One Mississippi … two Mississippi …
In a fraction of the time it took to read those words, student and swimmer Kristy Kowal had to completely reset how she would approach a life’s work of training.
At age 17, missing the chance to compete at the Olympics by only seventeen-hundredths of a second was a devastating blow. After spending thousands of hours training to be one of the greatest swimmers in the world, there was nothing she could do but jump straight back in the water and wait for her next shot at the podium.
Kowal (B.S.Ed. ’02), who graduated from the University of Georgia College of Education with a degree in early childhood education, draws several parallels between the teaching career she has now and her time spent chasing an Olympic medal in the water.
“They’re both so hard in their own arena,” she says. “You have to be physically and mentally tough for swimming. And then with teaching, there’s so many components to it— I think a lot of people don’t realize how far teachers go beyond just giving students new information and helping them acquire new knowledge.”
In fact, Kowal had an up-close and personal look at what skills were needed to not only engage students in the classroom, but to teach them life lessons they could carry with them for the rest of their lives. Her mother—and biggest support system—taught middle school mathematics while the two-time NCAA champion was growing up. As a result, Kowal was inspired by her mother’s ability to clearly explain solutions and followed a similar career path.
“You’re not just a teacher—you’re a mentor, a parent figure, a disciplinarian, and a counselor. You are helping them learn the skills of how to interact with each other. You’re teaching them so much beyond their times tables and how to read. You’re teaching them daily skills they’re going to need for the rest of their lives and how to communicate with each other. Every day has about 75 teachable moments for life lessons that you need to pause and address.”
Blood, sweat, and tears
As a child, despite leaving several races with only a participation ribbon, Kowal knew
that she wanted to swim in the Olympics like “the other swimmers on television.” What started out as a lesson to make sure she was water safe at 9 months old developed into a passion, and by the time she was 8, Kowal knew she wanted to be an Olympian.
“Every time I stopped in the pool [from exhaustion], my coaches were there to tell me to keep going,” says Kowal. “So, you can imagine my parents’ surprise when I announced that I wanted to [be an Olympian]; that one day I too would be among the best swimmers in the world wearing an American flag cap on my head. They never told me that I would most likely never stand on top of the podium at the Olympics.”
Over the next several years and after swimming the equivalent of the distance around the Earth, Kowal’s time to shine at her first Olympic trials was finally about to happen…
Only, it didn’t.
Kowal’s dream was snatched in 1996 when, as a student in the College of Education, she finished .17 seconds behind second place. While sitting on the pool deck after the race, an overwhelming wave of emotions took over. Two of her peers moved on to the world stage, while Kowal’s grief-stricken face graced the cover of Swimming World magazine the next month.
“I was so devastated, I thought my life was over,” she says. “This was a defining moment in my life, and I had to ask myself, ‘Would I walk away from swimming or would I be stubborn and never be that girl who gets third place again?'”
Four years later, Kowal again competed for a spot at the Olympics. She needed to place in the top two in the country to win a spot on the team, but she missed the time again for the 100-meter breaststroke by .01 seconds, the smallest fraction of time you can miss qualifying. Today, she jokes that missing the team by so little takes talent; but at the time, she was already preparing for her next event, the 200-meter breaststroke.
A new beginning
It was a 15-minute drive from Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School, where Kowal was finishing up her student teaching for her early childhood education degree, to the pool where she spent the better part of her day training. Shuttling back and forth between her two passions, swimming and teaching, proved to be exhausting.
“When you’re student teaching, you really get the full teaching experience,” says Kowal. “I understood what swimming tired was, but I didn’t understand what teaching tired was until then. I can put my body through a workout and get physically tired, but there is a different kind of tired when you come home at the end of the day from teaching, and you’re just bone-tired from talking all day.”
And though what she really wanted to do was pull her car over and take a nap, she pressed on. Most students in Kowal’s cohort had graduated by the time she set foot in a classroom, but Kowal knew she had to put her student teaching on hold while she chased her Olympic dreams.
During this period, she learned several life lessons away from the pool, including time management and when to reach out for help and support. Similar to the nerves she felt on the pool deck, Kowal was anxious to meet her new cohort of student teachers.
