Courtesy of Kristy Kowal and Julia Galan
We’ve all heard the old adage:
“…if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.
It’s a phrase that is meant to encourage and inspire us to pursue our dreams despite initial failure. In the swimming world, however, few have embraced that philosophy more wholeheartedly than Sydney 2000 Olympic silver medalist Kristy Kowal of Reading, Pennsylvania. On her first try at the 1996 Olympic Trials, Kristy missed making the team by 17/100th of a second. Her devastation was splashed onto the cover of Swimming World Magazine for the world to see and labeled “the Agony”, placed next to the elation of 2nd place finisher Kristine Quance, representing “the Ecstasy”. For a 17-year-old, that publicity would be enough to push anyone to hang up the goggles and swimsuit forever. But not for Kristy Kowal. She kept the magazine and used it to keep motivated for the next four years. When the 2000 Olympic Trials finally arrived, the atmosphere was initially one of déjà vu. Kristy missed qualifying for her first event, the 100 breaststroke, by a mere 1/100th of a second. Incredibly, she managed to dust herself off and keep her mind off of this major setback. Two days later, on her third try, Kristy qualified for the Olympics in the 200 breaststroke. The perseverance and determined attitude paid off in a major way at the Olympics as well when Kristy went on to win the silver medal in Sydney, Australia. Most recently, her high school, college and international swimming accomplishments earned her a spot in the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, where she will be inducted in October 2015.
While most of the focus on our greatest athletes centers on their results and overall accomplishments, or their Olympic story, we don’t always get to go behind the scenes and hear the tale of their journey to the height of success. Behind the scenes is exactly where we are going to go with Kristy today. Below, her story – in her own words.
It all started out with “mommy and me” classes at our local pool when I was about 9 months old. My mother, who has always been uncomfortable in the water, was determined that my brother and I would grow up with a different experience, and a positive relationship with swimming. So, I grew up going to the pool every day in the summertime. When I was 5, my brother and I were signed up for swim team and I have never looked back since. While I wasn’t the best swimmer, I didn’t think too much about results and was just happy to be around my friends splashing up and down the lane.
When I was around 8 years old, I watched the Summer Olympics on television for the first time. I remember being absolutely amazed that people were actually able to SWIM on TV! It blew my mind – I wanted to do that! And, of course, I immediately told my mom that I, too, wanted to go to the Olympics one day. I’m not even quite sure if I could make a full lap of swimming without stopping at this point. But I KNEW that was what I wanted to do. And, bless her heart, despite my not being particularly talented at that age, my mother never once discouraged me or told me that I was not good enough to fulfill my dream.
I began my swimming career as a freestyler because that was initially the only stroke I could successfully swim for the entire length of the pool. Then for some reason I thought I was a butterfly specialist. In fact, if you look on the record board at our YMCA I believe you will still see a relay record where I was swimming the fly leg. One day, however, when I was about to age up to the 13-14 year old category, my coach informed me that I was going to have to swim butterfly for – not two, but four – lengths of the pool. To which I promptly responded – no thank you, I am going to try that breaststroke thing instead! And that was how I first became a breaststroker.
Despite being consistent, I did not start to really see improvements in my swimming performance until high school, when I realized that the harder I worked, the faster I could go. Just after 11th grade, I qualified for Senior Nationals in California. Believe it or not, I had no idea what they were since I had always gone to YMCA Nationals. Swimming with all of my idols who I had watched on television as a little girl was an amazing experience, but after I got second place and qualified for the Pan Pacific Championships in Atlanta at my very first Nationals, it still took a bit of convincing to get me to join the team and swim in such a huge competition!
Everything happened so fast – it was a whirlwind and I was a bit overwhelmed.
But seeing the Olympic pool in Atlanta did fuel my motivation to train as hard as I possibly could. Despite my dedication, I still maintained a balanced and active social life, which was important for my overall well-being on this journey. I had a group of swimming friends and a group of school friends who either swam for the summer league or were involved in other sports. This meant that they always understood when I had to sacrifice on a social event because of swimming, and to be honest, I never really felt like I was missing out on anything growing up. I still went to my high school dances, and got to hang out with my friends. Did I make it to every single social event? Probably not, but I knew that if I wanted to be successful in the pool, I needed to be IN the pool. Being at practice and at the meets was what was going to make me a better swimmer.
My training at the time was a reflection of my relatively novice understanding of the sport of swimming. I was lucky to have a fantastic group of coaches, one of whom I actually coach with today. They gave me the quality training I needed to get as far as I did. However, I only trained once per day, 6 days per week. Morning practices were offered, but I didn’t like smelling of chlorine all day and falling asleep in all of my classes, so I never went to another morning practice in high school again. Long course was still REALLY scary to me back then. I didn’t have access to train at a long course pool, so my entire race strategy for the 100 breaststroke was to swim as fast as I could on the first 50 and pray that no one caught up to me on the 2nd 50.
Two weeks before the 1996 Olympic Trials, I had broken the national high school record, unshaved and unrested, so I felt that I was on a great path to swimming fast. However, Trials was the absolute scariest meet I have ever been to. You could feel the tension just sit on top of your shoulders the minute you walk into the pool. On your worst day, you can only get second place if you want to be an Olympian in an individual event. Second place in the country. And our country has amazing swimmers.
I don’t remember much about my first race except looking back at the scoreboard after I touched the wall, seeing a “3” behind my name and feeling the most absolute crushing sense of HURT. Disappointment and sadness were in there too, but hurt was the biggest feeling I experienced. All my life, I had just wanted to be an Olympian, and to have that dream taken away from me by only .17 of a second just HURT.
