For Madison Kennedy, Her Way is the Right Way

madison kennedy
Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

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Morning Splash by David Rieder.

Madison Kennedy finished third at Olympic Trials. In 2016, at 28 years old, she had her best shot at making the exclusive Olympic team in the 50 free—she entered the meet with the top 2016 time of any U.S. female—only to come up short.

Kennedy finished two tenths behind Trials winner Abbey Weitzeil and 15-hundredths behind runner-up Simone Manuel in the 50 final. Both women, teenagers at the time, had already qualified for the team in the 100 free, but not Kennedy. She trained for seven years after college and then waited until the last day of the meet for that gut punch. That brutal gut punch.

Two years later, Kennedy is 30 and married. She still lives in Charlotte, where she first moved to train with David Marsh and his elite squad at SwimMAC Carolina. She’s still swimming, but not with a high-profile professional squad. And as for regrets: “No—and that’s not just a canned response,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy is not one for canned responses. She’s something of a free spirit, at least by the standards of a relatively buttoned-up sport like swimming—rainbow hair and all. She’s stubborn, and she admits that. So she will live with the results of doing things her way.

“Maybe people would say, ‘She could have trained more. She could have done this more,’” Kennedy said. “Maybe even David would say that. Maybe even Teri (McKeever, who coached Kennedy at Cal) would say that. Maybe even my parents would say that.

“Honestly, I did everything I thought I needed to do. I had no regrets. Really. That was my best time at the time. I swam as best I can. I did really well. I did my best. There can be no regrets or sadness.”

Kennedy left Omaha bummed that she didn’t get the experience of traveling to Rio—she had never been—and of competing against the best in the world in her events, but losing out on the title “Olympian” never bothered her.

In addition to swimming, Kennedy had been working two part-time jobs in the leadup to Trials: as an “educator” (in sales) at Lululemon and teaching an exercise class several times per week. She made most, but not all, of Marsh’s practices. After Trials, Kennedy resumed working at Lululemon, resumed teaching her exercise classes and continued swimming—but on her own.

Four days per week, typically Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. No more than 3000 yards or meters per practice. She has learned to trust her body to determine what she needs in a given practice.

“As I get older—and I’m not that old—that’s what I don’t think about, ‘I need to do this time,’ or ‘I need to have all these yards in,’” Kennedy said, taking on a nagging tone. “It’s just, ‘What feels good today?’ or ‘What do you need to do even though you don’t want to do it? Okay, we’ll do this hypoxic set or this dive set?’”


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

In her solo quest, Kennedy relied heavily on some of the tactics she picked up from her previous coaches, particularly McKeever and Marsh. Kennedy reflected on how McKeever drilled confidence into her swimmers to perform under any circumstances.

“I was like, ‘Dang, she was teaching all of this stuff so long ago,’ and most of us don’t ever really get to implement that,” Kennedy said. “Just to listen to yourself, to think about what you really need to do and be a strong person—it doesn’t matter if you are a strong woman, strong man, strong whatever—just be yourself, strongly.”

After that first year on her own, Kennedy found herself back at U.S. Nationals and back in the final of the 50 free, but she couldn’t keep pace. She ended up seventh in 24.95. What happened? Well, during her first year of training solo, she had avoided long course like the plague.

“I just didn’t do it,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy had spent a large chunk of that season training in a 33⅓-meter pool—and when she swam her 50 free races that year, she noticed herself fading about two-thirds of the way through the race. So she added long course back to the program, swimming Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Olympic-sized format.

The positive results have showed: Her 50 free times so far in 2018 have included a 25.07 at the TYR Pro Swim Series Mesa, a 24.88 at the Kentucky Derby Pro meet and a 25.11 at the Charlotte UltraSwim.

She learned her lesson: Long course training helps. Who knew? (“Well, everybody,” Kennedy interjected.)

Kennedy was a personality psych major at Cal, and she sees herself eventually pursuing a Masters degree in that field—and her current sales job at Lululemon, Kennedy said, is “for sure a study in personality psychology.” But in the meantime, she’s going to keep swimming and showing up to big meets throughout the year “as long as I can.”

“I look pretty good. I feel pretty good. I’m swimming pretty well. It’s fun,” Kennedy said. “People walk by (at a meet), and they’re like, ‘‘Oh, Madison, she’s still hanging on,’ and if that’s what they think, that’s fine. But that’s not how it always is.”

Sure, Kennedy would like to maybe break an American record or add to her catalogue of experiences that already includes trips to the Pan Pacific Championships, Pan American Games and Short Course World Championships. More trips would be fun—but that’s not why she’s swimming.

“I would love to break an American record. There’s cool things—like going to the Olympics, maybe—but I don’t think those are my goals,” she said. “I guess it would just be to have success the way I want to be swimming.”

No, Kennedy’s motivations for swimming are not the same as your typical pro swimmer who’s 30 years old. And no, maybe she’s not “all-in for 2020.”

The life advice Kennedy might pass along to a younger post-collegiate swimmer debating their future in the sport, the people “who are 23, and I’m friends with them, and you know who they are?” Also much different from the standard party line.

“Get to the bottom of why you’re swimming,” she said, and do what fills you up—if that’s the standard 10 practices per week or, like Kennedy, just four.

“It doesn’t have to be your whole identity, but it is my identity. I am a swimmer,” she said. “We always tell them not to be that, but it’s because people are only swimmers. Be a swimmer, and be a girlfriend, or be a boyfriend, or be a this, but be a swimmer for sure because you won’t have it all the time.”