Olympic medalist. World champion. Elementary school teacher. Not many people have those three accomplishments on their resume.
But Kristy Kowal and Matt Biondi are among the few grade school educators with this athletic background. After their international pool swimming careers took them around the world, both Kowal and Biondi settled down to working adult lives, where they teach and are role models for young children.
But Kowal’s aquatic career took a turn that was unexpected for the personable, statuesque breaststroker who won a silver medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. She talks about her open water swimming career:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Why is open water fun?
Kristy Kowal: After swimming up and down a black line for so many years, swimming in the open water is so much fun. It’s so different than pool swimming. Every time you enter the water, the conditions are different: the wind, if there are waves, how big the waves are, currents, and the clarity of the water.
Being in California presents its own challenges as you have to do the stingray shuffle just to get in the water. And then there’s the wildlife you encounter too. You never know what’s going to be swimming aside of you or under you.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What was your first exposure to open water swimming?
Kristy Kowal: My first open water swim was the Flowers Sea Swim. Rada Owen a 2000 teammate recruited. me hahaha. My first reaction was a straight mile in the ocean? It was the best introduction into open water I could have had ever. The Flowers family runs one of the, if not the, safest events I have ever participated in. They are adamant about ensuring the safety of all 900 swimmers in the water. Knowing that they had so many safety measures in place really put put my nerves at ease. Also the water is crystal clear. You can see the grains of sand moving with the currents, you can’t help but get distracted by everything swimming around in the water.
My coach st Georgia Jack Bauerle couldn’t believe I did it. He claims he couldn’t get me swimming in a lake when I was at Georgia I was so afraid of sharks. And that’s so true. One of the reasons I was afraid of open water is because of shark week and [the movie] Jaws. But I’ve come to embrace that part of open water swimming.
Sure there are still moments that I have a panic attack when I’m swimming around a pier and there are people fishing or when I jumped in the water at 4 am in the Catalina Channel, but that’s part of the fun – the adrenaline rush of the unknown in the water.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How is the pressure different swimming in an open water event and racing in the pool?
Kristy Kowal: It’s SO different. First of all, I have one speed left “in the tank” The older I get the more I enjoy swimming my pace for a longer amount of time than getting up and swimming as fast as I can for a time. I did that for 21 years of my life. I think the pressure of pool swimming comes from racing the clock and knowing that you are only in control of your own lane, and the part I love about open water swimming is your are swimming against the people around you rather than a clock. Sure you have a time at the end but the clock doesn’t necessarily matter because each course is different the conditions are different.
There’s so much that is unknown going into an open water event vs a pool event. Every pool measures 25 or 50 yards or meters, has blocks, flags, a black line on the bottom.
Open water is truly a different race each time you swim. The course is different, the water temperature is different, there might be currents that suddenly appear in the middle of your race. There’s so much more contact in open water swimming, usually I’m the one trying to swim wide and get away from the rest of the pack. And amazingly enough I think I might swim a straighter line in open water than I did in the pool.
I tended to circle cwim.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Where have you been doing open water events?
Kristy Kowal: I competed in the Flowers Sea Swim in the Cayman Islands, the Swim Across America event in Boston Harbor, the Rhode Island Open Water Swim, the Nantasket Beach Swim in Massachusetts, the Chicago Open Water Swim in Illinois, the San Francisco Bay Open Water Swim in California, the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim in the Caribbean Sea, the Tampa Bay Open Water Swim in Florida, the Atlanta Open Water Swim in Georgia, the Redondo Beach Open Water Swim in Southern California, the Naples Island Swims in Southern California, the Trans Tahoe Relay in Lake Tahoe, and provided provided escort support for a solo one-way crossing and a two-way relay crossing of the Catalina Channel.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What are some great places and events that you have done?
Kristy Kowal: My first open water swim that I did was the Flowers Sea Swim in Cayman. I ABSOLUTELY love that swim. It is a mile with about 900 other people, some are racing, some are there for fun, and everyone is swimming in honor of a charity that the Flowers family has chosen for that year. The Flowers family put on an amazing event that every swimming fan should experience at least once in their lives. The water is more clear than any pool I’ve swam in. Swimming with the stingrays and turtles is the best way to pass the time during a mile or a 5K.
I have been known to go off course or take a break to swim with a turtle.
I am super passionate about ALL of the Swim Across America events that I’ve gotten to do. Swimming to raise funding to kick cancer’s butt with friends is my favorite kind of swimming. Each event is super unique – in Boston you jump off a dock straight into the Boston Harbor for a 22-mile relay swim, in San Francisco you are dropped off under the Golden Gate Bridge for a mile swim where you are able to hear cancer survivor’s stories on the ferry out to the bridge.
This past year, I was able to travel to St Croix and participate in the Coral Reef Swim where I did the mile – not the 5 mile race. I was able to visit the island only about a month after Hurricane Maria came through. The island and the people on the island are so incredible and hardworking and resilient.
I was glad that swimming allowed for me to travel and see a country come together to rebuild. And the water is amazing: you barely have to go a few hundred yards from shore to see blowfish and lobsters and turtles and stingrays.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What is your dream open water swim – something that you would like to do in the future?
Kristy Kowal: I would love to do the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim in Turkey. Lexie Kelly [shown above on right] and Alex Kostich have told me how amazing it is and to be able to swim in between continents would be ridiculously cool. Plus it is somewhere on my bucket list of travels.
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