“I was so nervous about the new cohort because you’re developing all of these ideas with 25 people to go into your student teaching with and all of a sudden, I had to step back,” she says. “And now I was stepping into a new group of 25 people who have all been together and really developed those relationships. But they were amazing.” Even today, she maintains a close friendship with many of her classmates in “Cluster D.” After missing her spot at the Olympic trials, Kowal refocused on her degree and started working with a new coach, setting smaller goals in her training.
Under the guidance of Jack Bauerle, head coach of UGA’s swimming and diving team, Kowal won NCAA championships in 1999 and 2000 and gained international acclaim by capturing gold as an undergraduate student at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia. This was in addition to being named NCAA Swimmer of the Year twice during her college career; in 2000, she was named NCAA Woman of the Year.
“She brought a spirit to the pool that was uncommon,” says Bauerle. “Kristy was born with an edge, and she kept that edge. We had a strong connection almost immediately as coach and swimmer. She gave her heart to this program, and I love her like a daughter.”
Kowal says working with Bauerle kept her focused.
“I knew everything I was doing was going to make me better and faster, and I was so distracted with so much,” says Kowal. “I couldn’t think about anything else—I didn’t have time. When we had conference championships, I would ask, ‘What’s my goal for that?’ For national championships, I would ask, ‘What’s my goal for that?'”
Victory on land and water
When she emerged from the water and saw her brother break through poolside security at the 2000 Olympic trials, Kowal knew she made the team for the 200-meter breaststroke—just two days after losing the 100-meter event. After setting eight American records and one world record, Kowal was finally headed to the Olympics. She had learned to shut off her hectic mind and let her body take over. The result was a silver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
“For me as her coach, it was one of the most satisfying swims of my career,” says Bauerle. “I’m proud to have been a part of that with her. When your athlete is ecstatic and satisfied like that, it’s inexplicable. I was so happy because I knew that would be a game-changer for her.”
Today, Kowal is a third-grade teacher at Whitfield Elementary School in West Lawn, Pennsylvania—the same school she attended as a child. In fact, Kowal teaches in the classroom where she took sixth-grade math, a subject she says she struggled with while growing up.
“I would sit in class with my head down and cover my eyes with my hands, and I would pretend I knew what was going on until I got home,” she says. “I would have my mom explain it to me again in a way that I could understand it.”
It wasn’t until she was in high school when she finally started to grasp the subject thanks to the help of her math teacher, who took the time to make sure she was on track. Today, Kowal pays attention to her students’ mannerisms to assess whether or not they understand all subjects, including reading and social studies (her personal favorite). Her teaching philosophy plays to each student’s strengths.
“Everyone has a different way of learning, and I absolutely believe that each child is their own individual learner,” says Kowal. “If I have to stand on my head and pull out a bag of tricks to help a student become successful, that’s what I’m going to do. But it’s just all about finding what is going to help each individual student be the best they can be.”
Not only does Kowal work to ensure her students’ success, but she also aims to instill a sense of service and responsibility in her “kiddos.” She takes part in Swim Across America, which supports childhood cancer treatments. With only 4 percent of national funding allocated to children’s cancer research, Kowal is dedicated to helping doctors fund their work. Her swimming career has also taken her across Europe as part of USA Swimming and the Athens Bulldog Swim Club.
After graduation, Kowal received an NCAA scholarship and, in 2007, received her master’s degree in elementary education from Gratz College in Pennsylvania while teaching full-time. She is now pursuing an online reading specialist certificate.
While her name will stay in the record books and in several halls of fame, including the Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame (2009), the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame (2010), UGA’s Circle of Honor (2012), and the Georgia Aquatic Hall of Fame (2013), Kowal’s legacy lies with her students.
“The real-life challenge of being a teacher is just trying to meet the needs of every single student in your classroom every day,” she says with a smile. “By the time they leave you, usually at the end of the year, you’re like, ‘Can I help you?’ and they’re like, ‘Nope, we can do this ourselves.’ They’re little independent humans who have grown so much. You feel a sense of accomplishment, but at the same time, you’re like, ‘I can finally relax!'”