Written By: Maggie Foight
As any avid swim fan will know, in recent years, there has been a steady increase in professional swimming opportunities for post-graduate swimmers. However, according to US Olympian Kristy Kowal, the possibilities are not just limited to elongated timeframes to improve oneself.
Of course, “being a professional swimmer now allows athletes to extend their careers beyond previous limited opportunities,” Kowal says. However, she adds that “one of the biggest differences is that people in their 20s even to their upper 30s have a chance to continue swimming and continue doing what they love.”
Kowal attended and competed at the University of Georgia. Under Bulldog leadership, she was an 8-time NCAA champion and a 24-time NCAA All-American. In 1998, she was both the first American woman to win gold at the World Championships in the 100m breaststroke and the first American woman to break a single minute in the 100y breaststroke. Rounding out her collegiate career, Kowal was honored as the 2000 NCAA Woman of the Year and as the 200m breaststroke Olympic silver medallist in the Sydney Olympics.
All of her collegiate-year exploits don’t even include her multiple international medals, 8 American Records and 1 World Record that she earned during her 10-year tenure on the US Swimming National Team.
After all of her success, Kowal says in an interview with Streamline Teams that “she still felt like there were things she wanted to accomplish.” While swimming after college posed potential conflicts with non-aquatic career goals, she still found herself saying, “I am not done yet.”
The Olympian decided to join the professional swimming circuits. Kowal swam among the first paid professional swimmers, but she found that financing her endeavors was a challenge. Unlike other professional sports, swimming itself does not usually support athletes enough financially. Kowal, then, had to become creative.
Kowal says that the best way to overcome this obstacle is to “make connections with companies and build networks…. For professional swimmers the doors really open up for opportunities outside the pool. You might be able to speak about what’s important to you, or you might be able to work in camps or clinics or lessons. You get to give back to the community that you came from.”
The breastroker continues, sharing that in her own experience, she found purpose in dedicating herself to teaching, coaching and mentoring. Kowal has even developed unique philanthropic workshops for athlete parents, called “Parents in the Game.” Through these methods and more, the Olympian has shared her history and conveyed the importance of pushing limits, reacting to difficulty and exploring identity.
Kowal explains, “The days that you lose... you come out the other side learning something that you can take and use to make yourself stronger; those days teach you about yourself and how you are able to overcome adversity…. Every day you are going to face and overcome obstacles because you are stronger than you think.”
That being said, the Olympian believes that joining the professional swimming world may be easier now than it was in years past.
The International Swim League has played a major role in the increased popularity of swimming with its especially unique, vivacious, rewarding style. “It’s not just that quadrennial uptick in interest.... The ISL is really offering the sport increased visibility,” Kowal says.
With the visibility comes more opportunity for the sport to expand. Thus, the breaststroker believes that the ISL has allowed swimmers to relax their definitions of the word “talented” and give themselves a chance to continue in swimming. Athletes no longer have to be “top-of-the-top” to be considered skilled; the expectations for the elite have been normalized.
Overall, though she herself has not competed in the league, Kowal says from her spectator perspective that the ISL “... is just an all-around fantastic way to give swimmers who have exited college swimming… who are in that limbo… that opportunity to continue swimming. There is an opportunity for them to continue to race at the top of their game beyond college limits.”
Driving her insights home, Kowal ends her interview by speaking directly to the swimmers leaving college and considering joining the professional circuits.
“If you get the chance, enjoy the professional swimming ride,” she says. “It’s such a unique opportunity that you have, to be able to earn a living doing what you love, and you know, there’s always going to be a career opportunity for you waiting on the outside, so enjoy every minute of it.”
Kristy Kowal is an Olympic silver medallist (Sydney, 2000) in the 200-meter breaststroke and one of the most accomplished swimmers in US and NCAA history. During her 10 year career on the US Swimming National team, she won multiple international medals in addition to breaking 8 American Records and 1 World Record. After retiring from competition in 2004, and receiving an MAeD in Elementary Education, Kowal dedicated 14 years to teaching, coaching swimming, mentoring athletes, and developing her unique method for parent education and training. Today, in addition to mentoring, philanthropic work and appearances, Kowal travels the country hosting her highly sought after workshops for athlete parents called “Parents in the Game”.
The first American woman to win gold in the 100m breaststroke at the World Championships (1998).
8-time NCAA champion and a 24-time NCAA All American for the University of Georgia.
In 1998 became the first American woman to break the elusive one-minute barrier in the 100 yard breaststroke.
Awarded the 2000 NCAA Woman of the year for her commitment to academics, athletics and community service.