Courtesy of Mermaid Mafia with Captain Lexie Kelly, 6-time Olympic medalist Rebecca Soni, 4-time Olympic medalist Heather Petri, Olympic silver medalist Kristy Kowal, Olympic gold medalist Staciana Stitts, and Olympic gold medalist Misty Hyman in Lake Tahoe, California
Kristy Kowal made a smooth transition from one of the world’s fastest breaststrokers to a globe-trotting open water swimmer. She discussed her aquatic career:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You were a breaststroker in the pool. Have you ever thought to do any open water events breaststroke?
Kristy Kowal: Yes!! The first year the Flowers Sea Swim offered the 5 km, I did a LARGE portion of it breaststroke. I was swimming aside of someone doing freestyle and started to wonder if my breaststroke would be able to keep pace with her as my freestyle did. Wouldn’t you know, I’m pretty sure my breaststroke might be faster than my freestyle in open water.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You are a school teacher. Have you ever incorporated any of your open water swimming experiences in any of your lessons or advice to your students?
Kristy Kowal: Absolutely! Our theme of our school year last year was Dream Big. I was able to tie my swimming experiences into lessons daily with the students. I first dreamed about becoming an Olympian when I was around their age and I think it is important for my students to realize that it is never too early for them to start having dreams that they want to accomplish in their life. However, without hard work, they can’t accomplish those dreams. Third grade is really a great age where students can start understanding these concepts.
My students also know that I do a lot of open water swims for charity. For example, the Flowers Sea Swim this year benefited the Cayman Islands Special Olympics team traveling to the World Games. Swim Across America is dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention, and treatment through swimming events. I want my students to understand the importance of giving back, and I try to set a good example for them. This is one of the things that I love about my school. Our student council does a wonderful job every year connecting the kids with a charity so that they have the ability to give back.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You are done a variety of events from the Flowers Sea Swim to the Trans Tahoe Relay. But you train in a pool all the time. How do you prepare for each open water swim?
Kristy Kowal: Being a teacher and an assistant high school swim coach, my time in the pool is limited. I do a lot of yoga and I usually start getting back into my swimming routine around March because most of my swims are in the summer. However, the older I get, the longer it is taking me to get back my feel for the water.
I swim around 3 times a week, around 3,000 yards. This year I swam with some of the high school swimmers I coach, during their summer league swimming. One of the swimmers does open water swims, so she and I would do longer swims, she was my training buddy. But, I also know that my body has muscle memory from years ago. I’ve done the 10,000 IM’s for time, the 12 x 400’s breaststroke, that base is still ingrained in my body. The older I get, I don’t need to do those sort of practices. The practices I do give me a good base for the open water distances I swim. I know I am not the fastest open water swimmer; however, I might be having the most fun.
I’ve swam in a pool my whole life, so to me, being able to swim in a lake, in a sea, in an ocean, this is a whole new adventure for me and it is a challenge but so much FUN.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How in the world do you keep a smile on your face all the time?
Kristy Kowal: I am having the time of my life! Being able to travel and see my friends, and experience new things, and swim. But in a new way – not just in the pool. It’s an adventure to me. I don’t even realize I am smiling half the time! I was swimming in Lake Tahoe and every time I would breathe, I looked over at my boat, and Lexie, Reb, Misty, Heather, Staciana, Nicolle, and Kyla were cheering and dancing and I found myself smiling underwater while I was swimming. I’m lucky. I have an amazing family, the best friends, and I get to travel and swim. My life is awesome.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What has been the hardest open water swim that you have done in your life?
Kristy Kowal: Physically, last year I decided to jump into the Boston Harbor for the Swim Across America 22-mile relay Lighthouse swim without a wetsuit. Which, hating cold water, I am not exactly sure why I did this. I had done it the year before and, while I was cold, I was okay.
I did not take into consideration how much snow Boston that year and how it would affect the water. The water was mid-50’s and the sun had not come out yet. We swam a 40-minute leg, got out for about 20 minutes, then swam a 20-minute leg of the relay, and when I got back out of the water, I could not stop shaking, full body shaking as in I couldn’t hold a cup of coffee without spilling it all over myself. I was shaking for about an hour an a half. It was actually really scary. So needless to say, once I went back in the water, I had a wet suit on. But I absolutely went back in the water. We were swimming for an amazing cause, raising money to kick cancer’s butt.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If someone asked you to cross the English Channel, would you do it? Solo or on a relay?
Kristy Kowal: Haha! If only the water were warmer. I love swimming in warm water. To swim in cold water is a big challenge for me. First, I can say without a doubt in my mind, I would never be able to swim the English Channel solo. I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who do. A man from my hometown whom I swam side-by-side in our local pool: Tom Bell, he swam across solo last year and he is so incredibly humble about this accomplishment.
