By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 7, 2008
The video camera is on in Marist swim coach Terry Blish’s office, and all during the day teachers, friends and teammates have stopped by to record words of encouragement and good luck to alumna Kathleen Hersey.
“All her teachers have been coming over, even the ones who hate athletics,” said Blish with a laugh. “Kathleen transcended any of that.”
They’re all sending gold medal wishes. Hersey, an All-American swimmer and 2008 Marist graduate, is competing in the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, in the women’s 200-meter butterfly.
The DVD is a gift Blish sent to Stanford University, where the 18-year-old was training with the USA Olympic team before they traveled first to Singapore and then to Beijing where the games begin Aug. 8.
At the Hersey home, Kathleen’s parents are doing double duty, getting ready to move to a new place in South Carolina and trying to find out if the Olympic swim venue in Beijing is handicapped accessible. Kathleen’s dad, Brian, is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.
Every night they speak to their daughter briefly on the phone, trying to keep the conversation light, her father said. They don’t talk about swimming.
“As parents we try to be supportive and capture the lighter things, like what are you doing for fun,” he said. “But the other night, at 1:30 in the morning (10:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time) she sends me a bunch of text messaging about how she was so motivated by a speech made by the USA swim coach on teamwork and motivation and individual competition.”
The Herseys know there really isn’t any need for words. Just as swimming became Kathleen’s life once she took first place at a county meet when she was 6, it has also become a natural extension of their own lives. Kathleen began training at Swim Atlanta then, and her mother, Regina, remembers 5 a.m. summertime practices where she would bring a blanket and pillow and curl up in the back seat to rest while her daughter did laps in the pool.
Kathleen also played soccer, took ballet, tennis and piano lessons, but she soon realized that she wanted to devote all her energy to swimming, Regina said.
Her fast Olympic stroke didn’t come easily. Kathleen learned the butterfly by watching the big kids, her mother said.
With its signature hard kick and overhead arm motion, butterfly is considered by swimmers one of the hardest strokes to learn and one of the hardest on the body, using more muscle groups.
It wasn’t until she started to grow tall at 14 that she began to perfect it, her mother said. Kathleen is now 5 feet 11 inches tall and nicknamed “Legs” by her fellow teammates.
The idea that she was Olympic material came gradually over the years, her father said.
“There wasn’t a sudden realization that there’s something big here. As long as Kathleen was interested in continuing to swim, she just continued. She is a very tough and mature kid, and the combination of these elements and those skills kept moving her along.”
When she was accepted at Marist in seventh grade, Kathleen joined the swim team. In her four years on the varsity, she won 13 individual state titles in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley, breaking school, state and national prep school records, Blish said. Between 2005 and 2007 she rose from 77th to sixth in world rankings in the women’s 200 butterfly. Last summer she won four gold medals at the Pan American Games.
“But I can’t take credit for her training,” the veteran coach said. That goes to Mark Minier of Swim Atlanta, who nurtured her abilities, he said.
At Swim Atlanta, she swam three to four hours a day, six days a week. Even so, Kathleen participated in all Marist team meetings, retreats and meets and maintained a 3.6 GPA.
“She has always been very much a part of the team. I can’t say enough about Kathleen,” Blish said. “It’s fitting she is the one to make it. She recognizes all the ones who came before her and that this one (the Olympics) is for all of them and for the entire school community.”
It was typical of her nature, he said, that when she won a gold medal in the 100 butterfly during last summer’s Pan American Games, she gave the medal to the school to honor her friend and fellow teammate Madeleine Brown, who died tragically in 2006 while swimming at Emory University. Kathleen presented the medal during halftime at the school’s homecoming game last fall.
“That (100-meter fly) was Madeleine’s favorite event, and the ovation in the football stadium was overwhelming,” said Blish.
When Kathleen made the U.S. Olympic team during the final swim trials in Omaha, Neb., in July, her friend and fellow Marist swimmer Katherine Locker was there, along with the Locker family and Mary Brown, Madeleine’s mother.
Locker, who also swam butterfly with Kathleen and now swims at Georgia Tech, was overwhelmed with excitement and emotion to see her good friend make the Olympic team.
“It was so emotional,” Locker said of the July 3 event, where Kathleen swam the 200 finals in a blistering 2:07:33, coming in second to Elaine Breeden and ensuring herself an Olympic spot. Omaha’s Qwest Center, where the Olympic swim trials were held, broke records with the most people watching a swim meet in U.S. history.
“They really kept us going,” said Regina Hersey, who was delighted and surprised when she found out their friends the Lockers and Mary Brown had traveled to Omaha for the event. “We were like zombies at the end of the week, and they helped keep it light.”
Locker was a year ahead of Kathleen, but the two swimmers were great friends out of the water.
“This never went to her head. She is very humble, and she handles it very well. It’s a hard position to be in, as someone who hasn’t had a year in college yet,” Locker said of her friend she affectionately calls “Girl Boo.” Hersey will attend the University of Texas on a swim scholarship this fall.
While they will be hoping for a gold medal for their daughter, the Herseys have already had their prayers answered, they said. The St. Jude the Apostle Church parishioners could not have children, but always prayed for a child. Eighteen years ago they adopted Kathleen.
Despite her swimming accolades, it was her gratitude for her adoption that she wrote about in her senior year essay, said Blish.
“She wrote that she was so grateful that her birth mother chose life and that she was so grateful that her parents are her parents,” he said.
There’s no doubt that Kathleen will make a mark in Beijing, he said.
“It’s going to be recognized all over the world what a wonderful young lady she is.”