Sports

Fitzgerald’s finale

Olympic swimmer Kelly Fitzgerald, who finished in eighth place at last year’s state swim championships in the 100 breast, is hoping to improve that standing in her final high school swim meet.  - Photo by Aaron Managhan
Olympic swimmer Kelly Fitzgerald, who finished in eighth place at last year’s state swim championships in the 100 breast, is hoping to improve that standing in her final high school swim meet.
— image credit: Photo by Aaron Managhan

by AARON MANAGHAN

Sports editor

While the human body is composed of mostly water, it’s no understatement to say that water runs in the veins of Olympic swimmer Kelly Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald, an Oly senior, has been in the water most of her life. She began swimming at just 4 years old, no surprise considering her whole family is made up of competitive swimmers, from her father Michael, a collegiate swimmer, to mother Debbie and older siblings Patrick and Caroline.

And while this weekend’s WIAA State Girls Swim & Dive Championships, which began yesterday and continues today at Federal Way’s King County Aquatic Center, marks the end of her high school swimming career, Fitzgerald can’t help but have mixed feelings.

“It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s also the end,” Oly coach Paul Henderson said. “There’s mixed emotions.”

“Saying goodbye to everybody will be sad, but I’ve gotten everything I can from swimming,” Fitzgerald said. “It taught me a lot. I got a lot of my morals from swimming. I’m ready to use everything I learned.”

But the road to her final state appearance wasn’t an easy one.

Swimming for club teams most her life, Fitzgerald found herself facing some tough decisions as she got older and the distant future began to creep into focus more and more.

“I’ve been around swimming my whole life,” she said. “My first break was last year after state. I pretty much had to choose between school and swimming. It was a pretty tough decision.”

After finishing on the podium in eighth place in the 100-yard breaststroke at state a year ago, Fitzgerald decided to cut back on club swimming during the season.

“Pretty much I reached my point of exhaustion,” she said. “I really had to sit down and think about that.”

With a mounting workload at school, the need for a job and a longing to try some new things before she left high school, Fitzgerald quit swimming club altogether this year.

“Last year, she stopped club swimming during the swim season,” Henderson said. “So she was with the team the whole time. Then this year, she stopped club swimming all together. This year she’s doing this for Kelly.”

Her increased time with the team meant she could step up as a leader too.

“She leads the team in and out of the pool,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s really stepped it up maturity- and leadership-wise. I’ve been most impressed with that. I don’t even have to coach her anymore.”

Last spring, she gave tennis a shot while running with friends a lot recreationally.

“When I was doing club swimming, it was really tough on me both physically and mentally,” she said, referring to the three- to four-hour practices a day. “I had a really rough schedule. I had to learn how to say no to my friends.”

A close relationship with her siblings also played into her decision, as she attributes her brother for pushing her most.

“Especially when I was home alone when both my brother and sister moved out (for college),” Fitzgerald said. “I went through a lot of times that tested my commitment.”

And while she enjoyed trying new sports, nothing quite hit the spot like swimming.

“Last year, I still stayed in shape,” she said. “I played different sports, experienced other options. But swimming has always been my favorite.”

Now, she has time to prepare for college life, as she plans on attending Washington State University.

“It’s really nice,” Fitzgerald said. “I have a job now. And I’m getting ready for college.”

Having close connections with family and friends helped Fitzgerald wade through the waters of uncertainty as well.

“My parents helped me a lot,” she said. “They didn’t push swimming on me. They support me. My really close friends helped me cause they didn’t leave me when I had to do swimming a lot.”

Her pending departure also wraps up a chapter for Henderson.

“It’s different for me too,” Henderson said. “The last of the Fitzgeralds.”

But Henderson said she’s making the most of it, a fact that was apparent after Fitzgerald claimed the 3A West Central District title in the breaststroke last weekend at Hazen High School in Renton.

“I think she wanted to win,” Henderson said. “She took it out strong and held on. It was a great swim. It was fun to watch that race. That was one of those when I’m watching and only seeing her and her competitor.”

She also took third place in the 200 individual medley, while helping Olympic’s 400 free relay to a fifth-place finish and a state berth.

“That was amazing,” Henderson said. “It’s like the stars were lining up for us. It was surprising, but we knew it was possible all season long.”

Fitzgerald was both surprised and elated at the relay’s performance.

“It was pretty shocking,” she said. “We moved up about six places. It was really exciting.”

But the best part is that she’ll have teammates with her, with Lisa Patrick, Kristie Brace and Kelsey Strickland making up the relay.

“It’s nice when there’s downtime in the pool,” Henderson said. “It’s not me talking to her the whole time. She can talk to her pals.”

And that’s what has Fitzgerald most excited.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I get along with all the girls. I’m looking forward to having a fun time at state.”

Because she is a senior, Fitzgerald said there’s a lot she’ll miss about the program.

“I’m probably going to miss two things,” she said. “(One is) the bonds you make in swimming. I’ll miss all the swimmers I’ve made friends with. And being in the water is something that relaxes me and pumps me up at the same time.

“That’s why I like swimming. Basically, it’s up to you. It’s you and the water and the clock.”

Now, with the light at the end of the tunnel fast approaching, Fitzgerald has her sights set on her final meet.

“It should be fun at state,” Henderson said. “I think her options are still wide open. She’s just a great girl. She’s been fun to have on the team.”

“This year, it’s my last chance,” she added. “I really hope as long as I have good competition and swim my hardest, I’ll be in the finals. It should be really fun. I’m excited.”

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