I could NEVER do what he did. I would love to do this as a relay, if only the water were warmer. It takes me such a long time to regulate my body temperature after I get out of the water when it is cold. But I will never say never. The Trans Tahoe Relay was pretty cold, and my relay kept warm by dancing and cheering for our teammates in the water the entire way across the lake.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: The first man to cross the English Channel swam across doing breaststroke. 21 hours 45 minutes across 21 miles. Does that surprise you?
Kristy Kowal: I had no idea. Anyone who has the ability to cross the English Channel is an absolute inspiration to all swimmers out there. But the fact that someone did the entire thing breaststroke? BRAVO! That is amazing. Personally breaststroke is easier for me to swim than a long distance freestyle. But that being said, after so much breaststroke, your body starts to want to switch strokes in the middle of a long swim. I am impressed with not only the feat of being able to swim 21 miles, but to be able to swim almost 22 hours breaststroke! Incredible.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do breaststrokers have a different personality or mindset than butterflyers, backstrokers and freestylers? Is there anything about breaststrokers that makes them unique in your opinion?
Kristy Kowal: I definitely think so. Our Trans Tahoe relay was made up of half breaststrokers, and we just talked about this coincidentally. Staciana (Stitts) Winfield and I were reminiscing over how at Olympic trials in 2000 we had a dance party in the ready room before we marched out for the 200 breaststroke. Then after Amanda Beard and I made the team, the girls in the heat all came to our lanes to help us celebrate. I just found that picture the other day. The officials were trying to clear the pool and we were like “no we are having a party, we made the Olympics!”
That doesn’t happen with every event or every stroke. I don’t know what made us different, but we definitely had a different personality than the other strokes. Don’t get me wrong, we were all business once the race started. But before and after, we were friends and goofballs. Talking to my friends who swam other strokes, I’m pretty sure the ready room was not like that for the other events.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: When you won your Olympic medal, you looked very surprised. But your goal must have included winning a medal. Why such a surprised look?
Kristy Kowal: Winning a medal at the Olympics was the icing on the cake, it’s the ultimate goal. However after missing the Olympics twice (in 1996 by 0.17 and in 2000 by 0.01) just BEING on the Olympic team was the prize.
I was finally an Olympian, every experience meant so much more to me just because I had to fight so hard to be there. Getting into the finals is nerve-racking. I swam in heat 1 in semi-finals. So I swam my heart out, won the heat and stood watching heat 2 hoping and praying that I had a spot in finals. I was seeded 4th going into finals and knew that I had an outside shot at a medal. When I turned around and saw a “2” behind my name, all I could think was oh my God, it really happened. I really did it. I started crying and screaming and freaking out and then I realized that Amanda had gotten 3rd and just jumped at each other hugging. It was unreal.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you tell you in detail what that last lap was like at the Olympics?
Kristy Kowal: The last lap, I remember just thinking GO!!!! But it hurts. The last lap of a 200 breaststroke hurts. It doesn’t matter if it is the Olympics or a dual meet. So I also remember thinking pull harder, kick, finish your kick go go go go. Literally that is all I was thinking.
I also remember thinking I was closer to the wall on the finish that I was, so I lunged for the wall, hit the wall and counted to 5 before I turned around. When I hit the wall before I turned around, it felt as though a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders. My race was over, I had competed, and done the best that I could do, I couldn’t change anything and no matter what the result was, I swam in the final of the Olympics, I was an Olympian.
I counted to 5, turned around, saw 2nd and FREAKED out. I had no idea I broke an American record, no idea I was close to gold, no idea about anything, all I saw was that I won a medal and that’s when I started crying and couldn’t stop. Happy tears. Because if I had given up on myself after missing the Olympic team I would have never had that moment.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you equate your Olympic race with what goes on in your life or the life of your students?
Kristy Kowal: I can definitely equate my journey to being an Olympian to my life and the lives of my students. I try my best to explain to them that in life, there are going to be times where yes, things do not go their way, and they might be disappointed. Life has its ups and downs. I try to turn as many as I can into teachable moments. Let them know that sometimes things do not go your way; however, no matter what, you always show good sportsmanship, be a good friend to others, be kind, and work hard so that the next chance you have maybe things turn out your way.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What is in your future as an open water swimmer? Any big plans or desires to do something unique or special?
Kristy Kowal: I love being on relays! The Trans Tahoe relay was a swim that I had never done before. In fact no one on my team (Mermaid Mafia) had ever swam the relay before. I think I would love to experience as many new open water swims as possible.
I love the open water swimming community. They are so wonderful and I have made so many friends and met so many amazing people through open water swimming. And I have tickets to watch the 10 km marathon swim at the 2016 Rio Olympics, so that will be pretty special.
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