By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, May 17, 2018
As a student and swimmer for Stanford, Kurt Grote always envisioned himself practicing medicine as a doctor in the future.
Along the way to his M.D., however, Grote’s path took an unexpected turn.
And although he never fulfilled his original childhood dream of becoming a practicing doctor, he still found a way to play an active, game-changing role in healthcare – and he does it every day.
“Before doing my residency, I decided to explore the business side of medicine with a venture capital firm in San Francisco, and I quickly realized I could do as much good in that capacity as practicing medicine,” said Grote, who participated in a business-medical school collaborative while in med school. “There are a lot of things you can do with a medical degree.”
As a senior partner with McKinsey & Company, Grote works with CEOs and top teams of the largest healthcare providers in the United States and across North America to improve performance, enhance patient outcomes and optimize labor and supply distribution – among many other duties.
But before he started working with leaders to help proactively transform healthcare, Grote was an All-American swimmer at Stanford before fulfilling another dream – swimming at the Olympics.
A late comer to the sport, Grote played soccer as a kid but started competing in the pool as a 15-year-old when his doctor prescribed it as a way for him to control and improve his asthma condition.
Because of his late start, he had limited exposure and name recognition during the college recruiting process, but Stanford Coach Skip Kenney recognized his potential and offered him a scholarship to the Farm.
Facing a difficult decision mostly because he questioned his own abilities in the water, Grote said he wrestled with where to go to learn and swim.
Take a shot at Division I competition or go the safe route to Division III?
“It was a tough decision, but ultimately I decided I’d much rather be a small fish in a big pond than a big one in a smaller pond,” he said. “In all honesty, I was probably better suited to be a Division III swimmer, but I knew I wanted something different. I wanted to give it a shot at a school and swim program like Stanford.”
As a freshman, Grote qualified for NCAA Championships in the 200 breaststroke – and soon after found himself in the event finals later that evening.
Considering months before he considered himself to be someone “scraping by to get on the (Stanford) team,” this achievement was amazing to Grote – and in true form, he attributed his accomplishment to Kenney and his teammates for pushing him every day to find his best.
“I definitely would have liked to have been competition in more events, but the 200 breast became my best event,” he said. “I knew I accomplished that my first year largely because of the great guys I trained with every day.
“It was because of those guys that, even though I was in over my head, I had the chance to be the best I could be. All the credit goes to them.”
Grote said his progress at Stanford proved to be emotionally important in giving him the confidence to parlay his collegiate success into a stellar, lengthy international swim career.
He finished at Stanford in 1995 and stopped swimming for a short time to evaluate his future in the sport – having never placed higher than sixth at a national long course meet.
To stay in competitive shape, he biked and after a couple of months of thought, he rode his bike to the Stanford pool and told Kenney he wanted to recommit himself to the sport.
“It was May 1995 – almost a year before 1996 Olympic Trials – and I had an epiphany,” Grote said. “I knew I had to give it a try – go for my Olympic dream. And if I didn’t make the team, I knew I had given it my all.”
At Phillips 66 Nationals that summer, Grote dropped 2 seconds in the 100 breast and put himself in great position for 1996.
When Trials rolled around, He made the team in both breaststroke events but came up short of earning individual medals in Atlanta. He did leave with a gold medal as a member of the 400 medley relay.
Later that fall, he started medical school at Stanford and continued to train and swim competitively.
A year later, Grote continued his post-Olympic success when he earned a spot on the 1997 Pan Pacific Championships team. He won three golds in Fukuoka, Japan – the 100 and 200 breast and 400 medley relay – adding to the bronze he won in the 100 breast at 1995 Pan Pacs.
In 1998, he made the World Championship team and won three medals in Perth, Australia – gold in the 200 breast, silver in the 400 medley relay and bronze in the 100 breast.
Grote continued to train for the 2000 Olympics while continuing working toward his medical degree.
But when he didn’t make the finals in his best event – the 200 breast – at Olympic Trials and missed making the team, he decided it was time to accept his best days in the water were most likely behind him.
It was time to move on to the next phase of his life.
“Without a doubt, 1997 and 1998 were my best years,” he said. “I was swimming my fastest times ever, but knee surgery before Pan Pacs in 1999 derailed me and my training, and things were never quite the same.
“Biking was something I always loved to stay in shape, but I frayed my quad tendon and came back too soon after World Championships. I never got back to where I was before the injury.”
Now living and working in Portland, Ore., Grote works form home and travels often for work to collaborate and consult with clients internationally.
He also swims Masters – thriving in that team environment that he loved so much at Stanford – but has made swimming something fun for his kids – Kellen, 16, and Lucy, 13.
“They both swam when they were younger, but now they have their own interests outside of the sport and are doing their own thing,” he said. “(wife) Amy and I have always been supportive of what they want to do, and that doesn’t include swimming now. But they know how to swim, and that’s the most important thing.”
And when he thinks back over his career, Grote said a few things stand out to him that he still finds valuable in his personal and business lives – lessons that swimming taught him that have never left.
“Swimming raised inspiration for myself; success in swimming changed my mindset and gave me a tremendous amount of confidence,” said Grote, a past U.S. team captain. “Swimming also taught me skills that I need like determination and persistence to never give up and made me a better leader.
“I prioritize and focus my efforts better and perform well under stress – all related to what I learned in competitive swimming. These are lessons I will always use, have passed on to my kids and can never repay.”