Despite Olympic Swimming Trials Disappointment, Madison Kennedy Keeps Life in Perspective
By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
If you’re worried about Madison Kennedy’s psyche all these months after coming close to her first Olympic team last summer, don’t be.
Even though she made the Olympic Trials finals in both her sprint events (50m and 100m freestyle) and was in strong position after the semifinals to make the team, she came up short both times, finishing fifth and eighth, respectively.
Still, for her, the experience and process were almost as important as her desire to make the team. Rather than dwelling on what did not happen, she’s choosing to focus on the possibilities of what’s still to come.
“I am thrilled with my performance at 2012 Trials,” said Kennedy, who moved to Charlotte, N.C., last year to accept a job and train at Mecklenburg Aquatic Club (MAC) under David Marsh. “I didn’t make the Olympic Team and, of course, that is a bump in the road for any athlete trying to represent their country. But I made finals, in both my events, and I went best times in all six swims. I was sad, but not crushed. I have finally learned that it’s all perspective.
“I’m not delusional when it comes to dealing with disappointment, and I’ve had my fair share of feeling swimming heartbreak, college and after. What I do know is being depressed will do nothing to help me, and when I wake up in the morning, I am proud of myself for doing well and eager to do better.”
The little girl who started out as a self-described "Water Baby" at 18 months, Kennedy has come a long way since her early days in the pool. Swimming was always her first and strongest love, and when given the choice by her mother as a kindergartener to do ballet or gymnastics, she decided to take a different path altogether.
"I obstinately replied, 'I want to swim!'" Kennedy said. "The closest anyone in my extended family has ever gotten to being water people is my dad, who is a hockey player and still plays. I mean, ice is water; it's just frozen water, right? I was put on my first team at age 4, and I'm pretty sure it was so my mom could catch a break from my hyperactivity."
An active, athletic kid, Kennedy played soccer in the fall, swam in the winter, played lacrosse in the spring and returned to swimming in the summer.
It wasn't until her freshman year at Rutgers University when she committed herself and her energy exclusively to swimming year-round. But after her sophomore year, the men's swimming program would be cut, along with five other sports. Kennedy said she knew she needed to move quickly to decide her future.
"What a wake-up call that was," Kennedy said. "Suddenly, half of our team would have to choose to transfer or end their swimming careers. I swam in the sprint group, which was mostly men, and that would have proven detrimental to my training.
"I had the option to transfer, and I felt that I needed a drastic change if I wanted to make improvements. At that point, I was not at the level of Cal, but I was confident that I could be better. So I emailed (Cal Coach) Teri (McKeever), and in many ways, it was when that I started working with Teri that my swimming career truly started. I learned so much from her from my first day on the team.”
Watching friends like Caitlin Leverenz and Jessica Hardy, teammates at Cal, perform at last year’s Olympics gave her some solace despite her own absence – and brought back some great memories.
She doesn’t own a TV, so she watched most of the swimming sessions at a biker bar down the street from her apartment – educating the regulars about who everyone was in each event.
“Most of the people on the team have been teammates or friends, and to watch them compete on the world stage was exciting,” Kennedy said. “I remember watching Catlin swim and being so proud of her. I remember recruiting Caitlin, driving her through the streets of Berkeley and hoping she would fall in love with Cal as I did, and there she was, smiling on TV!
“For those of us who didn’t make the team, it doesn’t hurt more to watch. We just want to be there, too, experiencing the glory and excitement. Seeing all those familiar faces through a TV screen helps me feel connected, not wanting. I’ll be there soon enough.”
Kennedy is currently splitting time between working for Lululemon (www.lululemon.com), an athletic wear (particularly yoga wear) company, doing what her family calls ‘building her wardrobe and training harder and smarter than ever.’
Her experience with the company has also translated in a distinct change to her approach to fitness, particularly through yoga and becoming more flexible. She said it’s amazing how her body has changed in such a short amount of time, as she can now touch her toes and tolerate heat.
“I have dedicated a large portion of my training to Pilates since my introduction at Cal but never really tried yoga,” Kennedy said. “Through Lululemon, I have embraced the concept of sweating and breathing and bending myself into awkward shapes. My training has shifted to be more hot yoga- and Pilates-based, with a few days of swimming to maintain feel and technique integrity.
“Honestly, my new-found flexibility and small muscle control has opened a door for my swimming knowledge. I am able to increase my technique capacity without useless yardage and use my time more efficiently.”
With the 2013 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships and World Championship Trials a few months away, Kennedy said she is as eager and excited as ever to get into the pool and compete.
Despite the disappointment she experienced last summer, she never considered giving up swimming, especially when there’s still so much more to accomplish, and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics remain on her radar.
“No matter if I drop any more time or make any more teams, I will be competing until I am ready,” Kennedy said. “Even after that, swimming will always be a focal point of my life. I’ve come to realize that when I am in the water, my mind is quiet. I am only assuming this is the simple high that people chase when dancing, journaling and yoga, whatever it is for you. Mine is water. I emerge cleansed and ready.”