The voice at the other end of the phone keeps wavering. This is not easy for one of the most acclaimed swimmers in Division III women’s swimming.
“It’s taken this long for me to talk about it and not cry,” KT Kustritz is saying about how her career ended — like so many seniors — with the plug suddenly pulled by the coronavirus, “It was the worst sinking feeling I can even describe. Those feelings were so real, and I still feel them every day when I think about them.”
To appreciate the pain in the words of the five-time national champion from Denison, we need to go back to a see little girl, jumping into her first pool.
There’s toddler KT, falling in love with swimming faster than you can say first Division III woman to break a minute in the 100 breaststroke. Which, by the way, she would become 16 years later. Once introduced to the sport, she lived in the pool. Never stayed away for long in the decades to come — on a journey through the elementary and middle and high school and college years, and all the swimming glory that came with them.
Never stayed away, that is, until now.
Back in March — just before the senior was to defend her 100 and 200 breast national titles for the final time, just before her No. 1 ranked Denison team had an excellent chance at its first national championship in 19 years — everything was shut down by the coronavirus. All Denison could do was hold an intrasquad farewell time trial meet to give its athletes one last swim (Kustritz nearly broke her national record in the 100 breast), and then everyone went their separate ways. Lots of tears that day. She hasn’t been in a pool in the nearly seven weeks since, which begged the question: When was the last time Kustritz went seven weeks without swimming?
“Since I was literally three years old,” she answers. “It’s not a good feeling. That’s been like my sacred place. It’s been the place where I go to tackle things mentally, to deal with my everyday problems. It’s part of my identity, really, so it’s been hard."
Like so many senior athletes in so many different corners of the country, she has had to cope with a career suddenly ending, and not on her terms. Especially in a sport such as swimming, which demands so much each day, each week, each month. It’s been a struggle. You hear it in nearly every word.
“It’s really been a roller coaster of feelings. I’m trying to find silver linings. One day it’s up, and the next day it’s that devastating feeling that you don’t know what to do. I feel like with swimming being done, right now it has given us a sense of purposelessness. It’s hard to find meaning in everyday things for me personally.”
She was already packed for the national championships in Greensboro when the word came there would be no national championships in Greensboro. Her college career, with its five national event titles and its 27 All-American level finishes was over. Just. Like. That. Most painful of all was the loss of the chance to help her team win a national championship.
“That was at the top of the list. I’ve been swimming since I was three and there was so much more that I wanted to do, and so much more that I wanted to prove as a Division III athlete; that we could take on anyone at any time.”
What hit her especially hard is what has agonized so many athletes. They've thrived with the embrace and support of teammates, but suddenly, with everyone sent away from campus to hunker down, those teammates were missing.
“Especially when you know that we’re all dealing with the same emotions at the same time, and we couldn’t be together,” Kustritz says. “I went home and nobody really understood what it was like to have that taken from me. I couldn’t talk about it. I can’t talk about it with my family or my friends. I can’t even go there. I know, as devastating as it is, it was the right decision, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
“I’ve given my life to this sport for literally almost 18 years. To have it taken away — and it’s not something that was in my control — is really, really hard to tackle mentally.”
The low point might have been March 20. There she was in St. Paul, when she was supposed to be 1100 miles away in Greensboro.
“I remember the day. It was Friday and that was the day I was supposed to swim the 100 breaststroke, which is my favorite event and the event I have the national record in. It was funny because I was talking with one my friends and she texted me and said,`You know what, it would have been yours, without a doubt.’ And it’s just tough, because you don’t get to prove that to everyone else.”
In the weeks since, she’s done a lot of hiking and getting to the outdoors to clear her mind and raise her spirits. She’s also working to help screen employees as possible virus carriers, taking their temperatures. She’s helping her mom by planning workout sessions at a recovery house — the governor lives just down the street — which provides service for those trying to stay sober from addiction.
“They’re struggling, I’m struggling. I exercise with them.”
She’ll be back swimming soon because there is something else on Kustritz’ schedule. She’s qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials, which now will be next year.
“I’m excited and it’s a driving force. But in the same breath, it’s not the same. It’s so individual at that point. I’m really excited to compete at the trials, but it’s not with my teammates, it’s not for a championship for us.”
No, that chance is gone. Might take some time, and possibly a lot of hiking, for KT Kustritz to get over it.