By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, October 4, 2019
Photo courtesy University of Texas Athletics
Long and lanky, Austin Katz is built more like his mom, Shelley, the former tennis player, than his dad, Richard, the former college football player.
As one of the world’s premier backstrokers, that frame has served him well over the course of his career – helping him to win medals at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, 2017 and 2019 World University Games and the last two Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships.
And with 2020 Olympic Trials less than a year away, Katz, who attended the 2012 Trials as a spectator and 2016 Trials as an inexperienced but eager competitor, is ready to use that slender but powerful physique to be right in the mix to add Olympian to his already impressive swimming resume.
“I think every swimmer grows up wanting to be an Olympian, but for me, it’s really just been the past couple of years that I’ve really started to believe I could achieve it,” said Katz, a junior at the University of Texas. “I remember being in the stands at 2012 Trials, cheering on my older brother and sister, and thinking this was something I would never be good enough to do.
“But then, four years later, I was back in Omaha as a competitor, and I made the finals of the 200 back. Now, next summer, I’ll be someone with a really strong chance of making the team. It just goes to show you that you can’t always predict the future – and you can’t limit your dreams.”
Even though neither of his parents swam competitively, Katz and his three siblings (including younger brother, Arik, who is also a member of the 2019-2020 National team and recently committed to swim for Harvard) hovered around the local swimming pool.
By the time he was 5, Katz was following his sister, Taylor, and older brother, Alex, to the family pool in Sarasota, Fla., and he loved it immediately.
Within a couple of years, he was swimming year-round for a local club, and by the time he was 14, he was fully committed to the sport – having given up his other love, baseball, to concentrate on his performance in the water.
“I didn’t really start taking swimming seriously until then, but once I did, I was all-in,” he said. “My coach and I sat down, and he told me I needed to make a choice because if I was going to swim, I needed to do only it and give up my other sports.
“I was always much more passionate about swimming, and I saw a much brighter future there than with baseball. It was quickly clear that I made the right decision.”
Within two years, Katz was named to the 2015 U.S. World Junior Championships, where he won a bronze medal in the 200 back, and a year after that, he made the top 5 in the same event at Olympic Trials.
In 2017, he added a silver medal in the 200 back at WUGS, then a bronze in the same event at 2018 Pan Pacs and this summer, he broke through for gold at WUGs in Naples, Italy.
“Having been at WUGs in 2017, I knew what to expect, but one thing I’ve learned is that despite the expected similarities, all international meets are a little different but always awesome,” he said. “You never know what to expect from the competition at events like WUGs – who the countries are going to send.
“At bigger meets like Worlds and the Olympics, you know you’re going to compete against the best in the world. But at an event like WUGs, it’s not always that cut and dried. Still, it’s exciting to race people from other countries. At Nationals and NCAAs, you tend to compete against the same people, so when you travel to another country, it’s great to race new people.”
Because of the NCAA, national and international success he’s enjoyed the past couple of years, Katz, who is a film major at Texas and one day wants to potentially own his own production company – maybe with his brothers, said this year’s WUGs were different because his expectations were higher.
He knows that will be the case next summer at Trials when he and his family – including Arik, who will be a top contender in the distance freestyle events – head to Omaha to compete for a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team.
He said he knows the U.S. has a deep history – and roster – when it comes to backstroke events, but he will head to Trials as confident as ever, and he’s expecting some fast swimming across the board.
He said he and his teammates are mixing in long course training with NCAA-focused short course sets – working specifically on underwaters and turns – so when he gets to Nebraska next summer for Trials, he knows he will be in the position to possibly contend for a spot on the team.
In 2016, he was just happy to make the semis because he knew who would be at the top in the finals and make the team.
Next summer, he intends to be more of a factor in making that outcome anything but a forgone conclusion.
“I treat every meet as a learning experience, and these past few years have been full of them,” he said. “At Nationals this summer, I slipped at the start of the race, and rather than panic, I just took out my first 50 faster than I usually do, and I made up the lost time to win. In the past, I would have lost my focus, and it would have negatively impacted my race. But I know from all my recent meet experience, you have to learn to adjust and roll with the punches.
“Not every part of your race is going to go as you expect, so you have to be ready for that and make adjustments. I know I can do that, and I feel like every time I jump in the water, I am fully prepared for whatever might come. That gives me tremendous confidence in and out of the water, because the same things happen in daily life. You just have to be flexible and ready to make changes when they come.”