By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Kendyl Stewart had an inkling that world-record-holder and 2012 Olympic champion Dana Vollmer wouldn’t be competing last week at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
Since Vollmer hadn’t competed since last summer’s World Championships, Stewart and the rest of the 100 butterfly field went into the meet knowing the competition was wide open.
Considering how well Stewart swam, however, it may not have mattered if Vollmer was there or not.
Stewart came to Irvine, Calif., prepared to swim and ready to win.
“Earlier in the summer, I had gone a lifetime best in the 100 fly, which gave me a lot of confidence headed into Nationals, especially since I'd been stuck at 59-mid for almost 5 years,” said Stewart, who edged a strong field minus Vollmer at Nationals to win the 100 butterfly, her second National title. She also won the 50 fly on the second day of competition.
“Having the meet so close to home, at a pool I'm familiar with, helped relax me a lot, which is when I think I swim my fastest. I had put myself in a position to have a great meet, but tried not to put pressure on myself for a particular outcome. I honestly blew away my expectations for this meet. I'm obviously thrilled, especially with my result in the 100. I didn't expect to break 58 this summer, and I'm walking away with my first two national titles. It's still kind of crazy to me.”
For Stewart, a junior this fall at the University of Southern California, these results are a longtime coming. Having started swimming at 7 years old in coastal San Diego, so she would be water safe, Stewart quickly fell in love with the sport – and was good at it.
But two years ago, the summer before her freshman season at USC, Stewart had a personally disappointing 2012 Olympic Trials. She said that experience taught her a lot about herself and how much she wanted more success in swimming.
“I was a nervous wreck at 2012 Trials,” Stewart said. “Going to college and switching up my training has reminded me the things I love about the sport, which is crucial to swimming well. This summer, specifically, I've tuned into details of the back end of my races where I've struggled before, where to breathe in the last 25 of the 50/100 and the timing of my finishes.”
Stewart said one of the areas she’s worked on most since 2012 Trials has been her underwaters, which have always been her strength but have continued to improve. She’s always concentrated on improving the last 25 meters of her races, finishing powerfully with good technique and speed.
At the senior competition level, Stewart got her feet wet last December when she represented the United States at Duel in the Pool in Glasgow, Scotland, swimming the 200 backstroke (finished 5th), 100 fly (3rd) and 100 back (5th).
Stewart said she left the meet with a new appreciation for and perception of international swimming – and realized how much she loved the “team” atmosphere, despite races being very individual in nature.
“Duel in the Pool was awesome,” Stewart said. “Having the meet come down to a tie- breaking mixed relay that ended up becoming the new world record – it really doesn't get cooler than that. The meet was set up like a college dual meet, and that really emphasized the importance of being a ‘team player’ in the sport of swimming even more than usual.”
Growing up, Stewart said backstroke was always her primary event, and she always trained more back than butterfly but still had success in the fly races.
She’s carried those same training habits into college, making the 200 back and 50/100 fly her primary events.
“I race well when I take pressure off myself, so it sometimes happens that when I focus heavily on one event, another actually improves more,” said Stewart, who enjoys time at the beach as a way to relax. “I did take focus off my 200 back this summer and didn't swim it at Nationals, because I felt my chances were much stronger to make an international team in the 50/100 fly. Still, I swam more freestyle and backstroke in practice than butterfly.”
Now, with the start of Pan Pacs just over a week away, Stewart said she is obviously excited to compete and race against some of the best swimmers in the world.
And with the Olympics less than two years away, she said she wants to use this meet (and World Championships next summer) as a gauge to see where she still needs to improve to make that team.
“I hope to follow up a great Nationals with some more big swims at Pan Pacs,” Stewart said. “National Team meets are valuable because you get to train with swimmers you don't usually practice with and get feedback from different coaches. Racing at this level will give me valuable experience, and it's always awesome to travel to a country I've never been to.
“Becoming an Olympian is something that nearly every competitive swimmer aspires to. For right now, I am thrilled with my swims from Nationals and looking toward racing well again at Pan Pacs. I definitely have a lot of room for improvement, and my successes this summer have only motivated me to dream bigger!”