Initially, I didn’t want to swim anymore after that experience. Being in the pool constantly reminded me of that “hurt” feeling. Being featured the cover of Swimming World Magazine, crying, so they could show the “agony” of the Olympic Trials, really hurt. Watching my friends on TV at the Olympics while a local TV station came into my home and filmed my reaction to watching what should have been my race HURT.
But despite those feelings, I knew in the back of my mind that if I gave up then, I would never have my chance to become an Olympian. So I kept the magazine and used it to motivate me over those next few years. I attended the University of Georgia, under a new coach, Jack Bauerle, and an entirely new training regimen. Before I knew it, the next Olympic Trials arrived….and I missed the team again in my first event, the 100 breaststroke, by a heartbreaking 1/100th of a second.
Fortunately for me, I had the best support system in the world to help me back up before my next chance in the 200 breaststroke two days later. My family, my friends and teammates, my coaches, we all “circled the wagons”, as Jack Bauerle likes to say. I remember calling my friend Kara Forbis from the drug testing room after getting 3rd place. I was in the room with the 1st and 2nd place winners, who were celebrating while I was devastated. I was happy for them, and they are my friends, but it was too much to take in. Calling Kara and talking through that with her helped me get past my difficulties.
After that, I had one day to cry, to get it all out of my system. The hardest part for me was going back to the pool the next day. Everyone wants to tell you how sorry they feel for you. And I did NOT want to go to the pool to hear that. But Jack made me go. And I think he knew that, eventually, hearing the familiar phrase “Oh I’m so sorry” from everyone would get me fired up. And it did. I got tired of the sympathy. I didn’t want it. I wanted to be on the Olympic Team. We snuck my brother onto the pool deck before the 200 breaststroke so he could help keep me calm. He was my calming factor, and kept my mind off being nervous. My teammates sang and danced with me during warm ups. My coaches wouldn’t let me think of anything other than how great my race would be. And my parents – I knew they would love me no matter what happened. And with that, I finally made it on the Olympic team! Winning the silver medal at the Olympics was the icing on the cake after that long journey.
You might read my story and wonder why and how I tried so many times without giving up, as many others would? Well, it’s hard for any of us to give up when one of our lifetime dreams is so close, and that is especially true for athletes. I knew that if I had given up, I would never be an Olympian, and it’s just not in my nature to give up on anything. And I was not about to give up on my goal before I accomplished it. But it wasn’t just me involved. I had the best – and I truly mean THE BEST – support system along my journey, between my family, friends, coaches and teammates. Without this support system, I can say with absolute confidence that there is no way I would have ever made the Olympic team. My parents, in particular, are truly unique. They were never swimmers. They understood the four strokes, knew when I did well or not so well, knew that you had to touch the wall with both hands in breaststroke and butterfly, but they never wanted to break down a race with me, never wanted to analyze it, never wanted to talk to my coaches about what I was swimming. They let me swim, let my coaches coach and they were there for whatever I needed when I needed it. They were the best swimming parents. I brag about how great they were to anyone who will listen. My road to the Olympics was not an easy one, and I am sure I took years off their lives, but they were stoic in their support.
I continued swimming through 2004 where, believe it or not, I missed the Olympic team a third time! Having had the accomplishment from Sydney under my belt, I took that disappointment with much more confidence. I enjoyed the entire swimming experience. These days, I spend most of my time in the classroom, teaching at my hometown elementary school and serving as an assistant high school swimming coach. I always knew I wanted to become a teacher and follow in my mother’s footsteps. She thought teaching was the best job in the world. And she’s right! Teaching is also a very difficult job, but I definitely think that my own life experience has influenced my teaching and coaching style. I always emphasize to my students and swimmers that gratitude is one of the most important values to have. Additionally, I try to teach them that nothing in this life comes without hard work.
Being an elite athlete also comes with responsibility towards our swimming community and I like to give back as much as I can. Luckily, there are many ways in which we can do this, but I absolutely love giving swim clinics around the country! I try to fit in as many as I possibly can. Being able to share my story is the best part, along with sharing tips and technique work that I have picked up along my career. As I said, I was certainly not the best swimmer when I was younger (and I am not exaggerating) and many of my Olympian friends with whom I host the clinics share this experience. It is so fun to see the swimmers’ faces when we tell them about this part of our lives. I also like to share with the kids how many disappointments I had to overcome before my dream came true, reassuring them to never give up on themselves and showing them that sometimes those disappointments make the victories even sweeter.
And speaking of giving back, I have also become more involved with Swim Across America these past few years and attended more of the various associated events recently. Swim Across America is one of the very few – if not only – charities that actually uses swimming-related events to raise money for a specific cause – cancer research, prevention, and treatment. This is something very close to my heart since I lost my own grandfather to cancer some years ago. Olympians have the chance to visit patients in hospitals and participate in open water or pool-based non-competitive swims. It is a fun experience for a great cause and my goal is to get more of my former teammates and friends involved in these awesome events.
Reflecting back, I strongly believe that the disappointments I experienced during my swimming career have helped shape me into the person that I am today. They have made me a stronger person for sure. They have also helped me to take what seem like the greatest disappointments in my life and use them as motivational influences, driving me to work even harder to accomplish my goals and dreams. Disappointments are a natural part of life and it is only when you are faced with disappointment that you truly learn what type of person you are. So, to anyone reading this who might be struggling with setbacks – use them to your advantage and move past them that way. Let them drive you to accomplish your goals. It might take some time, but do not ever, ever give up on yourself!
Thanks for sharing your story, Kristy!
Check out our video interview with Kristy at Wilson High School in Reading, Pennsylvania here.
About Julia Galan
Julia Galan is a lifelong competitive swimmer and a USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. Julia’s passion for the sport, for coaching and for writing led to the creation of Swimspire, a coaching and swimming inspiration source geared towards athletes of all levels and goals.