By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, May 19, 2017
Unlike most swimmers, Katrina Konopka never dreamed of being an Olympian as a kid.
She swam because she loved the sport and loved being in the water. She always had a great time in the pool – and that is still the case today.
Still, at some point during her swimming career, Konopka, like others who go on to achieve great things in the sport, realized she had something special – although exactly when it happened escapes her.
Nonetheless, after having a great Trials, making the U.S. National Team and winning two gold medals (400 free relay and 200 medley relay) at Short Course World Championships last year, she is more than aware that her best swimming is still ahead of her – and she’s more excited than ever.
“Last year was incredible,” she said. “I have had so many experiences I never thought I would be able to have, and I am hoping that I can continue to experience new things. Worlds was the first time I had ever been out of the country, so that was an amazing experience.”
Konopka said she learned about the potential invitation to be on the U.S. Short Course World team in an email last fall.
Needing to clear it with her college coach, Rick DeMont, because it was in the middle of the NCAA season, he originally said maybe before eventually changing to yes.
“Luckily, the dates were just after our mid-season meet, and I was able to go,” she said. “I will never forget the feeling of being in the ready room before the first relay. I was so nervous, but also incredibly honored and excited to be representing the Red, White and Blue.”
Her journey to international prominence in the pool started when Konopka was just 8 years old.
She began swimming over the summer and had been taking lessons. Her younger sisters were also in swim lessons, and after she finished her time in the pool, she waited for them, often getting back in the water for a few more laps.
Eventually, when it became clear that her best future opportunities lay with swimming, Konopka gave up her other loves – basketball and track (especially long and high jump) – to concentrate on the water.
When it came time to choose a college, Konopka chose the University of Arizona over several others because she fell in love with the team and the program.
And seeing the beautiful Tucson campus didn’t hurt, either.
“The campus was gorgeous, and I loved the team atmosphere and the coaching staff,” said Konopka, who is originally from Milwaukee, Wis., but spent her teenage years in Greenville, S.C. “The team was so welcoming while I was being recruited, and I wanted to be a part of something special. I found that with this team and absolutely love it.”
During her time in Tucson, Konopka, who just finished her sophomore year, said she has made steady progress in the water.
After her fifth-place finish in the 50 freestyle at Trials last summer, she completed this season by swimming on four relays and in the B final of the 50 free at NCAAs, earning multiple All-America honors.
For the first time, she broke the 22-second mark in the 50 free (yards), and although she admits to having a bit of a “rough patch” at the end of the season, she was able to gain valuable insight and learn from the experience.
“My coach, Rick, and I are just excited to have learned a lot about me and my swimming this year and are ready to try some new things heading into the summer,” she said.
She said going into Trials last year in Omaha, her goal was just to have a second swim in the evening semifinals or finals.
Heading into the meet, she said she wasn’t feeling great, but after a solid performance in the 100 freestyle (just missing making the semifinals), she came back strong in the 50.
“When I saw my name on the board to qualify for the A final in the 50, I was absolutely ecstatic,” Konopka said of her first Olympic Trials. “My favorite moment of the meet was walking up the ramp to the warm down pool after semifinals and my coach being there to give me a hug.”
Just over a month away from the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – and the selection of this year’s World Championship team (as well as several other summer teams) – Konopka said she is excited for what’s to come, especially after her success last year.
She’s working hard and said she knows it would be an amazing opportunity to compete for the United States again – but she also knows the competition is fierce.
Still, she’s working hard to achieve that goal because she still loves swimming as much as she did as a kid – for different reasons.
“I am always wanting to see how far I can go and how much I am able to do,” said Konopka, who is a chemistry major at Arizona. “Rick and I have worked on a lot this year, and we are going to continue to dissect my stroke and races.
“I have learned a lot so far, but still have so much to learn. That’s one of the things I love about swimming – it’s always changing and there is always something that can be made better.”