Tragedy and time off have put life in better perspective for standout Anchorage swimmer

·5 min read

Jun. 7—Tavner Wisdom was a sophomore at Service High School in 2018 when he experienced what was at that point the highlight of his athletic career. Less than 24 hours later, he was suffering through the greatest tragedy of his young life.

A day after he helped lead the Cougars boys swimming team to its first Alaska state championship in more than two decades, his mother, Teresa Ann Caterinichio, died.

"You go from like 'I'm invincible, we just won the state title, we're the best in the state,' " Wisdom said. "You're riding the high, and then it's snap back to reality."

He described the loss as a plummeting feeling that is still hard to put into words.

"It's like having 10 tons of bricks shoved on your back," Wisdom said.

It was the hardest moment of his life, but he now views it as a source of strength and affirms that he can "bounce back from anything else" that life throws at him.

Wisdom said his mother was his biggest advocate and supporter during his swimming career. She insisted on him learning to swim for fear of him drowning in case he fell off the family boat.

"She was a swimmer herself, and she didn't really push me toward swimming but she was one of the big reasons we started swimming," Wisdom said.

Caterinichio was a standout swimmer in her own right. The graduate of West High in 1986 was close friends and teammates with Alaska state Sen. Mia Costello, who qualified for the Olympic Trials in 1988.

Wisdom's father, Scott, wanted to make sure that if they wanted to continue learning and competing that it was for their own reasons, not because it was something they think their mom would want.

"Right after that I went to the boys and said 'Hey, if you're going to swim, it's because it's what you want to do,' " Scott Wisdom said.

Tavner is the eldest of their children and has shown the most devotion to the sport, and success followed.

"There have been several points in Tav's life where he has had to make hard choices and overcome situations and stay true to his goal," Scott Wisdom said.

That dedication resulted in Tavner developing into one of the best swimmers to come out of the state in recent history. The breaststroke is his best individual event, and he has broken state records in both the 100 meters and 200 meters for the 14-15 and 17-18 age groups.

He finished first in both events at the 2022 Alaska Junior Olympic Championships that were held April 21-24. It was his first time competing since recovering from having the flu and then bronchitis that caused him to perform poorly in two out of state meets in Arizona and Utah.

"I did surprisingly well considering the shape I was in and how much training I had in the two weeks leading up to it," Tavner Wisdom said.

He was named Athlete of the Year in Alaska for boys swimming by USA Today and was a part of three championship teams during his time in high school.

"Alaska isn't a state that is known for its swimming, but I think in light of recent years, we've had a few fast swimmers come out," Tavner Wisdom said.

[Seward erupts in joy as hometown swimmer Lydia Jacoby wins Olympic gold medal]

Despite all he had accomplished, Wisdom didn't go to college immediately after graduating from Service in 2021, opting to take a year off because he didn't feel like he was in the right state of mind to handle everything that the transition would entail.

"I don't think I had any sense of the direction I needed to go into college," Tavner Wisdom said.

One of the biggest reasons was the pandemic. He also said he and his father were late to the recruiting process and that he needed more time to mature.

"I was just too immature to go to college," Tavner Wisdom said. "I don't think I had any sense of the direction that I needed to go to college."

The idea was initially proposed by his father and while Tavner was disappointed at first, he ultimately agreed to do it.

"It was difficult for him to watch his buddies, friends, and peers go off to college," Scott Wisdom said.

Tavner got a job as a lifeguard that was originally supposed to be part-time so he could keep up his training.

"I got a job, and that helped a lot in boosting my morality and work ethic," Tavner Wisdom said. "Now, going into college, I know what it takes to be an athlete and to train at the higher level."

Tavner recently signed his national letter of intent to swim at Division I University of Arizona and said the communication he had with the coaching staff solidified the decision.

Other schools that showed moderate to minimal interest touched base with him sporadically and were content with communicating via text.

"University of Arizona was very personable with the way they approach their athletes or how they approached me at least," Tavner Wisdom said.

His dad was initially against the idea of his son going to a Division I program, citing concerns about athletics being the primary focus over academics.

"I was more keen on him going to a smaller school, a Division II or Division III type of school," Scott Wisdom said.

He didn't voice any of those concerns when they went to Arizona to visit the campus and was "blown away by the academic services" that are provided by the school to "ensure that their athletes are doing well in school."

The feeling of family-and-team-above-all philosophy his son embodies is what he thinks Arizona head swimming coach Augie Busch liked most about him in the recruiting process.

"While swimming can be a very individual sport, in college it is a team sport, and you do what you have to do to help the team," Scott Wisdom said.

Tavner believes his mother would be proud of how far he has come and what he has accomplished as a swimmer and even prouder of the man he has become.

"The maturity in which he talked to the coach blew me away, and I think that is part of why he got the offer he did," Scott Wisdom said.