Heart Like Harty

Kaitlin Harty Racing
Photo Courtesy: Kaitlin Harty

By Seren Jones, Swimming World College Intern

What does it mean to have heart? Does it mean that you will do whatever it takes in order to achieve success? To fight for what you desire, despite your fears and doubts? To repeatedly fall only to get up and try again? To perfect the imperfections? To never give up and never give in?

In Kaitlin Harty’s case, to have heart is to have self-belief. Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right. To have heart is to have a mentality that no one or no thing can shake; that includes superior mesenteric artery (SMA) syndrome.

Harty of the YMCA of The North Shore Sharks (YNS Sharks) has had a successful swimming career thus far. In 2012, Harty achieved the Olympic Trials cuts in the 100 and 200 backstroke. At the meet itself, she made the semi-finals in the 100 backstroke, placing 16th overall, and finished 17th in the 200 backstroke at only 14 years of age. Her future in the pool was bright, and Harty was hungry for success.

Kaitlin Team

Photo Courtesy: Kaitlin Harty

However, as Harty’s team unexpectedly fell apart, her desire began to dim. By the time she turned 16, Harty’s dream had changed. The time and effort commitment toward the sport didn’t appeal as much as being able to spend time with her friends. Thus the swimmer from Beverly, MA, decided to take a break over the summer to revaluate her goals and future.

But little did she know that she would be forced out of the pool for more than the summer.

In March of that year, Harty was diagnosed with superior mesenteric artery syndrome, also known as SMA syndrome. The rare syndrome occurs when there is an obstruction of the bowel, strictly preventing food and liquid from digesting.

Kaitlin Harty Hospital

Photo Courtesy: Kaitlin Harty

“At first I was a little shocked,” Harty said. “I don’t think I knew the extent of what I was about to go through, I was just trying to stay calm and focus on the fact that it wasn’t ‘incurable.’ At the time of my diagnosis, I was already considering taking a break from swimming,” the Junior National team member said. “I was a little upset with my strokes and my times, so when I was forced out of the pool, I almost looked at it as a good thing. It wasn’t until a month or so later of dealing with the disorder that I missed the feel of the water. I missed my team, and I missed the way it felt to do well in a really hard set.”

After two attempts at invasive surgery, a series of endoscopies, 30-36 pounds of body weight lost, and 14 months out of the pool, Harty’s mind and body were miraculously back on track. Despite what she had been through, she had finally come to a conclusion about her swimming career.

“I think it absolutely saved my career,” she admitted. “I took my swimming for granted. My disorder put me back in line and showed me that swimming meant more to me than I thought. I firmly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today without my experience this last year.”

Harty returned to the pool in early May to restart her career with a vengeance. This time, she was no longer the 16-year-old who had lost passion for the sport, but was a year old, a year wiser, and possessed a new spark for swimming.

Kaitlin USA

Photo Courtesy: Kaitlin Harty

“I learned that having the ability swim, and to swim well, was a blessing. So I took what I had learned and I used it to my advantage,” she said. “I trained harder than I ever had before. My mental game was also a lot stronger because I would just tell myself that I had been through so much worse and this pain only lasts for couple seconds rather than months.”

Harty proved that swimming is not always about physicality, or the amount of meters you “need” to swim. After only three months of training, Harty earned her Olympic Trials cuts in the same events as she did three years earlier, and will be returning to race in Omaha next year.

“I think that it really does show you can train all you want and maybe even train pretty well, but swimming is about 80 percent mental,” she said.

Many may not agree with this statement, but too often, high school and college swimmers physically prepare their bodies for the biggest meets of the year, yet don’t prepare the most vital aspect– their minds.

“You need to kind of be your own cheerleader because your worst enemy lives between your shoulders,” she explained. “If you’re saying negative things to yourself throughout a really hard set or letting yourself get off easy, odds are you’re not going to get very far. However, if you’re encouraging yourself and thinking positively you’re probably not going to give up; you’re going to push through the set. It definitely takes practice to be able to do that, but with determination, it’s possible.”

After what has been an eventful year for Harty and her family, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The 17-year-old has verbally committed to the University of Texas at Austin and once again has a bright future ahead. There is no doubt that Harty is going to college with a heart and mentality stronger than most.

“Physical game is extremely important, but the stronger you get in the water the stronger your mental game needs to be,” Harty said. “You can swim best times in practice but once you get behind the block, and you’re competing against people who have faster or the same times as you, what makes you stand out from the crowd is how much pain you can take and how strongly you believe in yourself.”

Kaitlin Harty Texas

Photo Courtesy: Kaitlin Harty

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Joanne Newton
8 years ago

I was at the senior meet where she made trials in 2012. It was super exciting! I’m so glad she is healthy and back in the pool!

Dottie M. Shepard
8 years ago

Nate Shepard

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