People who’ve encountered swimmer Raena Eldridge, the 2020 Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year, say she is thoughtful, compassionate, goal-driven and interested in making a positive impact in the world.
From the first time she arrived at Texas A&M University after graduating from Rockwall High School in 2015, Eldridge wanted to exceed expectations. Whether it was engaging in community service beyond what was asked of her or picking demanding courses and adding a second major, she never backed down.
The daughter of Eric and Wendy Eldridge was an eight-time state medalist for Rockwall High School in swimming and was the 2012 state champion in the 50-meter freestyle. She was also a National Merit Scholar and graduated seventh in her class.
“It helped that I was very interested in the subjects, and when you’re interested in something it’s so much easier to do,” says Eldridge, 23. “Also, A&M athletics brings resources to us. They have study halls, computer lab study rooms and tutors available — all the resources you need to succeed.
“My teammates were also pursuing pretty intense majors, like engineering or other STEM majors, and when you’re surrounded by a team that’s pursuing excellence in everything that they do, it’s pretty easy to hop on board and do the same. My teammates were my best study buddies.”
Chris Barttelbort, assistant athletic director, academic services, says Eldridge made it clear early on that she wanted to pursue graduate school after earning her bachelor’s degree. Barttelbort also serves as Eldridge’s scholastic supervisor. Having spent five years at Texas A&M because of a torn ACL her freshman year, Eldridge had the time to focus on what science-related field that would be, ultimately deciding on veterinary school.
With only 33 veterinary schools in the country, admissions are highly competitive, but Eldridge received five acceptances and will be attending North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine (ranked fourth in the nation).
“She recognized that she was going to need other things beside grades and test scores on her resume to differentiate herself from other candidates,” Barttelbort says. “We have a lot of community service you can do through the athletic department, but she also brought things outside of that.”
Eldridge started her own non-profit organization, SPLASH, Inc., which gives free swimming lessons to low income kids, and she also participates in a faith-based organization, Save Our Streets Ministry, where she mentors elementary schoolgirls. She’s taken on leadership roles within the athletic department, including being a team captain for the swim team the last two years.
In the pool, Eldridge hit her stride these past two years, qualifying for the NCAA championships in individual events for the first time this year. She received multiple Southeastern Conference and all-America honors.
She received Texas A&M’s Bill Erwin Scholar Athlete of the Year Award in 2019, given for the highest level of academics and athletics balanced by any female athlete on campus.
“She’s very driven, very determined and very loyal,” says Tanica Jamison, associate head coach of swimming and diving. “She’s always been someone that her teammates could count on.
“If there was anything the head coach or I challenged her with, she always welcomed those challenges and was open to our suggestions on how to improve,” she adds. “She’s someone that will listen, someone who’s confident in who she is, someone who’s willing to help others.”
Humble, Eldridge thanks the coaching staff for seeing her potential, when she was concerned whether she could measure up to Texas A&M’s fast times. “I improved every year because of [head coach] Steve Bultman’s training and his ability to see in me more than I was able to see in myself,” she says.
Her results in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle at the 2019 Phillips 66 National Championships earned her a spot in the Olympic trials, but with the Olympics postponed to 2021, she has announced her retirement from swimming.
Growing up participating in club swimming, Eldridge saw the sport as individualistic. The university’s swim program emphasized teamwork and that gave her not only best friends, but a sense of unity. Representing her university also pushed Eldridge to excel.
“To know that everything I do is going to represent … the school as a whole, gave me purpose, drive and the sense of doing something bigger than just me and my own accomplishments,” she says. “If I was doing everything for myself to improve my chances for [vet school] it would have been a lot less meaningful. Having this team, having the training and the competitions, it gave me the meaning that I needed. Through that, I’ve learned so much that prepares me for vet school: discipline, work ethic, leadership, compassion. It taught me things I needed that I don’t think I would have gotten elsewhere.”
The Arthur Ashe Jr. award is named for the tennis champion, who was known for his love of tennis and commitment to education. He died in 1993.