Katie Drabot Not Worried About Labels, Focused on the Present

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

Swimmers often define themselves by the events that they swim. “I’m a backstroker,” one might say to another, who would then reply, “I’m a breaststroker,” or “I’m a 400 IMer.” But throughout her swimming life, Katie Drabot has had a hard time fitting into one of those categories.

Drabot’s first state cut came in the 100 backstroke. For a short time after that, she considered butterfly her best event. By the time she started high school, IM and breaststroke were her specialties. Eventually, she settled into freestyle, and coming out of high school in Wisconsin and entering Stanford, she firmly considered herself a mid-distance freestyler.

But as a sophomore, in a goal meeting with Cardinal coach Greg Meehan, Drabot suggested that she could train for and maybe compete in the 200 fly—not an event that swimmers typically beg to swim, but Drabot had a compelling reason.

“I like training fly, but I also wanted to get out of the mile,” Drabot said. “While nobody really wants to do the 200 fly, I would prefer doing the 200 fly over the mile.”

Needing an event for Drabot to swim on the final day of the Pac-12 and NCAA championships (to go along with the 500 free and 200 free earlier in the meet), Meehan had considered the 1650 free the logical choice. It took some convincing to change his mind, but after a couple fast swims in the 200 fly in dual meet action, Drabot got her wish.

“I also wanted to see and explore a different event that I thought I could excel in,” she said. “I have that endurance background with training a little bit of distance, and I also enjoy training fly, so I thought it was a good balance.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

When racing fly, Drabot felt a different kind of pressure than in freestyle events due to her relative inexperience. There were plenty of little details to consider—in technique, for instance—but fewer expectations and less self-comparisons attached to the event. She swam the 200 fly with freshness and vigor.

Turns out, she was one of the best in the country. Who knew? Certainly not Meehan or even Drabot.

At the Pac-12 championships in late February, Drabot finished third in the 200 fly. Three weeks later at the NCAA championships, Drabot finished second behind teammate Ella Eastin, her time of 1:51.73 making her the eighth-fastest performer in history in the yards version of the event.

And when Drabot swam her first long course meet of the season, the 200 fly was on the program. She was without a long course entry time at the TYR Pro Swim Series Indianapolis, and she ended up swimming a time of 2:08.38 in prelims before scratching the final. Her time ended up as the fastest of the day, and it was faster than any American other than Hali Flickinger had swum in the entirety of 2017.

She wouldn’t swim the race again before U.S. Nationals in late July, but Drabot, who had never finished higher than seventh in one of her signature freestyle races at Nationals, arrived at that meet as a top three seed in the 200 fly. It was still a new, fun, different event, and that kept the pressure off.

“There was a little bit of nerves, but I think I was able to channel that more into excitement,” she said. “I personally really like the 200 fly long course. I know it scares some people. I think I channel those nerves and that feeling of being scared just into excitement to pump me up for that race and that swim.”

Drabot thought back to one of the shirts Stanford had worn during the college season, with a phrase written on the back: “Swim for the little girl inside of you.” It was a reminder to keep it simple and not worry about the pressure and strings attached to one big race or another—to swim with freedom and fluidity.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In the 200 fly final at Nationals, Drabot did just that—and she earned herself a spot on Team USA at the Pan Pacific Championships.

She finished second behind Flickinger at Nationals in 2:07.18, and at the Pan Pacs in Tokyo, she earned bronze in the 200 fly. Those two swims secured her spot to swim the event at next year’s World Championships.

After that, Drabot’s career trajectory is different—she knows that she will compete against the best 200 flyers in the world next summer in South Korea and that she has improved her stock as a challenger for a spot on the 2020 Olympic team. Instead of heading to Olympic Trials as one of a myriad of challengers for a top-six finish in the 200 free, she is likely to be one of the top seeds in an event with far less depth.

Drabot won’t let herself think that way.

“Right now I’m just trying to live in the moment and just be present with the people in my life right now and the training,” she said, “Long-term, obviously there’s Trials in 2020. I think the majority of the swimming population just wants to make that team. I’m not having a hard time with it, but just making Pan Pacs and Worlds is just so new and surreal to me.

“2020, it’s still on the table and it’s still something that I’m setting my goals for, but it’s also something that I’m keeping in the back of my mind as I train and work towards Worlds this summer and NCAAs. It is something that I kind of have my sights on, but I want to keep it low-pressure.”

The world now sees Drabot as a butterflyer first, but she doesn’t necessarily think that way. She still trains predominantly freestyle, with some IM work mixed in.

Her swimming career is not about any labels. It’s about keeping the racing fresh and exciting and living in the moment.


More about Katie Drabot:

As a swimmer, what makes you tick? What is your primary motivation on a daily basis and in the big picture?

“I think just setting my goals in the end is just something that motivates me day in, day out, and I think having such a strong group of girls around me is very motivating. Having 22 girls that are all very strong in what they do just really is very inspirational. It’s something that pushes you to want to be as good as them.

“I look up to every single one of them as an inspiration for what they do in the pool and what they do in the classroom and how they are able to balance that. That’s something that’s very, very motivating to me. I’ve definitely noticed that when I go home for breaks, it’s hard to motivate myself because I don’t have those girls around me, and I think that says a lot about our team and our team dynamic. It’s a driving force for why we’re so successful in the end.

“I think having these big goals, these goals that almost scare me, to kind of use them as motivation instead of having them scare me and keep them in the front of my mind when I’m practicing instead of thinking about how I might feel at the end of the race. I kind of put myself in that situation to push myself through those hard practices. It’s both a teammate thing and a big-picture, end-of-season, end-of-career goal.”

