American Personality: Kristy Kowal

From Contender To World Champion


Russ Ewald

Kristy Kowal has taken a different route to the top than other leading U.S. breaststrokers in the past decade.

"I never trained hard in high school," says Kowal. "In high school, I did maybe 6,000 yards a practice. I didn't know what five o'clock in the morning looked like. I never worked out in the pool before school."

Jack Bauerle, her current coach at the University of Georgia, thinks this approach set the stage for Kowal's dramatic improvement in 1998 at the advanced age of 19.

"She was never taken to the well," he describes. "Because of that, any changes physically as she was growing didn't lead to an awkward stage in the water and injuries."

She had displayed plenty of natural talent prior to last year, though. Despite never training in a long course pool and in only her second year of senior level competition, she barely missed making the Olympics in 1996. She finished third at the trials-just 17/100ths of a second short of second place and a spot on the team.

Kristy Kowal, on top of her game
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

At Georgia, Kowal made the move from contender to champion in a year and a half. She became the first U.S. woman, a year ago this January, to win a world title in the 100 m breaststroke. The upstart American also took second in the 200 breast in Perth.

While Kowal, seeded fifth, shocked everyone else with her victory, she didn't surprise Bauerle.

"Some of her swims and practices leading up to the World Championships were spectacular to say the least," recalls the Georgia coach. "And they weren't every once in awhile. She was very consistent with her work."

Kristy Kowal, USA
PLACE Reading, Pa.
HEIGHT 6 ft. 1 in. / 182 cm
WEIGHT 150 lbs / 68 kg
OCCUPATION College Student
REPRESENTS Athens Bulldogs
COACH Jack Bauerle
COLLEGE University of Georgia
Number in ( ) indicates world ranking.
Year 100 Br 200 Br
1998 1:08.42 ( 2) 2:26.19 ( 2)
1997 1:08.80 ( 5) 2:29.03 (11)
1996 1:09.89 (15) 2:33.15 (49)
1995 1:10.34 (12) 2:33.03 (36)

Kowal accomplished this without a total sacrifice. She gave in to homesickness following her freshman year and went home for the summer of 1997. However, Bauerle made sure Kowal maintained her background by sending his standout to Dick Shoulberg, whom he had once coached under. Kowal drove with her mother an hour down to and back from Philadelphia three times a week to train at Foxcatcher.

"I thought I had worked hard at Georgia," remembers Kowal. "But his practices were a whole new world to me. Eight 400s in breaststroke is a set I did all summer."

The work paid off at the U.S. summer nationals. Kowal twice bettered the meet record in the 100 breaststroke (1:08.87, 1:08.80). At the Pan Pacific Championships, she placed third behind 1994 world champion Samantha Riley of Australia and South Africa's Penny Heyns, the Olympic gold medallist.

Kowal returned to Georgia early, at the end of August, to prepare for the World Championships. She didn't know how well she was doing there at first because she swam 110 metres in her long-course workouts due to a broken bulkhead. Her confidence grew in December when she swam unshaved and untapered and set an American record in the 100 yard breaststroke (1:00.14) in the Georgia Invitational.

Nonetheless, she couldn't be sure about her chances in Perth since she experimented with a straight-drop taper for the championships. Kowal tapered this way to enable her to get back to her training level quickly in preparation for the college championships in March. At the World Championships, she hoped to win a gold medal, but thought her only chance was in the medley relay.

"It's not that I didn't believe in myself, but I wasn't sure how everybody else would do," she explains. Kowal found out everybody else was sizzling in the heats. She qualified only fifth in a field that was the fastest of all time in the 100 breast.

Kristy with gold in Perth last January
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

The final was a blur to Kowal. Never able to see well with her goggles, she thought she was in a fight for third place at the turn and believed someone was aside of her in the rush for the wall. At the finish, she looked at the board and didn't see her name from third on down. In the next moment, she heard over the public address system that she had won.

Later that night, the new gold medallist watched a tape of her race on an Australian TV station and listened to the Aussie analyst comment before the start, "It's funny the Americans don't have a contender in the field."

Kowal got no respect after her victory either. A newspaper account the next day reported, "Kowal didn't win the race. Instead, the other girls (leading qualifiers Riley, Heyns, and European champion Agnes Kovacs) lost because they were too busy looking at each other. No one noticed the American over in lane two."

Back in the USA, Kowal left no doubt about her ability. She lowered her American record in the 100 yard breast to 1:00.04 at the Southeastern Conference meet and then to 59.05 at the national collegiate championships. (The only other swimmer ever to break the one-minute barrier was Poland's Beata Kaszuba with a 59.71 for Arizona State in 1995.) In the summer she bettered her meet record for a repeat win at the U.S. summer nationals and also won the 200 breast for the first time.

"We tried to approach last season in a way that both swims (100 and 200) could be good," says Bauerle. "I wasn't just thinking about the 100 because the fluidity of her stroke makes the 200 a logical event, too. She has easy speed and shown tremendous improvement in the 200."

Since coming to Georgia, Kowal has dropped her time in the 200 metre breast nearly seven seconds.

This March she shaved more than a second off the NCAA record held by Heyns in the 200 yard breast at the college championships. She also came close to her mark in the 100 breast in earning NCAA "Swimmer of the Year" honours and leading Georgia to its first-ever team title. Her times were 59.25 and 2:07.66.

Bauerle attributes Kowal's success to her commitment to the sport without ever making it a live-or-die situation. "What swimmers need to realize is, more than the spectacular, it's the consistent aspect of training that pays off," says the Georgia coach. "Doing it day after day, whether it's a 5:30 morning practice or at 2:45 in the afternoon, Kristy is pretty much on the top of her game.

"I think her best quality is she has fun with swimming-training and racing. She is a loosey-goosey before the start of a race. Even at the NCAAs, she looked over at her teammates, clapped her hands, and was smiling at the start of the 100 breaststroke. I was a lot more nervous than her."

Kowal doesn't do a lot of yardage-12,000 to 13,000 yards on a typical day-but she does it at a good pace. Her breaststroke has changed at Georgia. It has more wave motion, which has especially helped her 200.

One day a week the Georgia breaststrokers worked completely on technique, pace, and stroke count.

"My stroke is longer," says Kowal. "I spend more time gliding. I have a better pull. I pull outward more than just straight now. I reach for it and pull more water sideways." While her six-foot-one (182-cm) height should work to her advantage, her turns are the area she has needed to work on the most.

"In the past, I had teammates who hate breaststroke and can't swim it beat me on underwater pullouts," she admits.

For the future, she hopes to make the Olympics. But was her victory in Perth a fluke, as the Aussie media wrote? Did she reach her peak two years too early?

"I don't like to think about my career that deeply," says Kowal. "I know I think about it sometimes. Then I tell myself to stop worrying. You can't worry. You just have to get up and do it. Don't worry about the worst. Just hope for the best."

Bauerle concedes it's tougher to stay on top and that Kowal won't be able to surprise her competitors next time.

"We have to have bigger challenges in training and new goals," he says. "But we have to try to keep the goal to what Kristy is doing and not other people.

"I think she can be better yet. Sometimes she rushes. Her best races are when she has been relaxed. The pullouts can be improved. She is still growing. And I'm not sure her strength has caught up with her yet. That's uncommon for someone who is 20 years old."