The following is the second of a three-part article series sharing about the success of the Mikesell siblings. Claire, Paige, and Luke have all excelled in swimming, school, and life. This series will document each Mikesell’s rise through swimming, the people who have inspired and aided their success, and the milestones and hurdles they accomplished and faced along the way.
CLEARFIELD – When someone becomes a 20-time All American, it feels almost criminal to title an article about “self-discovery”. Paige Mikesell didn’t just wake up one day and decide that she was great at swimming in the middle of a legendary career. But what she understood was that she was much more than a great athlete. Her worth in life would never just be because she was a record setter, a state champion, a national champion, or one of the greatest athletes in the history of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).
Swimming is a big part of who she is, sure. But swimming and Paige Mikesell are not mutually exclusive. Swimming is still here, even with her retirement as a competitor. Her life is also continuing, and she’s stepped into the role of coach and educator over the last three months. It’s a beautiful thing to hear such a celebrated athlete acknowledge this and feel that release of anxiety and pressure leave their being.
At the end of the day, people love Paige Mikesell. Not because she’s fast in the water. Not because she did her part to put Clearfield Lady Bison and IUP women’s swimming on the map around the state and nation either. But because she’s a hard-working young woman who showcased her dedication to her craft both near and far. No matter the result of a meet or race, it never defined her life or how much time and attention she gave to optimize the results. Her lord and savior, Jesus Christ, coaches, friends, teammates, and many family members were proud of her beyond any outcome. As time went on, she became proud of herself even more than in her younger years. All because she gave her best to something she loved. The rest that follows is like gravy on poutine or sprinkles on a cake; it’s extra and joyous.
Enough of this soapbox stuff. Paige truly was what many young people would call a “dawg” in the water. She had the drive to be great, and it was one of her biggest blessings and also the most frustrating of attributes as a competitor. That quest to be the best and fastest in every event and race she competed in is what made her great and also caused so much internal struggle along the way. But through it all, she walked away from swimming earlier this year, proud of what she accomplished. After hearing a laundry list of accomplishments and how many people she had in her corner along the way, it’s easy to see why she would feel proud.
Her career started at five as a youth swimmer at the Clearfield Community Pool and the Clearfield YMCA. From an early age, there were glimpses of her natural ability in the water. But it never really clicked until middle school that her talents may take her somewhere special in swimming. There was also the potential to be a successful distance runner as she quickly noticed her talents in cross country and track when she entered middle school. But she knew swimming was the sport she loved the deepest, and she dedicated much of her high school days to becoming the best she could be. Although, she did still become a District 9 individual champion in cross country and a state qualifier.
But swimming stayed top of mind. She became a four-time YMCA National Championships qualifier and even won an individual state championship in the 100-yard butterfly as a senior. Though a state title is impressive on its own, Mikesell only practiced improving for around two full seasons leading up to this state title. In her junior season, she finished as the state runner-up in the event and knew she would have a great chance to capture state gold in her final high school season. Throughout the year, she was ranked first in the state and went into the state meet seeded first. After capturing state gold and locating her family and teammates, Mikesell was overcome with emotions. “It was such a bittersweet moment. I was nervous going into the event. Having that hard work pay off and helping to get Clearfield swimming recognized was a special feeling. Especially after just getting out-touched the previous season.”
But her career was far from over after this state title. It was merely just the beginning. During her recruiting process, it was difficult for her to decide on where to go to school. She had garnered interest from various programs at all three levels of the NCAA. However, she decided to stay close to home and become an IUP Crimson Hawk. It was a decision that helped her to reunite with her sister at the college level after Claire transferred from Ohio University. But bigger than that, she felt more at home because of the connection she and her parents had built with coaches Chris Villa and Adam Stoner.
Though it took some time to make her final decision to come to IUP, there’s little debate that she made the right call in continuing her academic and athletic career there. Not only did she team up with her sister Claire again, but she took the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) by storm for five straight seasons. She was named PSAC Freshman of the Year, IUP Women’s Freshman Athlete of the Year, a five-time All-PSAC performer, broke three freshman program records, and took part in the NCAA Division II Swimming and Diving National Championships for the first of five times in her storied career.
It was just the beginning of what was to come as for a career that would include 29 All-PSAC distinctions, 14 PSAC titles, 20 All-American awards, and an individual national championship in 2021 in the 200 freestyle. The work to get there was worth it in many regards, but it also brought so many feelings of being overwhelmed. “I really struggled in my first season of college because I put in so much work and it didn’t work out how I wanted it to. Luckily, through each season, I grew in my awareness, confidence, and faith. I realized it was bigger than my performances and I had earned the abilities I had in order to spread the sport of swimming and my faith to others.”
Her best overall season came in 2020-21 as a junior. Despite COVID-19 restrictions and a unique season, she stayed locked in and had the opportunity to be teammates with Claire and Luke at the same time for the first time in her career. It was a season in which she became a seven-time All-PSAC, a seven-time PSAC champion, a seven-time All-American, became the PSAC Pete Nevins Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year, was named CSC Academic All-American First Team, was named the PSAC Championships Most Outstanding Swimmer, was named the PSAC Swimmer of the Year, helped the Crimson Hawks win their first PSAC team title in women’s swimming since 1999, and became an NCAA individual champion in the 200 freestyle.
Interestingly, her national championship was secured with her as a spectator and her not competing in the finals like in a traditional NCAA championship. The decision was made to take the top time from any of the heats to crown a national champion and not to have preliminaries and a final heat. With her not being in the first heat of the event, she had the chance to see the top heat compete to surpass her time, which was faster than any preliminary times entering the final heat. Through all the heats, she watched and wondered if her mark would stand. Luckily for her, it did. “People were looking at us and wondering why we were going crazy,” she explained. Nobody realized but us that it happened. I will never forget that feeling or those moments. It was one of the best feelings of my entire life. To have both of my siblings there as well competing was so special.”
Even more interesting, the PSAC held their swimming and diving championships after nationals in 2021. So even after being crowned an individual national champion and becoming a seven-time All American, she still had work to do in order to help the Crimson Hawks win their first PSAC title this century. She won four individual events and helped the program win four relays during this meet to win this coveted title for the IUP program. “Our goals were to just have fun and swim fast. It was coming after nationals and just a weird season overall. The men’s and women’s PSAC championships were separated, so it was not quite the same as other years in terms of the atmosphere, either. But it was a great way to cap off a special season.”
Though Paige Mikesell chased and fought to win another national championship, her efforts came up short of capturing the ultimate goal once again. However, she cemented her legacy as one of the best athletes in the history of IUP. She became a 10-time All-American over her last two seasons, earned 11 more All-PSAC distinctions, won two more PSAC individual titles, and was named CSC Academic All-American DII Team Member of the Year for the 2022-23 season. She completed her degree in health and physical education (7-12) in May 2022 and a master’s in athletic coaching in August. Adding two degrees in five years is just a cherry on top of what was an incredible five years as a Crimson Hawk. Though she’s moved on from competing, the competition hasn’t gone too far.
It’s now time to pay it forward to the next generation of swimmers similarly to how great coaches like former Clearfield Area swimming coach Jackie Morrison, IUP Head Swimming and Diving Coach Chris Villa, and IUP Associate Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Adam Stoner paid it forward to her. Through all her successes and even failures in her mind, she has the experience of helping young people know how to handle the successes and adversity that may come from being dedicated to their sport. It may have taken years of hard work and continual self-discovery to get here, but in the end, it was unquestionably worth it to continue making an impact on a sport that’s given her so much over the years.