your passions with reckless abandon. She draws inspiration from Craig’s decision long ago to switch from an engineer’s salary to a volunteer assistant coach for his alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines, to pursue his true passion of football.
“Really put your heart and soul into something,” Craig said. “If you really like it, then put everything into it. You’ll enjoy it whether you win or lose. If you put all of your effort into something, you’re going to be satisfied with the result somewhere down the line. Maybe if you don’t win, that instant you won’t be satisfied, but there’s going to be satisfaction that comes out of that through the process that comes with the training and the work.”
Through the education that swimming afforded her at Kansas, Sammie has been able to explore what her next passion could be. The education major and journalism minor is still deciding on what to focus the next part of her life on, though she has many options. A talented writer, she could pursue a career in media, where she has gained experience through an internship with Kansas Athletics Communications, managing social media for the Student-Athlete Advisory Council and working on several of the student-run media productions on campus. Her time at KU has helped prepare her for graduation and the next challenges that come ahead.
In May, Sammie will find herself in a familiar spot. Descending down a hill, overlooking a football field, her shoulder pain the last thing on her mind. The fringes on her graduation tassel will tickle the side of her face and the accompanying jubilation at the bottom of the hill will occupy her while the clapping of hands and blows of the band fill the air. It is the sound of the end of an era in Sammie’s life, one that was built by faith, family and football.