How did that happen? When you start swimming, you don’t think of those very specific things you want to achieve. How did you become very goal-oriented, goal-driven when you were younger?

“I’ve always been very competitive, whether it be in school or in the pool. Especially growing up as the third child, I had my older siblings that I would always look up to but also want to compete with. I was always that very competitive child in whatever it may be. Just growing up, I always looked at the sport as something of a competitive nature and always wanting to get my hand on the wall first, like I still do.

“When I was younger, it was always for the fun of it. Once I started taking things more serious is when I actually started setting goals for myself. I think a lot of it was unexpected in terms of my achievements at a young age—like making Nationals and that type of thing. I just always wanted the next-best thing, and I think that came with my competitive nature that I’ve always had. I’ve always wanted to check the next box, open one door and see what the next door was that I could open. I think that’s just kind of how I’ve always been with the sport.”

Before Pan Pacs, you had less experience in international racing, but you had been to Short Course Worlds and World University Games. What value did that have as you attacked Pan Pacs, which is considered a bigger deal from a U.S. perspective?

“I think any international experience is good, and the more international meets you swim in, it gives you a little bit more confidence and a little bit better understanding of what to expect. I definitely think that having previous experience kind of helped with the new experience and the new level that this meet was. I tried to put everything into its simplest terms—it’s just another swim meet.

“And yeah, the competition may be a lot stronger, but it’s one of those things where you just want to have a lot of confidence in yourself and in your training, just go out there and race and do what we’ve been doing for the past 14 years. I think also representing the U.S. gives you this huge sense of pride that with every race, you want to go out there and give it your best because you’re competing for something that’s so much bigger than yourself. I think just keeping things simple and keeping things relaxed is all you can really do at those competitions. Everybody’s going to be nervous, but it’s just who can channel those nerves the best and use it to their advantage.”

What was it like the first time you met Katie Ledecky?

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Drabot with Katie Ledecky at the NCAA championships — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I think we just had a normal interaction. I want to say the first official time was in Mesa before my freshman year. I think she said ‘hi’ or ‘good luck’ to me before a race. We obviously knew each other because we would be coming in with the same class. I think with being around these athletes so much, it’s something that really doesn’t surprise me.

“I’m sure if I saw some celebrity, I would react the same way people around campus do to Katie, but I think just having that exposure to these top athletes and racing them, I don’t think too much of it. I like to think of myself as one of them. While, no, I don’t have the gold medals and the accomplishments that she does, she’s just another person. She’s very humble. I think it was just a normal interaction. I’m sure deep down I was like, ‘Oh my gosh—that’s so cool,’ but the exposure to all these people has made it something that doesn’t really phase me.”

Going into NCAAs, you guys will lose Katie and Simone (Manuel). Aside from the points, what are the challenges of being on an NCAA team that loses their presence?

“I don’t know if it’s really a challenge because they’re still around the pool deck. While, yes, we did lose some very strong swimmers, we also have a very strong incoming class, so I don’t think we’ve ever looked at it as a challenge in terms of a negative thing but more so a challenge in terms of, ‘Can we still have the level of success we did with them on the team?’ Everybody’s going to step up this year. Everybody’s going to fill their shoes in one way or another.

“While it may not be to the same level, I think it’s just something different a new overall challenge for our team. I think we’re all rising to the occasion and really working hard day in and day out. They were a great addition to our team, but we also have so many other amazing swimmers that I don’t think—it wasn’t ever a thing where it was the Katie and Simone show. Everybody brought something—we had Ally (Howe) and Janet (Hu) and Ella (Eastin), and really everybody on the team brought something. It’s a whole team effort. We’re just dealing with the challenge of filling their shoes, but I think everybody is doing a great job stepping up and rising to the occasion.

What are your plans post-swimming? What do you want to do when you grow up?

“I’m currently studying human biology so that I can become a physician’s assistant.”

That’s pretty intense. What’s most intriguing to you about that?

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Drabot with Stanford coach Greg Meehan — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I think growing up, I’ve always kind of had a passion for health care, and in terms of school, I was always very into the math and sciences as opposed to the history or reading or writing. I always knew that I wanted to do something with health care, and I think as I’ve grown up, I’ve kind of seen the different paths that I could take with that.

“I’ve always known that I never really wanted to be a doctor or surgeon or anything to that extent. Once my older sister went to college, we’ve always been very similar in terms of our interests. She, right now, is at PA school. We were discussing career paths, and she was telling me a lot about being a physician’s assistant. I looked into it. Once she told me about it, it was something that was right down the path that I had always wanted—a step above a nurse but a step below a doctor.

“I’ve just always wanted to help people and work with people. You always follow in your older sibling’s footsteps, but I never thought it would be to this extent.”

What are your big outside-the-pool interests?

“I’m very into nature. I love seeing sunrises and sunsets. This summer, we really tried to go out—when we weren’t exhausted by practice or taking a nap or doing school work, our team really tried to get outdoors. We went to the beach a couple times and went hiking. I think just being out in nature, that’s a hobby.

“I’m also a big animal lover—that’s another thing. I was roommates with Allie Szekely this summer, and there were multiple times when we would just go to Petco or PetSmart or the humane society just to play with animals. Just mainly being out in nature and animals. I like art, but I’m not very good at it. I like being artsy, to the best extent that I can be. Other than that, I’m mostly in school or training, so there isn’t a lot of time for those extra hobbies.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    zswam

    There were plenty of little details to consider—in technique, for instance—but *fewer* expectations and less self-comparisons attached to the event.

    Do you have a copy editor?