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The Making of an Olympic Swimmer – The Kristy Kowal Story

You never know where childhood swim lessons may lead. That’s exactly how the journey began for Olympian and world champion swimmer, Kristy Kowal. From the moment she first touched the water at nine months old, she fell in love with being in the pool. While her swim journey started with mommy and me classes, it led to so much more. Swim classes grew into a lifetime of lessons learned and goals achieved, and those first unassuming swim lessons sparked the life of a champion—a journey marked by trials, disappointments, perseverance and dreams coming true. 

Kristy’s mom wasn’t the strongest swimmer, so it became her goal to ensure her children were always safe and confident around water.  Her son and daughter fell in love with swimming and soon their summers revolved around the pool. They were there the minute it opened and splashed until it closed.  

One summer when they returned home from the pool, the Olympics were on television, and 8-year-old Kristy Kowal discovered a dream. After her first glimpse of Olympic glory and watching her future heroes compete on the world’s stage, Kristy decided then and there that she, too, would become an Olympian. However, she quickly learned that the road to glory and goals was full of hard work, speed bumps, twists and turns.  


Determination to become an Olympian was the easy part. Putting in hard work and facing challenges came next. Kristy surprised everyone with her grandiose goals at just 8 years old, especially because she was neither the fastest nor the strongest swimmer. However, no matter how big those goals seemed, her passion burned brighter. She began shifting lanes and started swimming towards the Olympics by joining a summer swim league. She soon recognized that the harder she worked, the faster she became and the more she progressed. By high school, Kristy started seeing the fruits of her labor. The skills, strokes and discipline learned in practice began paying off and even led to 2nd place at the U.S. Nationals. 


In 1996, at 17 years old, Kristy was ready to realize her goal and become an Olympian. As she walked onto the pool deck for her first Olympic trials, her nerves struck. This was the scariest, most exciting moment of her life.  In order to qualify, she had to place 1st or 2nd, something she had achieved at Nationals the previous year. Race time came. She jumped in, swam as fast as she could, touched the wall, counted to five and looked up. Third. She saw the number three next to her name and her heart broke. All her hard work, the very thing she loved—swimming—was now hurting her. Kristy missed qualifying by 17/100ths of a second, quicker than a blink of an eye. The devastation was overwhelming. She was forced to sit back and watch as her friends went on to achieve their goals—her goal. 


Three weeks after the trials, Kristy had reset, renewed and reignited her passion. She was leaving for college and looking forward to a fresh start, a new coach and new adventures when suddenly, her defeat was splashed in front of her, and she was gripped with disappointment all over again.   

Swimming World Magazine featured Kristy on their coverthe face of agony—side by side her Olympic-qualifying teammate—the face of ecstasy. Staring her defeat in the face, she decided it was time to make her biggest disappointment her greatest motivation.  


College came and Kristy’s motivation began to pay off. She kept the magazine cover with her, and it helped push her through her adversities. She was breaking records and became the first female in U.S. history to win a world championship in the 100 m breaststroke. Four years after agony, Kristy was ready to take on the 2000 Olympic trials with a new fire and burning passion. This time, as she walked onto the pool deck, she stopped and admired the wall that stood behind the pool. It held the names of every Olympic qualifier, permanently scripted, to be honored for all time. She could taste victory; she had paid her dues. Race time came. She jumped in, swam as fast as she could, touched the wall, counted to five and looked up. Third. There it was again. How could this be? Disbelief rushed through her; did she really miss her shot by 1/100th of a second? Could she really be in 3rd place again? She was the national champion in this event; how was this possible? It felt like “a kick in the face.” She may have felt agony in 1996, but this time, she felt anger.  


As she cried in shock over the near miss, she had a decision to make yet again. She could flounder or she could focus. This was what she had trained for. She had another event to swim in two days. This was the moment to realize her goals, and she needed her name on that wall. The day came for her to swim the 200 m breaststroke. She jumped in, swam as fast as she could, touched the wall, counted to five and looked up. FIRST. She had done it; she qualified and broke the American record along the way. This was the moment that 8-year-old had dreamt of all those years ago. Kristy was going to the Olympics. 


The Olympics came and Kristy won the silver medal in the women’s 200 m breaststroke, and the success was sweet. At this point, the medal was the icing on the cake. Determination, perseverance and hard work had pushed her through. She had been on a long, crazy journey and finally achieved her goal. However, the real prizes she discovered were the many lessons she learned about herself, her strength and the power of perseverance.  She found that the best part of achieving her goal was the journey that got her there. Each baby step and every obstacle presented new opportunities to learn and evolve along the way. 

Today, Kristy is a 4th grade teacher in Southern California where she also coaches, trains and leads clinics for swimmers and young athletes. Although her goals today live beyond the pool and competitive swimming, she still continuously sets them. When speaking with her students, she encourages them to dream those big, crazy dreams. If it challenges them, good. The tougher the better. Because to Kristy, it’s not about the end result, it’s about the journey. The first attempt may fail, the second attempt may fail, but the lessons learned along the way are the real achievements. With each try, one grows stronger, smarter, more passionate and eventually that journey leads to dreams coming true.