Sunday, January 20, 2008

Olympic Swimmer Kalyn Keller Retires

Kalyn Keller's retirement will be sorely missed in the aquatic community. Her infectious smile, her racing tenacity and her joy for the sport were known by all her teammates, coaches and competitors.

Kalyn’s silver medal swim in the 25K event at the 2007 World Swimming Championships in Melbourne is a story worth re-telling.

Despite never before having swum this distance (16 miles), Kalyn entered this swim as America’s sole entrant against the world’s best and most experienced open water swimmers. During the first half of the race, a series of unexpected squalls hit Melbourne with winds hit 40 knots. The swimmers on the race course were tossed around and could barely be seen in the torrential downpour that fell from the skies. Turn buoys were torn from their anchors and waves crashed over the feeding pontoons and pier. The swimmers fought heavy surf coming from all directions.

Around the 11K mark, Kalyn stopped three times. Orientation in the open water under such conditions became extremely difficult. “I didn’t know which way to go,” said Kalyn. “I couldn’t tell where anyone was.” Yet Kalyn continued to forge on.

Comments from her teammates and competitors also partly told the story of what Kalyn faced.

“I saw the start of the race, then I went back to our hotel,” Mark Warkentin said. “When I returned later to watch Kalyn, I thought they were tearing down the place because all the banners and tents were down. But, it was just the weather.”

The Russian bronze medalist said, “The waves were unreal. I couldn't understand anything. I was being tossed back and forth, in every direction, couldn't tell which way - from the back, from the side. It was the first time for me to experience such a swim."

Because the swim had turned into a matter of survival versus racing, the officials decided to postpone the event about the 13K mark. After the race was called, coaches had to be rescued from the feeding station on the course by a flotilla of police cruisers and Australian lifeguard rescue boats. Chairs, ice chests and everything else not battened down went overboard.

“When the lifeguard grabbed me [after the race was cancelled to pull her inside a lifeguard boat], I didn’t know what he was doing,” said Kalyn. “There was no way I wanted to watch the race from the shore while everyone else was swimming.”

To put the race conditions in perspective, the swimmers faced 40-knot winds which are defined on the Beaufort Wind Scale as somewhere between “a fresh gale that generally impeded progress and breaks twigs off trees” and “a strong gale where slight structural damage occurs”.

After the race was postponed, the race officials decided to re-start the race from the halfway point the following day…when the winds were expected to “only” be 20 knots. The remaining women – after several athletes had voluntarily quit during the first half of the swim – re-started in the same position as they finished the first half of the race in staggered starts. Germany’s eventual gold medalist lead off with a 2-minute lead, followed by 2 Russians and another German. Kalyn started 30 seconds after the second German.

So, after facing the most frightening aquatic experience in her life, Kalyn had a fitful night of sleep, listening to constant rain and wind battering her hotel room that faced the beach where the race occurred. Yet, she agreed to start with the rest of the participants and encountered 15-20 knot winds, 64ºF water, constant surface chop and endless wind caps throughout the last 12.K. With the staggered start, Kalyn quickly caught up with the Russians and German, for she definitely did not want to swim alone in rough seas.

The four swimmers battled the entire race – back and forth, exchanging leads, surging forward and slowing down to allow their competitors to take the lead. Disciplinary yellow cards were issued by issued by the race referee and whistles were called when the referee judged the combatants were nudging or hitting each other outside the legal bounds. Kalyn was the recipient of some illegal bumping and pulling, but she also received a yellow card. Despite the whistles and yellow cards, much of the bumping seemed inadvertent as the winds and waves simply slammed the swimmers into one another.

During the last 5K, everyone tried to throw in a surge to break free. But, it was Kalyn who threw in the last surge that broke the group. Kalyn received a silver medal for her 5 hour 39 minutes 39.62 second heroic effort. “Kalyn is just giddy with joy,” commented head coach Bill Rose as Kalyn crossed the finish and swam happily to shore. Her smiles, as wide and happy as can be, were shared with all her teammates.

Kalyn has already faced Mother Nature once and come out victorious in Melbourne. Back in Arizona, all her teammates, friends and coaches expect a similar victory over Crohn's disease and look forward to her return as the cheerful, playful and joyful person she was, is and always will be.

Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association

No comments: