Katrina Konopka’s Sprint to World Record Status

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

Katrina Konopka never expected to wind up at the University of Arizona. Having grown up in Wisconsin and then moved to South Carolina in middle school, she figured she’d stay within the eastern half of the country for college—even when she got that first email from the Wildcats.

“I looked at it and was like, ‘I’m probably not going to go to Arizona,’” she said.

It didn’t take long, though, for Konopka to fall for the laid-back culture of the desert, the family atmosphere of the Wildcats’ program and the opportunity to swim for legendary sprint coach Rick DeMont—known as “Rocket.”

And almost immediately, she saw the results. Less than a year after arriving in Tucson, Konopka swam in her first Olympic Trials, where she finished fifth in the 50 free with a time of 24.84. Her 24.68 in the semifinals ranked her 19th in the world for 2016.

A few months after Trials, Konopka was named to the U.S. squad for the Short Course World Championships in Windsor.

In that short time since she arrived in Tucson, Konopka had learned how to sprint at an elite level.

“I came from a team that did a lot of yards,” she said. “Our team was very 400 IM-based, so I did a lot of distance. Coming to Arizona, I learned how to use power in the water to grab water better. A lot of small details make a really big difference.”

Training with DeMont, Konopka put emphasis on improving her body position, elbow position and, more recently, breathing.

“I used to completely stop swimming when I breathed,” she explained, “and basically turned over on my back. We’re just trying to keep me more on my stomach so I don’t lose my body position.”

She’s still trying to figure out how best to stay calm before a 50 free—“I get too jumpy,” she said—but in recent months she has nailed down her race strategy for the 100 free. With DeMont’s guidance, Konopka figured out that she can attack a 100 free from the start and still hang on, thinking of it as “a 50 with more air.”

Konopka’s elevation into one of the country’s premier sprinters hasn’t been without its bumps. She just barely missed out on scoring individually at her first NCAA championships in 2016, finishing 18th in 50 free—eight one-hundredths away from a spot in the consolation finals—and 22nd in the 100 free. In the team race, the young Wildcat women ended up 12th overall.

Coming off a bit of a letdown, Konopka arrived at the Olympic Trials with no expectations but valuable experience in hand.

“NCAAs taught me just to stay calm, stay focused and know what you’re getting into and that you can do anything,” she said.

Her sights set on a spot in the semifinals of an event, Konopka had to wait through the first half of the week for her primary events to come up. She finished 34th in the 100 back and 79th in the 200 free before the 100 free came around.

Konopka finished in 55.34, just off her best time of 55.05. The time was fine but the results devastating. She was 17th, two one-hundredths slower than 16th-place finisher Kirsten Vose and out of a spot in the semifinals.

“That pushed me over the edge for the 50,” Konopka said.

Two days later, in the final prelims session of the meet, Konopka swam in the final heat of the women’s 50 free. She finished third in the heat behind Madison Kennedy, the top seed entering the meet, and Olivia Smoliga, already an Olympian in the 100 back. Her time of 24.90 was her first-ever swim under 25 seconds and good for a lane in the semifinals.

“All the sudden I was seeded fifth in the morning and was like, ‘Holy crap!’” she said. “And then I was like, ‘What’s happening?’”

Konopka was overjoyed, but minutes later, back in the warmdown area, she received a reminder from Arizona associate head coach Brandy Maben that her work was not yet done.

“Brandy was like, ‘I’m not going to be proud of you until you make the final.’ There’s a lot of people that that would not motivate them. She knew I was going to make it, but I just didn’t know it yet. They had a lot more faith in me than I had in myself,” Konopka said.

During the hours leading up to her semifinal swim and then in the ready room itself, Konopka had her nerves to keep in check, so she resorted to one of her favorite swim meet habits.

“I talk—a lot—before I swim,” she said. “I was just bouncing between teammates, talking about whatever they talk about. We talked about Disney movies. We would talk about swimming and the meet and how people were doing.”

In the ready room, Konopka struck up a conversation with Kennedy, and the pair passed time chatting about humorous videos on Facebook. Minutes later, both went out and earned spots in the final, with Konopka picking up the fourth seed.

One evening later, during the penultimate race of the meet, Konopka walked out behind lane six for what she calls “the biggest race I’ve ever swum in.”

“I think my heart stopped when I stepped out on pool deck and just heard everybody screaming,” she said. [My team] afterwards was laughing at me because I threw up the Wildcat for, like, two seconds, and they were like, ‘You should have held it longer!’ I was like, ‘I didn’t know what to do!’”

