Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Kelsi Dahlia Discusses Importance of Faith, Desire to Improve

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Champion’s Mojo Podcast – Kelsi Dahlia

In the latest edition of the Champion’s Mojo Podcast, Olympic Champion and world-record holder Kelsi Dahlia sat down with hosts Kelly Palace and Maria Parker to discuss the latest in her career. They met up recently in Las Vegas for the International Swimming League (ISL) Finals where Dahlia won the 100 meter butterfly. Dahlia is a fierce competitor and says that gratitude and life-balance is what helps her get through tough times. Outside the pool she is devoted to her church, family and community.

In this exclusive interview, she shares candidly about her disappointment at the 2016 Olympics, how it’s made her hungry, what traits she thinks make a champion, if competitors can be friends and how she deals with pre-race extra energy heading into this big Olympic year.

Below is an abridged Q&A of the interview with Kelsi Dahlia. You can listen to the full podcast episode #47 here or at www.ChampionsMojo.com.

Champion’s Mojo: So you grew up in a family of six kids. Where do you fit in?

Kelsi Dahlia: I am the oldest and I just love my family. I get so full just when I get to spend time with my family and I’ve had a lot of that this past fall.

Champion’s Mojo: What is your life like now?

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Kelsi Dahlia: So, yeah, it’s crazy. We’re in a new decade because it feels like Rio was just last month. Actually it’s almost three years already, which is insane. But this fall’s just been as much consistent training as I could do. Saying no to just about everything outside of meets. Which is really hard for me.

Champion’s Mojo: What’s one thing that you would have liked to have done but you had to say no to so you can focus on your training?

Kelsi Dahlia: Well, I really enjoy traveling and doing clinics and speaking engagements outside of Louisville. I love my city. But sometimes I get a little stir crazy. And then at the end of this fall, I realized that it was really, really nice to be home a lot and spend a lot of time with my husband. I was able to go to church services four weekends in a row, and that never happens. So things like that, I’ve been really grateful for.

Champion’s Mojo: So you’re very focused on swimming?

Kelsi Dahlia: Yes, focused, but not overly. I have a good balance. I have Bible studies and other people to remind me of who I am outside of the sport. And that’s been so important to me. I found I have a good balance of that and also am able to have some downtime at home. Traveling takes a lot out of my body, physically, so being able to rest on the weekends and have time at home is really huge. But outside of that, just working really hard, training and going to the ISL Pro Meets.

Champion’s Mojo: What does your typical day look like when you’re in Louisville training?

Kelsi Dahlia: Yeah. I wake up a little before 5:00, have my coffee, read a little bit, go to practice six to seven thirty, then head over to the weight room. Then I get to run home, have a quick bite to eat, take a nap. Sometimes I go see a physical therapist or athletic trainer. Then I eat lunch and then eat again. And then I go back to the pool to swim from 2:30-4:30, maybe stick around a little bit, do some abs or some stretching, and then I go home, make dinner. I love the meal kits that they send to your home. We’ve done HelloFresh or EveryPlate. I’m a huge fan of those. Or I’ll go to Costco to do their pre-made meals just for the ease. I don’t enjoy grocery shopping. And then I have lunch for the next day also. I’m all about leftovers.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you have any special diet that you follow?

Kelsi Dahlia: No, I just eat whatever I want. It’s hard for me to say no to the sweets. I definitely want sweets to finish the day with, like some sort of chocolate. Not like a huge amount.

Champion’s Mojo: You’ve already had tremendous success. What are you hoping for going forward?

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Kelsi Dahlia with husband, Thomas. Photo Courtesy: Diana Pimer

Kelsi Dahlia: I just want to enjoy each meet at a time and enjoy the process. To be honest, this has been the hardest fall that I’ve had. I think I’m starting to get excited for a life after swimming and I haven’t decided how long I am going to swim. I’m really taking it one year at a time at this point. But all my friends are having kids and I’m really excited for that. Whenever that happens. So I just want to enjoy the process. And I’m really grateful for my coaches who really push me and my teammates who are there and really encouraging and positive. But I want to try to get better. And that’s hasn’t happened the last couple seasons. So figuring out what it is I need to do to get better and looking for that, I guess.

Champion’s Mojo: You’re an Olympic gold medalist. How did that change your life or how did it make you feel to earn the title of Olympic gold medalist?

Kelsi Dahlia: It definitely did NOT happen the way I expected it to. I went into the 2016 Olympics ranked top three in the world in the 100 fly. Then in semifinals I finished ninth by .04, missing the finals. That really stung, that really, really stung. I remember going to the warmdown pool afterwards, trying not to cry. I didn’t want to bring negativity to the team area. We were all doing so well. Coach Arthur was there and he was able to hug me, but he just didn’t really have the words to say.

I prepared as well as I thought I could and did what I needed to do, but it just wasn’t enough. So I didn’t get a chance to earn a spot on the podium for 100 fly, but because Team USA has so much depth, I was given another chance to swim on a relay. I put on my USA cap on the medley relay as part of the prelims relay. And so I was in the stands when I won my gold medal, which was not how I expected my Olympic experience to go. So that has really kept me hungry going forward.

I remember I really, really struggled with thinking that I didn’t earn the medal because I was on the prelims. But I actually had a conversation with my general manager, Jason Lezak. I shared with him my struggles and going through all the feelings. And he said, you just have to get over that. You just have to get over it. I said, OK, if Jason’s telling me to get over it, he said he’s been on the finals relay and he’s also been on the prelims relay, too, and was reminding me of how valuable prelims relays are. But I was handed my gold medal the next day, just here you go. There wasn’t any fanfare, wasn’t any ceremony. So my Olympic experience wasn’t how I expected it to go at all, but I’m so grateful for it. And I learned so much from it. And there’s been a lot of sweet moments since then that have meant even more because of that.

Champion’s Mojo: What do you think has made you the success that you are?

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Kelsi Dahlia: Well, I have to give God the glory for this, because there are so many people I practice with and we all work so hard. But he’s given me this gift. And I like to think that I put in some work to do it. But He’s given me the talent and has provided these opportunities. So He’s given me so many gifts through the sport.

Also I think being consistent when it comes to working out every day. I think that’s one thing I do well, being consistent from the start of practice to the end. And when it comes to my lifting and doing everything I need to in the weight room. I don’t think I’m the greatest when it comes to what I eat.

I think that’s something I can improve upon. But I think I’ve gotten a lot better over the years and I think I have a great support system as well. It’s not just me. My husband’s been amazing, especially this fall. And I’ve struggled a little bit more than other years. And Coach Arthur and our whole coaching staff, Stephanie, Chris and Cameron and all the athletic trainers we’ve had. I’ve never had something serious with my shoulders, but they’re always hurting. I always want to chop them off (laughs).

Champion’s Mojo: Your shoulders are always hurting?

Kelsi Dahlia: They are just about always hurting from overuse. It affects how I sleep and everything I do. They just ache and are painful. But there’s nothing like a tear, or major damage, which I’m extremely grateful for. And I think sometimes I complain a little bit too much, but I I still do the work I need to do. I have a great physical therapy sponsor that I work with every week in Louisville Pro Rehab. I go to see them every week and I have a great massage therapists and do everything I can with all the resources I have, but they still just really hurt.

Champion’s Mojo: Obviously, you’ve been through some tough times. What would you say your mindset is when you’re going through something tough?

Kelsi Dahlia: I try to be grateful. I have so much to be grateful for. And everyday getting to be with some of my best friends and the most amazing people is what really just keeps motivating me. I don’t have to do a normal job and I appreciate that swimming is a blast. Originally I was going to physical therapy school. That was really my plan until my junior year of college when I got a whole lot better and made the national team and a lot of doors opened through all those experiences where I could become a pro swimmer. So I just want to be grateful for the support and what I have.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you have any routines or rituals that you think help you perform better?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Kelsi Dahlia: I read scripture in the morning and listen to worship music on the way to practice. And that just puts my heart in the right attitude. I do always wear red converse to finals. I do carry my water bottle everywhere I go, making sure I’m always hydrated.

Champion’s Mojo: How long have you been married?

Kelsi Dahlia: A little over two years now. But almost together for seven years. I met my husband my freshman year of college and started dating. And it’s been great. He was also a swimmer.

Champion’s Mojo: Does your husband still swim?

Kelsi Dahlia: No, he does Crossfit. And I have mixed feelings about crossfit. But I did admit to him that I’ll probably do it when I’m done swimming.

Champion’s Mojo: Why do you have mixed feelings about Crossfit?

Kelsi Dahlia: I just think sometimes Crossfitters cut corners just to do things as quickly as possible. And I like to do everything by the book. Yes, I’m type A that way. If practice finishes on 5,900 yards, I’ll swim an extra 100 to make it 6,000. .

Champion’s Mojo: That sounds like a trait of champions. What traits do you think champions share?

