By Greg Bach
Sports broadcaster and former University of North Carolina swimming standout Molly Sullivan’s love of sports was ignited under the blazing Las Vegas sun of her youth.
It was there, in the driveway of the family home, where she polished her basketball skills.
There were hours of dribbling.
And lofting shots.
And pure joy being immersed in a sport she loved.
“As an only child, my father built a defender cut out of wood that he would post up in our driveway,” Sullivan fondly recalls. “I wanted to play nonstop.”
And at age 8 a life-shifting moment arrived when she discovered racing in the swimming pool.
“I was hooked from Day One because I love to compete and I love interacting with people,” she says. “That’s what I looked forward to – every day – for 15 years as a swimmer. It was the competition and the relationships. Having fun and competing are not mutually exclusive. They should coexist in a healthy environment.”
Sullivan loved the water and her passion for chasing improvement was relentless.
“The water has always just felt like home to me,” she says. “Swimming and basketball have been interconnected throughout my journey.”
Her teen swimming years were punctuated with fast times, and numerous titles and accolades.
A four-year varsity letter winner for her high school swim team, she was a three-time Nevada high school state champion in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle; the 1997 Junior National Champion in the 1650 freestyle (that’s a grueling nearly mile-long swim); and a member of the national championship Santa Clara Swim Team in both 1996 and 1997.
Those performances earned induction into Nevada’s Swimming Hall of Fame.
Amid all the applause and accolades of her prep career, Sullivan never forgot to enjoy the journey that so many of today’s young athletes miss out on for all sorts of reasons.
And success meant more to her than simply how many times she stood atop the podium.
“Define success,” Sullivan says. “In my world, success is making choices that would make my daughter proud, remembering credibility is anchored by integrity. Being able to look at myself in the mirror knowing my compass has always pointed me in a direction that expected me to work hard, to be honest and to help others. In other words: Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together. That’s the Carolina Way, which means something different to everybody. The keystone of Coach Dean Smith’s philosophy suggests that excellence is fueled by people with a focus on the process rather than the result.”
On her recruiting trip to the University of North Carolina, as she explored where to take her swimming talents, she had the chance to attend a basketball game and “discovered that I was born to be a Tar Heel,” she says.
She was the 1999 ACC champion in the 1650-yard freestyle; qualified for multiple NCAA Championships; and closed out her collegiate career with the fastest time in school history in the 1650.
“Now 17 years removed from my final lap, it’s the memories outside of the pool that I cherish most,” she says.
Sullivan also competed in the 2000 Olympic Swimming Trials. “I never felt pressure at the Olympic Trials,” she says. “I approached it as a celebration and an opportunity to learn.”
Now, there’s a message for young athletes of all sports to grab onto when the stakes are high and the learning opportunities endless.
When Sullivan peels back the curtain to her childhood, she sees parents who were present and engaged.
And she’s forever grateful for their influence.
“Win or lose, my parents provided unconditional love and support,” she says. “Because of that, I’ve always responded well to substantive feedback. I crave it.”
During races, her parents would remind her to keep her head down.
“At times, I would look around in the middle of a race to see how I was stacking up against the rest of the field,” she says. “But when I kept my head down and went to work, that’s when the magic happened.”
And the post-meet car rides home are forever seared in her memory: her parents inserted a foam bed with a mini tv in the family Suburban so that she could watch her races on a VCR while listening to The Beach Boys.
“The stories, man,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Currently working for the Philadelphia Eagles as a television host and reporter, Sullivan has reported on some of the biggest sporting events through the years, including the NBA playoffs, college basketball and football, and boxing, among others.
She recognizes that her work ethic, and confidence to go in front of the camera, were certainly enhanced thanks to her participation in sports.
“It was youth sports where I learned discipline, perseverance and composure, the value of leadership, and unwavering confidence,” Sullivan says. “It can all be traced back to my experience in youth sports where I acquired the strength to do what’s right and to never let go of what matters most. It all makes sense through lifelong training that starts when you first see the sun shine and the water beckon.”
That’s the power of sports – and Molly Sullivan is thankful for the ride.
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