Lessons from Legends: Kelly Harrigan, Hitting Taper and Achieving Goals


Kelly Harrigan (small)Kelly Harrigan eked into the finals of the 100-yard backstroke her freshman year at the Big East Championships, qualifying seventh. From lane one in the finals, she walloped the field and won the race. Did she miss her taper by a few hours?

It was 2003, and the NCAAs that year were a nightmare. Kelly qualified to swim the preliminaries of the 500-yard freestyle in the last three seeded heats and launched her NCAA experience by swimming miserably. But by her senior year she was the top seed in the 200-yard backstroke and swam like a champ, even though she finished third.

What changed over those four years?

As coaches work with a mature swimmer over several seasons, they tend to recognize their individual needs in preparing for major competition. If an athlete is going to perform at their best for a race, they also tend to find a ‘comfort zone,’ even under pressure. The great ones gradually become more self-reliant in their final weeks of preparation. This allows them to perform well without their coach at a zone meet, all-star trip or on a USA National Team.

When Kelly went to Thailand for the World University Games in 2007 to represent the USA, she was filled with a sense of responsibility for her performance, and had enough experiences in her career to be a success. After some initial fears about being very tired four weeks prior to her 200-meter backstroke swim, she settled into a great working relationship with her USA National Team coach Dorsey Tierney. On the last day of competition she won the gold medal for her country and for herself.

How can you learn to prepare yourself in a taper for consistent results in championships?

  • Understand that a “taper” is the fine edge you put on your season of work. Hard, intelligent work over many months is the key to being prepared to swim faster.
  • Build a reservoir of positive thought as you approach a championship by reviewing all the good work you did during the season.
  • Visualize your races weeks before they occur and swim “out of your mind!”
  • Learn from your experiences by discussing your preparation and your results with your coach after the season. 

Once a season is over, keep your long-term swimming and life goals in perspective. Kelly Harrigan did that after the 2007 World University Games, when she returned to her doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. She competed at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials with only five weeks of serious training and with a torn meniscus in her knee. The results weren’t terrific that June, but they are now. Dr. Kelly Harrigan completed her And Then They Won Gold (Small)life’s goal of becoming a Doctor of Veterinary Science on schedule. She now has a practice in the sun of Arizona and still loves to swim in USA Masters. 

For more about Kelly read USA Swimming’s 20 Questions interview from January 2013.

For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.  

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