Kelsi Dahlia: That’s a really good question. I think focus is really huge, especially at meets. Like when there’s just chaos and every meet goes so quickly you have to have focus. Also, I think flexibility is important. I’m working on this. I tend to get a little overwhelmed sometimes. This summer I had a big moment at Worlds. We go into the warmup venue and there’s no space. The ceilings feel really small and it’s really dark. And there are only so many lanes open, to warm up and down. I took a lot of deep breaths and said to myself, hey, we’re gonna make it work. We might have to stretch over here where there’s a little more space. And so I did that at U.S. Open a few weeks ago when there were 1,300  swimmers. So I sat in the hallway and said, it’s dry here.This is fine.

Also I think trusting in one’s coaches is huge. You have to believe they know what they’re doing, that we put in the work together and rely on our taper. It is so important in my journey.

Champion’s Mojo: What are your thoughts on the ISL and how it’s been being a pro swimmer just in general?

Kelsi Dahlia: The ISL has been a blast. I’ve really enjoyed the meets. I think it’s just really fun going to a two session meet and having only two hours each time. And it’s fun. I like that it’s for the team. And I like meeting a lot of international swimmers. I’ve never swam on a team like we have here. Swimming for a team and fighting on relays together, there’s just something so special about that.

Champion’s Mojo: And what are your thoughts in general on just professional swimming as a career?

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Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Kelsi Dahlia: The ISL has opened up so many doors for people just being able to swim longer. I had an event a couple summers ago with Mary T. Meagher, who’s a Louisville native. I can’t remember how many years apart we are, but she’s just so amazed by the longevity of swimmers’ careers now. She stopped swimming at such a young age, early 20s. That used to be considered old. Now it’s not.

And it’s so exciting that people can make a living and make a good living through the sport of swimming. So, yeah, I think it’s awesome.

Champion’s Mojo: What are your thoughts as we head into the new year and new decade of 2020?

Kelsi Dahlia: Oh, my goodness. I enjoy every new year. The start of every new year. And I think it’s come so fast. It’s a little scary just knowing that we’re coming towards the next Olympics. But I’m excited for it, too.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you get nervous when you think 2020?

Kelsi Dahlia: Oh, yeah.

Champion’s Mojo: Is that a good thing for you? Do you like that energy that comes from that or is it something that you have to really tamp down?

Kelsi Dahlia: I have to tamp it down. I think my if my adrenaline to comes out too soon, then it won’t come when I need it to. So leading into 2016, I baked a lot. I love to bake. So that’s what I did a lot then.

Champion’s Mojo: So you’re going to bake going into 2020?

Kelsi Dahlia: Probably. I also knit. I like knitting. I used to knit a while ago and recently picked it back up. I made my sister an infinity scarf for Christmas.

Champion’s Mojo: What is it that you like best about swimming?

Kelsi Dahlia: Everything! But I guess it’s been the friendships and the travel I’ve gotten to do. I’ve met the most amazing people and I know I’ll stay in touch with them forever. So that’s been the best part of it.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you think it’s possible for women to compete against each other and still have friendships?

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Kelsi Dahlia: I think it’s tricky. But it is possible. I love Mallory (Comerford), my teammate. We’re kind of an unofficial roommates this year at all these ISL meets and U.S. Open. And I so admire her. She works so hard and just has such a mature head on her shoulders even since she was a freshman.. But I think we have to, as women, be able to support one another, especially in sport. And I think it is definitely tricky.

I think it would be different but Mallory and I spent so much time together. We do get to know each other outside of the pool. And I think that’s important, to get to know each other outside of the pool. And that’s what ISL has done a lot. We get to travel as a team. Before the Olympics, I was doing puzzles with Katie Ledecky and doing all these fun things that help us see each other as humans. And yes, we’re incredible athletes. We’re competing against each other. But I love seeing other women succeed.

Champion’s Mojo: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you would like to say?

Kelsi Dahlia: I’m grateful for you guys and your platform for sharing these interviews with the swimming community and grateful that you asked me to be a part of it.

Champion’s Mojo: That’s really special. Thank you.

Champion’s Mojo: We’re so in awe of how tough and strong you are in the pool and yet you have such a sweet and kind demeanor outside the pool. Where do you think that comes from?

Kelsi Dahlia: I think my faith. I’m grateful for my parents that I grew up in a Christian home and being at the University of Louisville. That was one of the things I looked for, was looking for people to hold me accountable to my faith and to grow and my faith as well. So SCA Fellowship Christian Athletes at Louisville has been a big part of my walk. Our chaplain at Louisville was our wedding officiant. And I am still really involved in that ministry. And so, yeah, definitely. So much of it is Jesus.

Champion’s Mojo: That’s great and that’s going to wrap it up. Thank you so much. We really appreciate your time and we will definitely be cheering for you!

Kelsi Dahlia: I appreciate it. I loved talking with you guys. Thank you very much.

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