She looks down into the pool from her spot on the starting block. Even as a senior, the butterflies in her stomach have not completely dissipated. They may have gotten smaller than the ones inhabiting her stomach during freshman year, but there is no doubt that they’re still there. She adjusts her goggles and swim cap and thinks, “This is going to hurt really bad.”
The preparation for the national championships has already been completed and for a test like this, there can be no cramming. Stretching? Breathing exercises? Prayer? Check, check and check. Now all that’s left is the swim.
But first, how did she get to this prestigious position?
Kirsten Nitz grew up playing any and all sports possible in her hometown of Frankfort, Ky. At age eight, Nitz joined a club swimming program, adding to a list of sports that also included cross country, soccer and a host of other sports.
In eighth grade, Nitz had physical pain in her feet and was diagnosed with sever’s disease, which caused her Achilles tendons to tear off the heel bone and break it. Nitz was forced to use crutches and could no longer play any sport involving contact. However, due to swimming’s low impact, the 14-year-old Nitz did not have to give up her best sport.
“It was frustrating to not be able to do other sports that I loved because I kept thinking my heels would get better,” Nitz explained, “but eventually it helped make the decision easier.”
The decision she refers to was the choice to give her life completely to the sport of swimming. As a homeschooled student, this task was made easier since she could easily tailor her education schedule and classes to intense swimming regimens and practice schedules. Her success was validated the summer before her senior year of high school when Nitz was recruited by numerous Division I programs, including the University of Kentucky.
In truth, the DI lifestyle did not appeal to Nitz. Plus, these DI schools did not have something that a certain liberal arts school in Wheaton, Ill. did – legacy. Nitz’s grandparents, parents, cousins and siblings had attended Wheaton College and her older brother, Jordan ‘13, was a current student at that time.
“Ultimately it came down to knowing that swimming was only going to last four more years,” Nitz explained. “The friends I made and the education I got here (at Wheaton) was going to weigh a lot heavier on my life than swimming.”
Before beginning her freshman year, Nitz qualified for every swimmer’s dream: the 2012 Olympic Trials in the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard backstroke. Even though her times were not ideal, the experience taught her how to deal with high-pressure meets, a skill that she utilized throughout her college career. During the Trials, she was inspired by some of swimming’s biggest names, including Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.
This experience paid off as Nitz flourished under the guidance of Wheaton head swimming coach Jon Lederhouse.
“The fact that Wheaton is DIII is really special because no one is there because they’re being paid to be there,” said Nitz, “so that makes it a group of people who really want to be there.”
During her freshman year, Nitz didn’t exhibited any ‘rookie jitters’ as she grabbed three individual national championships in the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard butterfly and 200-yard backstroke.
Her sophomore experience at the national championships had a much different look. After vomiting all night with the stomach flu, Nitz still wanted to swim in her best event, the 100-yard butterfly. With an empty stomach and vision bordering on blurry, Nitz was slumped in a chair before stumbling her way onto the starting block right before the race started. The last thing she remembers was barely being able to steady herself before somehow diving into the pool to begin the race.
“It was 100 percent God’s power that worked through me and not my own. That day I set the national record in the 100-yard butterfly and it was so obviously not anything that I could have done,” Nitz said. “God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and this was a great example of that.”
Practically collapsing after the conclusion of the swim, this performance was truly one for the books. Nitz’s 52.64 second 100-yard butterfly still stands as the DIII national record. She also owns the DIII national record for the 50-yard freestyle.
Now, back to 2016 and Nitz on the swimming block. The muscles of the senior swimmer twitch as she prepares to unleash every ounce of effort on her prized swim, the 100-yard butterfly. As the signal is given to start the race, the swimmers jump off the blocks and feel the cold rush of water hit their faces. Nitz puts her head down and plows ahead, confident with her strokes. Her father once told her, “The person who wants it more will win.” Over the past few years, there is no doubt that Nitz has wanted the 100-yard butterfly more. The only thing able to stop her was a junior year false-start.
She touches the wall and turns for home with 50 yards of water standing between her and another national championship trophy.
She’s experienced many successes throughout her swimming career, but it has definitely come at a steep cost. Summer camps were never viable and some friendships fell to the wayside due to the incredible amount of time she spent in the pool.
“I love swimming,” Nitz explained, but “it’s not one of those sports where the more you practice, the better you’re going to get at every championship meet. I had meets where I trained and worked really hard, but didn’t see the results that I wanted … at the same time, it is really exciting to set goals for yourself and then see the hard work pay off.”
As Nitz’s hands meet the wall signaling the end of the race, she looks up and down the length of the pool. Again, she has beaten the entire field and claimed her fifth individual national championship, a school record. In the coming months, she will graduate and potentially move on to a career as a women’s health nurse practitioner. But for now, Nitz can relax and enjoy her victory. For the last time in her career, she is the indisputable queen of the pool.