By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, April 26, 2019
Believe it or not, Madison Kennedy wasn’t as disappointed as you might think when she just missed making the 2016 Olympic Team.
Even though she came to Trials that year with the fastest qualifying time in the 50 freestyle – and then went the fastest time during morning prelims – Kennedy went on to finish a strong third in evening finals and missed a spot on the team.
And while she was sad, she said she was quickly able to put things in perspective and change her focus to being happy for her friends and fellow competitors who did make the team.
In fact, when she learned that Abby Weitzeil won the top spot in the 50 free, she was as happy for her friend as she would have been for herself.
That’s just the type of person – and teammate – she’s always tried and wanted to be.
“It’s unfortunate your bio doesn’t tell the whole story about your career – just the times and placings at meets,” said Kennedy, who continues to live and train in Charlotte, N.C., with husband, Eric. “It doesn’t tell about all the amazing experiences you’ve had or places you’ve been able to visit and see, or the tremendous relationships you create and maintain in the sport.
“Did I want to go to Rio and compete in the Olympics? Of course, I did. I wouldn’t have competed if I didn’t. But our careers and identities as swimmers and athletes don’t have to be determined by whether or not you compete at the Olympics. It’s much bigger than that.”
This was a perspective Kennedy said she has tried to have most of her career, but she admits it takes time to develop.
Maturity and experience have helped shape her image of who she is as a swimmer and person, as well as the role swimming plays in her life.
It’s something she’s always loved – and continues to love – which is why she’s still in the sport.
But as she approaches her fourth Olympic Trials next summer in Omaha – as well as her 32nd birthday later this year – Kennedy says she now swims for herself and her love of competition more than for times and medals.
She’d still love to have one Olympic experience before she retires from the sport – whenever that decision might come.
“Swimming has always given me a tremendous amount of peace because I understand it’s not my only goal,” said Kennedy, who went pro in 2009 and enjoyed a lengthy and successful career that has included multiple Short Course World Championships, two Pan American Games and a World University Games, among other accolades.
“I’m now one of the veteran swimmers, and I often look back on all the other swimmers I’ve competed with over the past 10-plus years. Most of them have retired and aren’t swimming anymore. But for me, it’s always been about the personal challenge of pushing myself to be the best swimmer I can be. That’s not dictated or determined by which teams I do or don’t make. It’s never been just about that.”
Knowing that Kennedy isn’t one to mince words – preferring to speak the truth rather than tell people what they want to hear, or act a certain way to please others – she has always been one of the most respected swimmers in the game.
She’s also a self-described free spirit – as evidenced by her wedding, where she wore a cape and a crown in a what was a nontraditional ceremony in many ways, but was exactly what she wanted.
She said she was always encouraged to be true to herself and was never made to feel like being that way was wrong.
“Whoever I am, I always was,” she said with a laugh. “I never had to change or feel insecure about it.”
It’s why she is now self-coached (with strength conditioning guidance from Eric, whom she met their freshman year at Rutgers before both transferred to other schools when the men’s program was dissolved in 2007) and why she continues to forge her own path through the swimming world.
Still, her goal is to go lights out the rest of this year and next year at Trials – letting the chips fall where they may.
That way, if she does decide next year is her final year as a competitive swimmer, she can leave knowing she gave it all she had, all the time.
“On one hand, I’ve accepted what I’ve accomplished and where I’ve exceeded in the sport, but I know there are more things I want to experience, places I want to visit, people I want to meet,” said Kennedy, who will compete in her third Pan American Games this summer in Lima, Peru. “I remember the first time I met Natalie (Coughlin), who was my idol growing up, and we’ve become great friends. That memory and friendship is so valuable to me.
“For me, that’s what this is all about. It’s the people you grow up admiring and then get to meet and potentially become friends. Now, I enjoy being the person younger swimmers want to meet and get to know. I want to be able to pass on what I’ve learned along the way to the next generation of swimmers – whatever that might be.”