When he was 3 years old, Emslie was thrown into the water.
His parents had caught him trying to climb the fence into their backyard pool. At that moment, Emslie’s mother, Lynette, motivated by the fear of her son drowning, decided to sign him up for swimming lessons.
The first thing Emslie’s instructor did was toss him into the water to see if he would sink or swim. It turned out Lynette’s fear of her son drowning was unfounded — he was a natural.
Emslie instinctively started kicking breaststroke to stay afloat.
“Years after this incident, I realized that breaststroke was his natural stroke,” Lynette said. “I was horrified at the moment she just tossed him into the water — but excited to see how he naturally figured it out.”
Despite only having his family’s 12.5-meter pool to train in, Emslie was ranked first in his age group in South Africa in breaststroke time when he was 11. He led his age group every year through secondary school.
“He was competitive and had a lot of self-discipline from a young age,” Lynette said.
Emslie played a number of sports as a child — including rugby, field hockey, tennis and water polo — but he choose to focus on swimming after it earned him a scholarship to Rondebosch Boys’ High School, one of Cape Town’s most prestigious secondary schools.
For Emslie, however, this scholarship represented one small step in a much larger journey. Inspired by his compatriot’s successes in collegiate athletics, Emslie dreamed of going to the United States to further his swimming career.
“I was the youngest guy on my training squad and all the people before me came to the States,” Emslie said. “You believe that’s the route you have to take.”
“It really settled in in eighth or ninth grade; I said, ‘OK, this is exactly what I want to do.’ And that was the turning point.”
After finishing high school, Emslie took a gap year to train before applying to colleges in the United States. He knew the times he needed to race to earn scholarships — and he worked tirelessly to meet them.
Though he was one of South Africa’s brightest young talents, Emslie failed to garner any recruiting attention from American schools. When it came to picking a new home, Emslie was on his own.
His main concern was finding somewhere with a climate similar to South Africa. He had two states in mind: Florida and California.
His first choice was Miami, where he applied and was accepted. But after realizing the school didn’t have a men’s swimming program, Emslie chose the next-closest school to Miami: Indian River State College.
Unbeknownst to him, Emslie had committed to a junior college.
“I had no idea,” he said. “But you can put in the work there just as much as you can here.”
“I didn’t regret a thing about it.”
Though the junior college experience didn’t exactly match Emslie’s American dream, it was exactly what he needed.
In 2014-15, his first season in college, Emslie struggled with a shoulder problem and had trouble adjusting from the 25- and 50-meter pools of South Africa to the 25- and 50-yard American counterparts.
“Coming here and racing in a 23-meter pool — which is 25 yards — everything gets thrown out ... ” he said. “Stroke counts, everything ... It’s just different.”
But the small and unified swim team at Indian River made Emslie feel at home and kept his focus away from the differences in the pool size.
This focus paid off in Emslie’s sophomore year, as he shaved two seconds off his 100 time and won NJCAA national titles in the 200-yard individual medley and the 50-, 100- and 200-yard breaststrokes.
Emslie’s dominant performance as a sophomore had Division-I coaches lining up to recruit him for his final two years of eligibility.
“Freshman year was just an adjustment,” Emslie said. “Sophomore year, I was under pressure to get a scholarship to go somewhere else D-I ... That really drove me to perform as well as I did.”
When North Carolina head coach Rich DeSelm heard of Emslie through assistant coach Duncan Sherrard, he knew that he had to pursue the electric South African.
“His physical attributes and his techniques are things that really help him excel,” DeSelm said. “But the competitive fire that he has on top of it is definitely an added bonus.”
Emslie scheduled five recruiting trips. UNC was his fourth.
After he left Chapel Hill, Emslie canceled his final visit. He knew where he belonged.
Though he has only been at North Carolina for little more than a semester, Emslie has made an immediate impact on the Tar Heels (1-4, 0-2 ACC), who travel to Raleigh to face N.C. State on Friday before hosting Duke this Saturday at 1 p.m.
He already holds the second fastest men’s 100-yard breaststroke time in UNC history, which he set in the fourth meet of the season.
“He’s a great teammate,” said fellow junior Henry Campbell. “He works really hard. He’s a very intense competitor, he’s very passionate about winning ...”
“There’s a lot of energy to his training and passion in the way he competes.”
This passion is what sets Emslie apart.
“I love racing because it kind of gives me a high that other people would get off of other things,” he said. “I love having that adrenaline rush before the race.”
It is in these moments, through this rush of adrenaline, that Emslie simultaneously transforms into someone different and, at the same time, becomes exactly who he really is. This seemingly paradoxical process is what keeps the South African going.
And it’s what makes him great.