By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Months before her senior year at the University of California-Berkeley and days before the start of Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this week, Katie McLaughlin is still learning.
She’s learning to accept she has just one season left with her Bear teammates and she needs to savor every moment; she’s learning to believe in herself regardless of what happens in the water; and most importantly, she’s learning what she needs to do and not just what she’s told to do to be successful in swimming and in life.
It’s been a long sometimes frustrating journey for her, but McLaughlin said she knows it has provided her with the opportunity to reflect and grow as a person and competitor along the way.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely started to take more ownership both for my success and failures; it’s all part of maturing,” she said. “That’s a lesson you have to learn through experience, and that’s what’s led me to these realizations.”
Working with a coach the caliber of Teri McKeever has also impacted McLaughlin, citing her mentor’s influence in helping her become a mature, responsible adult over the past three seasons.
Along the way, she’s enjoyed some strong swimming results both at the NCAA, National and international levels.
In addition to multiple NCAA All-American honors, McLaughlin has earned gold and silver relay medals at the 2015 FINA World Championships. She also made the finals in the 200 butterfly, finishing 6th.
The year before, she took home bronze in the 200 fly at 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.
At her first Olympic Trials in 2012, McLaughlin made a splash with a 28th-place finish in the 100 fly, but four years later, she came within a few spots (and seconds) of making the 2016 Olympic team with a sixth-place showing in the 200 freestyle and semifinal placing in the 100 fly.
“My first Trials were all about the experience, but when I came back four years later, I felt much more prepared and experienced to really make a hard run at the team,” she said. “I swam well, but that meet taught me that I can only control my races and not what my competitors do.
“I have to swim my own race, and I swam well and was happy with the results even after coming close to making the team.”
As she completes final preparations for 2018 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships which begin tomorrow, McLaughlin said she continues to use what happened before 2016 Olympic Trials as motivation and inspiration.
In January 2016, she incurred a neck injury while diving into the water at the beach – hitting the sand hard and jarring her neck.
In the process, she fractured vertebrae in her neck and was out of the pool for several weeks in a neck brace and missed weeks of training and competition although she did return for NCAAs that March.
Needless to say, she went to Olympic Trials less prepared than she normally would be or wanted to be.
“It was the scariest thing because when it happened, I lost feeling and couldn’t move my upper body at first,” she said. “But the feeling slowly came back, and despite being way from training for more than a month, when I returned to the pool, I was more motivated than ever.”
McLaughlin said her time away from the sport she’s loved since she started swimming as a child gave her a new perspective that it could have been taken away from her because of an unfortunate accident.
It’s all part of her commitment to accepting ownership for her choices – good, questionable and otherwise.
“Six weeks in a neck brace gives you a very unique perspective about swimming and life,” she said. “When something you love is taken away from you – even for a few weeks – you really get a new appreciation for it all.”
When she did resume training, McLaughlin said she took it easy at first but with the blessings of her doctors and trainers, it wasn’t long before she was going full-board.
Still, the time away put her behind in her training, but she still swam fast at Olympic Trials. A year later at Nationals, she was feeling even better and made the finals of both the 100 (6th) and 200 (7th) butterfly events and just missed the finals in the 200 freestyle.
And with so many important teams (2018 Pan Pacific Championships, 2019 World Championships, 2019 World University Games and 2019 Pan American Games) selected from this week’s Nationals, McLaughlin said she’s excited to be back in the water with friends and competitors.
But she said she’ll be happy to just swim her best whether or not that results in a future team.
She owns whatever happens.
“I will honestly be happy if I race my best; I really just want to feel good about my swimming no matter what happens,” she said. “I also want to have fun and enjoy the experience, which can be hard to do when you’re so focused on making a team.
“I’ve realized over the past couple of seasons that when we were kids, swimming was about having fun, and it’s easy to forget that when it’s all about outcomes. For me now, I just want to swim fast but have fun at the same time – and the two go hand-in-hand for me. But it took me a little while to learn that.”