September 7, 2021

More than half a million living former students have walked Texas A&M University’s hallowed campus, called themselves Aggies and since ventured to make their mark on the world. Every day, they make headlines, hoist championship trophies, lead their industries and contribute in big and small ways toward bettering others’ lives. Whether through fortune, hard-nosed determination or both, these five former students have found themselves in especially unique situations and circumstances. Each has their own magnificent answer to one simple question: What does it feel like to…

...go to space?

Shortly after receiving his doctorate degree in computer science from Texas A&M University, Dr. Steve Swanson '98 was selected as an astronaut for NASA. 

Photo credit: NASA

The sun was sinking on a lovely summer evening in Merritt Island, Florida, on June 8, 2007. Dr. Steve Swanson ’98 was suited up to launch, but he was skeptical. NASA had pushed his mission’s launch date back before, and any slight variation from optimal weather conditions could delay it again. “It’s probably about a 30% chance we can launch on a given day, but we had to be ready,” Swanson said. When mission control finally gave the green light, the adrenaline started pumping. This was it.

The flight eventually smoothed out, but it was a bumpy ride at first. “There’s a huge amount of initial acceleration during liftoff,” he said. “The solid rocket boosters deliver about 7 million pounds of thrust for a 4.5-million-pound vehicle. By the time you clear the launch tower, you’re already going 100 miles per hour. About two minutes in, you’re going five times the speed of sound.” Swanson acted on his training and focused on his cabin instruments, sneaking an occasional glance out the window to confirm that yes, this was happening.

Before he ever dreamt of space, Swanson grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where the surrounding Rockies rendered him an avid outdoorsman. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering physics and computer science from the University of Colorado and Florida Atlantic University before pursuing a career among the stars. After securing a position at NASA, Swanson enrolled at Texas A&M to get his doctorate in computer science. Just three months after he walked the stage in May 1998, he received the call from NASA confirming his selection to become an astronaut.

Swanson spent 195 days in space over three missions, most of them aboard the International Space Station. He went on five spacewalks, the first leaving a lasting impression. “I left the airlock, and it was dark outside,” he said. “Everything was comfortable enough, and I got up to where I was going to work, but then the sun came up. Suddenly, I got this view of Earth from 250 miles in the air, and the vastness of it overloaded my brain for a minute. I wish more people could go to space. From up there, it’s obvious that we’re living in one big ecosystem, and we are all one people.”

…take YouTube by storm?

It was a standard video shoot for the Dude Perfect guys. They had an empty college basketball court, a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records and an iron will to break as many records as they could before their time was up. After watching his teammates break some impressive records, Cody Jones ’10 (affectionately known as “The Tall Guy”) stepped up to try and make the world’s longest blindfolded shot. Usually, a trick like that could take dozens of attempts. Jones tied the blindfold and chunked the ball as far as he could to test for distance. “I had no idea where it was headed,” he said. “Suddenly, the guys started yelling and freaking out. I was like, ‘Why are you cheering?’” Miraculously, he had swished his first shot 71 feet from the basket.
 

The final video with Jones’ shot racked up more than 123 million views—an unreachable figure for most YouTube content producers, but business as usual for the Dude Perfect channel, which boasts more than 56.6 million subscribers. Before they were a sports entertainment powerhouse, Dude Perfect was a humble group of Aggie roommates trying to impress their friends and family with trick shots into their backyard hoop. But when their first videos made serious traction online (including one of a basketball shot from the third deck of Kyle Field), the team set out on a journey that has culminated in celebrity collaborations, a cable TV show and a national live tour. 

A notable basketball prospect in high school Jones passed up offers to play college basketball but chose to follow in the footsteps of his 24 Aggie family members and enroll at Texas A&M. Playing pickup ball at the Rec helped him unwind and meet new people, including Cory ’10 and Coby Cotton ’10, who mentioned needing a roommate just as Jones had started apartment hunting. A week later, he met their roommate, Tyler Toney ’11, and their fates were intertwined.

Maggie Malone '16 was a member of the Texas A&M Foundation's Maroon Coats organization and also competed in the javelin throw during the 2020 games in Tokyo.

True to their roots, Dude Perfect represents their alma mater with pride and has collaborated with notable Aggies like Johnny Manziel ’15, Mike Evans ’15, Ryan Swope ’13 and Ryan Tannehill ’10. Other famous collaborators include Aaron Rodgers, Tim McGraw, the Harlem Globetrotters and Serena Williams. “She was one of the most fun people I’ve ever hung out with,” Jones said of Williams. After all these years since he walked away from basketball to attend the school he loved, he feels nothing but gratitude. He is just as much in awe of the dividends his decision paid. “I’ve never looked back.” 

…compete in the Olympics?

Most days, Maggie Malone ’16 hits her alarm clock at 6 a.m. and gears up for lifts at 6:30. In the gym, she pushes herself enough to build arm strength but goes easy enough to retain her agility. Afterward, she clocks in at her day job at a consulting firm, where she treads through the usual slew of meetings and emails from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. She has no time to kick her feet up when she clocks out, either; each day ends with a three-hour practice, dinner and an early bedtime. It is a demanding routine, but Malone doesn’t just train for herself. She trains to represent her home state of Nebraska, her Aggie family and her country.

Her event is the javelin throw. “It’s probably one of the most unique track and field events,” Malone said. “It’s not the shot put, which focuses on pure strength, or the sprinting events, which focus on speed and explosiveness. You have to have both and execute in one fluid motion.” She had never picked up the 1.3-pound spear in high school—she played volleyball, basketball, track and softball instead. During her freshman year at the University of Nebraska, though, a coach noticed Malone’s talent with the javelin while she trained for a heptathlon event. She continued refining her skills after she transferred to Texas A&M.

