By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Believe it or not, there was a time when Kelsi (Worrell) Dahlia couldn’t see a future in swimming.
During her college recruitment and before her freshman season at Louisville, she considered herself a good but unspectacular swimmer. Consequently, she figured she’d swim her four years with the Cardinals, get her degree and move on to a career separate from swimming.
Then something happened.
She realized her potential, made her first international travel team and knew she had more to accomplish in the pool.
She’s been on a roll ever since – including competing this week for the United States at Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo.
Suffice it to say, she’s more than glad to still be swimming – and swimming fast.
“I didn’t expect to improve so much over the course of my college career,” said Dahlia, maiden name Worrell for everyone who might have wondered who that was on the heat sheet last week at Phillips 66 Nationals. She was married to fiancé, Thomas, last October.
“When I went to Olympic Trials my senior year of high school (2012), I was 37th in the 100 butterfly, so to make that kind of progress (she won the event at 2016 Trials to make the Olympic team) was pretty amazing. My goal wasn’t to be a professional swimmer.”
Despite those early plans – and the degree in exercise science she finished last year – Dahlia remains the United States’ top butterfly sprinter. She took over that crown from 2012 Olympic champion Dana Vollmer at 2016 Olympic Trials.
And even though she didn’t swim as well as she wanted at the Rio Olympics, Dahlia said she had an amazing experience to build from moving forward.
“Looking back, Rio feels like a dream come true for me, and even though I anticipated being in the (100 fly) final, God had a different plan,” said Dahlia, who finished 9th and just outside of the final in Rio.
“I’m grateful for every lesson I learned at the Olympics, and I’ve been able to use what I learned at future meets. Plus, it was great to see other Louisville athletes competing for their home countries in Rio, so it was almost like being back in our home pool.”
Dahlia honed that determination from disappointment in Rio – along with the lessons she learned – to come back stronger in 2017.
At Phillips 66 Nationals, she won the 50 and 100 butterfly events, and then in Budapest at FINA World Championships, picked up her first international medal (bronze in the 100) since she won gold in the same event at the 2015 Pan American Games, her first senior-level international meet.
She was also part of the 400 medley relay team that broke the world record and also won gold in the 400 free, mixed 400m free and mixed 400 medley relays at Worlds.
When Vollmer stepped away from competition following the 2012 Olympics for a few years to start a family, the torch was passed to Dahlia, and she has been carrying it for the United States ever since.
“Dana has been a great mentor to me, and she’s always been someone I’ve looked up to,” said Dahlia, the oldest of six siblings. “One thing I learned from watching her is that you have to say no to some things. We’re both TYR athletes, and she really took me under her wing at the 2016 Olympics.
“I’m still learning what that looks like (being the face of American female butterfly), and I’ve struggled with it. But I feel stronger and more in charge than ever.”
But being recognized as a game-changer isn’t anything new for Dahlia. Before her arrival at Louisville in 2013, the program was relatively unknown among NCAA programs.
But with Dahlia on board (along with other strong athletes), she helped transform the program into an annual title contender – finishing in the top 15 at NCAAs her sophomore year, top 10 by her junior year and even higher by the time she was graduating in 2016.
But ever the modest person, Dahlia downplays her role in the ascension of the Louisville program and attributes it to a combination of great recruiting and coaching along with a change in team culture.
Strong in faith and belief in God, Dahlia said everything that’s happened and happens in her life (and swimming) is all part of His plan.
“I’m only 24, so it’s hard for me to think of myself as a leader at Louisville or on the National team, although I am one of the older team members now,” she said with a laugh. “I guess I kind of am one of the veterans now at Pan Pacs and teams moving forward.
“I embrace it, but it’s still difficult for me to think of myself that way. I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a leader by example more than any other way.”
Overcoming challenges has always been part of Dahlia’s makeup – including bridging the communication gap that existed when she and husband Thomas first met.
Thomas swam for Louisville and is from French-speaking New Caledonia located in the South Pacific near Australia and New Zealand. He just missed making the French Olympic team in 2016.
Their first couple of dates were challenging as Thomas spoke none to very little English and Dahlia spoke no French. But over time, they were able to find other ways to connect, and at their wedding, she spoke her vows in unmistakable French and he in English.
“I practiced (those vows) a lot and even had phonetic pronunciation marks on the cards so I knew how to say the words rather just read them,” she said of the outdoor service in Lexington. “We had a beautiful wedding full of family, friends, teammates – 200 people from all over the world. It was an amazing, special day.
“You find ways to make things work when you know they are special and meant to. But just as I do in my training and everything, I relied upon my confidence. I don’t second-guess my decisions. I have faith that they are happening because they are meant to.”
Having bought a house in Louisville and Thomas recently completing his MBA, Dahlia said the couple plans to stay in the city that’s become their home indefinitely.
And with her younger brother starting his freshman year at Louisville this fall, Dahlia said she knows she’ll be there at least through her training for the 2020 Olympics.
Beyond that, things are up in the air as far as life in Louisville – and swimming – are concerned.
“I’m committed to swimming through 2020, as I would love to win an individual medal in Tokyo, but beyond that, I don’t know,” she said. “I come from a big family, and I want to have a family of my own, but I don’t want to do that while I’m still training and competing.
“So, I’m looking forward to 2020, and then, together, Thomas and I will decide what makes the most sense for us as far as my swimming is concerned. But I’m definitely excited to swim at Pan Pacs this week and World Championships next summer – all leading up to 2020. It’s obviously a very exciting time in my life for a lot of reasons.”