By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
After what turned out to be a somewhat rocky, always memorable freshman season at the University of Georgia this past year, Kylie Stewart believes she is prepared for pretty much anything that comes her way.
Along with adapting to college life, classes and swimming, she endured bouts with pneumonia and bronchitis before the two biggest meets of the year – Southeastern Conference (SEC) and NCAA Championships – but she persevered.
“There was so much adversity thrown our way as a freshmen class, and we overcame it all together and I believe that my freshmen year at Georgia has made me a better swimmer and more importantly a better person,” said Stewart, regarded as the No. 1 female swimming recruit coming out of high school in 2014.
Despite those untimely obstacles, Stewart enjoyed a successful first NCAA Championships – finishing third in the 100 butterfly, fifth in the 200 backstroke and 15th in the 100 backstroke as well as two top eight relay finishes – and earned multiple All-America honors. The Bulldogs finished as the NCAA team runner-up.
And with her first collegiate season in the books, Stewart’s attention is now focused on next week’s Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada.
It being her first senior-level international meet, she admits she is quite excited for the start of the meet – so much that she wishes it was already happening.
She still approaches swimming as she did as a 6-year-old who started in the sport because her babysitter bribed her to learn with Mickey Mouse earrings.
While her passion remains as high as it was in those early days, Stewart said her motivation comes from a different source now.
“My motivation in and out of the water is definitely my teammates,” Stewart said. “They are always so supportive through everything, and they are basically like my family. I want to do my best to help support them as they support me.”
Even though she loved swimming, Stewart wasn’t always devoted exclusively to the sport.
Growing up, she played golf, soccer and tennis and participated in gymnastics “before they told me I was too tall.”
In fact, she was playing tennis, soccer and swimming at the same time, and her soccer practice interfered with swimming practice.
That’s when her mom made her choose among all of them, and she chose swimming because she loved the sport and it was so much fun for her.
Early on, Stewart focused on the butterfly stroke, and then became more interested in the backstroke.
She said she stopped training for fly for a while but has recently started back up again because she loves both strokes equally and sees similarities between the two.
“I believe butterfly and backstroke have similar connections and body movements,” she said.
She also believes next week’s Pan American Games provide a natural progression for her future in swimming.
Three years ago at her first and only Olympic Trials as a 16-year-old, she proved her mettle with a finals showing in the 100 and 200 backstrokes (finished seventh and fifth, respectively), and at Pan Ams, she will represent the United States in both the backstroke and butterfly events.
And despite it being her senior international debut, Stewart said she wants to soak in the experience, learn more about herself as a swimmer and competitor and, of course, have a good time.
“I definitely have goals in my head, but I just want to have fun and everything should fall into place,” Stewart said.
Stewart said she wants to use her Pan Am Games experience as fuel for next season (she considered taking an Olympic redshirt year but recently changed her major to biological engineering and didn’t want to miss a year) as she gears up for 2016 Olympic Trials in Omaha.
Suffice it to say, however, she has always had Olympian high on her list of goals and dreams, and based on her recent results, she knows it’s definitely within reach.
“Since I was younger, I never realized there were steps between where I was and the Olympic team,” said Stewart, who gets her nails painted before meets as a way to relax. “I made my first junior team and had no idea what it was except that I heard I was going to Barcelona.
“But, yeah, ever since I was little, I remember watching Natalie Coughlin on TV at the Olympics and telling my parents I wanted to be like her at the Olympics one day. I believe in the past three years I have grown a lot as a person and a swimmer. I believe having this experience from the past Olympic Trials will help, but any meet I attend will be good racing practice and just doing everything I can in practice and weights will help build confidence for Trials.”