“I think I was destined to be an Aggie,” she proclaimed. Under legendary head coach Pat Henry and venerated assistant Juan De La Garza’s tutelage, Malone shined throughout her time in maroon and white. She became the first female javelin thrower to win an NCAA track and field championship and Olympic Trials title in the same season. Though her first trip to the Olympics at Rio 2016 ended at the qualification round, she came back swinging to reach the finals during the 2020 games in Tokyo. Leading up to the games, she even broke the U.S. women’s record twice in a month’s span with throws of 66.82 and 67.39 meters.

On the day of her event, Malone rested her body and refocused her mind. “I do a lot of meditation, and it’s made a huge difference in how I regulate my nerves,” she said. A devout Christian, she prays before and during competition to keep calm. After an anxiety-inducing final against 11 international competitors, she unfortunately left Tokyo without a medal. “I was deeply sad. I felt like I had missed my shot,” she said. Nevertheless, with the support of her family, hometown and Aggie community behind her, she is already hitting the reset button. After all, her real competition does not start during the next summer games in Paris in 2024. It begins every morning.

Brittany Tomlinson '19 took her "15 minutes of fame" and made it into a career. Her humor and outgoing personality have earned her an avid social media following.

Photo credit: Emily Malan

…go viral overnight?

Growing up with the internet, Brittany Tomlinson ’19 (also known by her stage name, Brittany Broski) knew the modern “15 minutes of fame” was often closer to 15 seconds. Still, she could not have predicted her own rapid rise from obscurity would result from a spontaneous taste test she filmed alone in her kitchen.

In the viral video, hosted on the short-form video platform TikTok, Tomlinson takes a few tentative sniffs of kombucha, the ancient fermented tea native to China notable for its pungent, acquired taste. She initially protests at the smell but quickly collects herself, takes a bold sip, recoils in disgust, cocks her head as if it’s growing on her and seems to give up on liking it before changing her mind again—all in about eight seconds. In a matter of days, the video accumulated millions of views, with Tomlinson’s rapid changes in expression giving way to thousands of memes.

At first, the attention was exciting, but it quickly came at a cost. Tomlinson had graduated a year before and was working at a local commercial bank when the clip (then dubbed the “Kombucha Girl” video) went viral. Tomlinson’s newfound fame (and the onslaught of memes with her likeness) made her supervisors anxious, and she lost her job a few weeks later. “I was humiliated and worried,” Tomlinson said. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to work at Chuy’s.’” Her waitressing career never came to fruition, though. A week after she was fired, a talent agency flew Tomlinson out to Los Angeles, and her life has not been the same since.

Leveraging her on-screen charisma, quick wit and avid social media following, Tomlinson has produced a steady stream of similar viral videos, paying her bills through sponsored content. When she first arrived at Texas A&M years before, she chose to major in communication with hopes of someday writing a Super Bowl advertisement. In 2019, her dreams came true “in a very Brittany way” when she starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Sabra hummus.

“When that first video went viral, I was fully prepared for everyone to move on,” she said. Today, Tomlinson is open to anything, and she’s not scared of going back to a “big girl job” if need be. But before then, she dreams of hosting an online talk show and lending her voice to a major animated film. “I like the idea of people remembering my voice as something that made them laugh. That’s all I could ever want.”

…appear on Jeopardy?

Tucker Pope ’15 first watched “Jeopardy!” for the same reason most do: It was on TV in the background. He fared well at the game from his living room but did not consider auditioning until his best friend from high school made an appearance on the show. “She was like, ‘You could totally do this too,’” Pope said. “I went from never thinking about it to making a point of getting on the show.” Getting on is a three-step process. Potential contestants first take an online quiz. Those with enough trivia savvy receive an invitation to audition in person. Finally, after playing a mock game, they wait for the fateful phone call telling them they will appear on air.

Tucker Pope '15 was runner-up in the 2014 "Jeopardy!" College Championship tournament. Pope earned $50,000 and finished a business administration degree from Texas A&M a year after being on the show.

Pope made the hard choice to skip Fish Camp for his first audition in New Orleans, which proved fruitless. Another audition a year later in Nashville, however, secured Pope’s spot on the show. Six months later, he received the call telling him he would represent Texas A&M in the 2014 College Championship tournament. “I was just stunned,” he said. “I was about to go to class, and I ended up skipping to tell all my friends and family.” Producers flew Pope out to Culver City, California, where “Jeopardy!” is taped on a Sony Pictures Studios lot. 

The on-set experience was nerve-wracking. “Nothing can prepare you for being on stage and under the lights with Alex Trebek reading the questions to you,” Pope said. He focused on the board as much as he could, buzzing in with gunslinger speed. “We couldn’t buzz in until Trebek finished reading each question, so we had to predict the exact moment he reached the end of a sentence.” Pope’s trivia acumen and lightning-fast reaction time got him to the tournament’s final round, but a slip-up during Final Jeopardy kept him just shy of gold. “I still wince at any mention of the island of Gibraltar.”

Despite his disappointment at finishing runner-up, Pope still went home with $50,000 in winnings and a dependable icebreaker story. A year after his episodes aired, he graduated from Texas A&M with a bachelor’s degree in business administration before earning his master’s and M.D. from Texas Tech University and The University of Texas, respectively. As for the money, Pope used some of it to study abroad but saved the rest until very recently, when he and his wife bought a house in Atlanta. “The best part about it was meeting the other competitors,” he said. “We still keep in touch and visit each other all the time. Meeting those awesome people that I never would have had a chance in the world to meet otherwise was an invaluable part of the experience.”

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