She ended up finishing fifth, a remarkable performance for the 19-year-old—especially one who entered the meet so far from the public radar—but she couldn’t help but be disappointed after she came so close.

“I knew it was going to be really hard and that it was going to be an uphill battle, but there’s still a slight possibility that it was going to happen, so I was a little bit disappointed,” Konopka said. “But it was really cool to have my team there—when I walked off deck, they were all standing, giving me hugs. Brandy and Rick both came up to me and were like, ‘We’re so proud of you. We knew you could do this all along.’

She paused. “I’m tearing up thinking about it.”

Of course, that moment which remains so vivid in Konopka’s memory more than a half-year later did not actually qualify her for any specific international team—the Olympic Trials, after all, is notoriously top-two-or-bust. Or at least Konopka figured at the time.

In October, an email from USA Swimming offered her the chance to compete at the Short Course World Championships. After checking with DeMont to ensure that the meet would not conflict with the college team’s schedule, Konopka eagerly accepted.

On day one in Windsor, Konopka led off the U.S. 400 free relay team in prelims. Joining Konopka on the squad were Katie DrabotAli DeLoof and one experienced veteran in Kennedy.

“Before the first relay, I was incredibly nervous, and [Kennedy] could tell that we were all kind of nervous,” Konopka said. “She just looked at all of us and said, ‘If they didn’t think they could do it, they wouldn’t have put you on it.’ That’s really what helped me get through the rest of the relays at the meet.”

Konopka helped the U.S. team qualify seventh for the final. Although she was not a member of the finals quartet, her U.S. teammates won the race, so Konopka got a gold medal for her efforts.

A day later, Konopka was back in the water to anchor the women’s 200 medley relay in prelims. Her split of 23.99 was good enough that the U.S. coaching staff entrusted her to anchor the finals quartet, competing alongside DeLoof, Lilly King and Kelsi Worrell.

During her warmups, U.S. head coach Arthur Albiero approached Konopka and mentioned that the team might have a shot at the world record, a 1:44.04 set by Denmark in 2014.

“I was like, ‘Okay, this is game time. I can do this,’” Konopka said. “Rocket likes to tell me to go hunting, and so I was like, ‘Okay, it’s time to go hunting.’ I dove in and was like, ‘All you have to do is the best 50 you can do.’ And so that’s what I went for.”

As it would turn out, Konopka did not have much to worry about, as Worrell gave her a lead of more than two-and-a-half seconds. The teenager held her ground, splitting 23.93 and touching in 1:43.27, well under the world record.

“I just instantly started crying. I really wanted get out and give my teammates a hug, but I had to swim over to the side to get out before. Lilly was the first one to grab my hand out of the pool, and it was the best feeling in the whole world,” Konopka said.

Of course, the World Championships would not last forever, and soon enough, Konopka departed frigid Canada and returned to the desert with an NCAA season ahead of her and business to attend to.

The Wildcats enter the spring with one of the youngest squads in the country—there are no senior swimmers on the roster—and the top time in the country in the women’s 200 medley relay.

Freshman Kennedy Lohman and fellow sophomores Taylor Garcia and Annie Ochitwa joined Konopka to post a 1:34.63 at the Texas Invite in December. That time broke a nine-year-old team record set in 2008 by a squad that included Annie Chandler and Lara Jackson and went on to win Arizona’s first NCAA team championship.

Individually, Konopka has her sights set on more than just placing in the top 16 in the country in both sprint events, even if the 50 and 100 free are loaded with talent, especially within the Pac-12. But now, as a sophomore, she knows what she’s getting herself into at the NCAA championships.

“That’s such a high-energy meet with everyone cheering. It was about taking that energy and not getting distracted—which as a freshman, is hard to do. I was a little bit all over the place and very nervous—I was actually throwing up before the meet started. Hopefully that’s not the case this year,” she said.

Plus, this time, she already has a world record, and as she admits, ‘it’s a little bit of a confidence boost to keep it in your back pocket.”

To read more about Konopka, Ella Eastin, Michael Chadwick, Mallory Comerford and other rookies on the U.S. Short Course World Championships team, check out “An Opportunity of a Lifetime” in the February issue of Swimming World Magazine. All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

5 Comments

5 comments

  1. avatar
    Robert Kordus

    D

  2. avatar
    Robert Kordus

    Great job! Your work just started. I’m happy for you and your success.

  3. avatar

    Great stuff David. I really enjoy these. I hope you have time to do some swimming between sessions at NCAAs this year. I, alas, will not be able to make it this year.

  4. Daniele Albert

    Get it girl! What a sweet young lady!!!

Author: David Rieder

avatar
David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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