When Kyra Sommerstad saw her time for the 100-meter backstroke at the 2019 Metropolitan Long Course Senior Championships, she couldn’t believe her eyes. It was almost a full second faster than her personal best. Apprehensively, with the 2020 Olympic Trials cut burning in her mind, she checked again.
She had qualified by three hundredths of a second.
“When I realized, I got out of the pool, looked again, and then I started crying...hysterically crying just of happiness, and it was just so unexpected. I’m an emotional person so I think tears were my first initial reaction because I didn’t know how to react,” Kyra says.
Growing up in an athletic family, Kyra had played many sports before discovering her affinity for the water. She didn't start swimming until nine, when, on a whim, her parents brought her to try out for the Three Village Swim Club. The late start didn't hinder her in the slightest. A varsity swimmer since eighth grade, Kyra is the reigning State Champion in the 200m IM (individual medley) and runner-up in the 100m backstroke; she’s also a seven-time Suffolk County Champion and State Finals qualifier. Furthermore, Kyra is a Junior Nationals qualifier in multiple events as well as a two-time All-American.
Currently, Kyra is working towards qualifying for the Olympic Trials in more events and improving her time in the 100m backstroke. Though she admits that the prospect of racing former Olympians, current world record holders, and other prodigious young swimmers is scary, she embraces the increased rigor of her training—including more focus on taking care of her body and intensified dryland work to help her build muscle.
“I’m going to have fun with it,” she says. “It’s my one year before college, so I think I just need to take it step by step.”
The Life of an Independent Athlete
Coming from a school without the pool size or numbers to support an official team, Kyra instead competes for her school as an independent athlete and trains nine times a week with the club’s Senior Team. In addition to the regular night practices, double sessions and cardiovascular “dryland” workouts are built in three times a week.
Not many people can comprehend the time management skills involved in balancing pool time with school time. As Athletic Director Adam Sherrard puts it: “If you’re on a sport here, you’re seeing all your teammates in school, you’re all going to practice together...Independent swimming—it’s you’re going to go home, you’ve gotta get all your schoolwork, you’re going to go to your swim practice late or very early in the morning. No one else in this school is really doing that.”
The days she has morning practice, Kyra is awake by 5 AM. After school, she only has an hour to do homework before she’s off to practice again. By the time she gets home, sleep is the only thing on her mind. Factor in the traveling for meets, training trips, and college visits, and you get a basic picture of how hectic Kyra's schedule gets.
Despite this, Kyra's academics have never suffered —she's an All-American, a prestigious honor awarded to the nation's top scholar-athletes. For swimmers, that means not only a national qualifying swim time, but also a GPA of over 95!
Meanwhile, Kyra appreciates being an independent swimmer as she finds that it allows her to spend more time working with her club teammates, who constantly challenge her in friendly practice races, and coaches who push her to her limits. In the club yearbook, where graduating seniors write interesting things about each other, one of Kyra’s teammates mentioned how he couldn’t recall if there was ever a practice he was at where Kyra wasn’t there, and how she always seemed to be upbeat and happy to be at practice in all the years he’d known her.
The Saturday before the start of her senior year, Kyra’s at swim practice, leading her team through their warmups and drills. She’s only had two weeks off since the end of her junior season, but she’s excited to be back. “Practice is always just my time to relax and think about things,” she says, and shrugs. “It’s just a nice chunk of the day where I can focus on myself and not other things going on.”
Winning the Mental Game
Kyra set her sights on making Olympic Trials three years ago. Last year, she resolved to swim the 2016 qualifying time in hopes the 2020 times would only be a little faster.
She came up just short.
“That was probably the most upset I’ve seen her at herself, but, again, it was fuel for her to come back this season and focus even more,” says Mark Anderson, head coach of the Senior Team of the Three Village Swim Club. “I mean, gosh, she had a stretch for three or four months last year where she had a 100% attendance at practice.”
However, in a sport defined by hundredths of a second, even minute changes in body position or mass affect the way the water responds to the swimmer. To battle water resistance, swimmers must perfect their technique, a task that requires continuous adjustment and readjustment as muscle is gained through training. Thus, in swimming, hours upon hours of work don't necessarily lead to improvement for months on end, which often results in periods of frustration.
“Physically it’s just practice, practice, practice and then really just taking care of your body,” Kyra says. “The biggest struggle in swimming, you don’t realize how mental it actually is and it messes with you sometimes.”
Indeed, for Kyra, making Olympic Trials was a matter of mentality, not physicality. She knew she had the passion and build to make the cut, she just needed to unlock their combined potential. She learned that staying positive to keep spirits up for not only herself, but her team as well maximized the effectiveness of her practices. “Being positive just brings a different energy to the environment that you’re in,” she says. “If I’m positive, others will be positive and then it’ll just be a positive atmosphere.”
Anderson agrees. “I think that’s what caused her to make it this time around, her extreme dedication and perseverance through not making it,” he says. “It was that and it was her showing up to practice with a smile on her face, and always being happy, always supporting her teammates.”
In fact, the hallmark of a successful season for Kyra is accomplishing her own goals alongside her teammates accomplishing theirs. “Honestly, when you work hard, it's just a good time, especially when the people around you that you love the most are working hard too. You just feed off of each other and then really there’s just a big energy in the pool,” Kyra says. “We get happy when we swim fast—that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
In spite of the highly individual nature of swimming, Kyra maintains it is very much a team sport. “There’s constantly people around you, you swim with them, you practice with them every single day, and they’re constantly helping you work hard and motivating you, and then there’s the coaches on the pool deck who are constantly helping you and perfect your technique," she says. "Although I’m one person, every time I swim I’d like to think of all these people that have helped me swim this fast.”
When asked if this creates a sense of pressure, Kyra doesn’t hesitate to answer: “It’s more of a sense of pride.”
Beyond the Pool
Kyra may have Sundays off from practice, but that doesn’t mean she’s not in the water seven days a week. For two hours every Sunday morning, she gives back to the program that helped her develop her passion, teaching basic movements to the youngest swimmers in the club program, hoping they will learn to love the sport as much as she does. Such a job could not be more fitting for Kyra, who enjoys working with little kids and loves teaching.
As a matter of fact, Kyra’s looking to major in either Elementary Education or Occupational Therapy, both of which are strong programs at The Ohio State University, where she will be attending next fall. “I’m really interested in how the body works and functions and I think applying it to swimming or applying it to anything would be really cool,” Kyra says. “I could combine the two and be an occupational therapist in an elementary school.”
As far as swimming goes, Kyra is more than ready to take on the next level—representing the tOSU Buckeyes in collegiate swimming.
“I’m going to miss coaching her when she leaves next fall, but at the same time she’s ready to go, ” Anderson says. “She’ll make NCAAs if she stays motivated like she has been the past four years. There’s not many people that I would say the sky is the limit for, but she checks every one of those boxes that I would look for, so the sky is the limit for her as far as what she wants to achieve as a swimmer and then when her time swimming is done she’s smart, she’s personable, she’s going to have an incredible career...She’s going to be an extremely successful person in the near future, which is going to be the most rewarding thing for me to see.”
Looking back on her journey, Kyra credits swimming for helping fit a lot of pieces of her life together, including college, friends, hobbies such as surfing and paddleboarding, and her connection with her hometown, Port Jefferson, known for its harbor.
“I don’t think I have a favorite memory just because so many things happen each year with my team, and they all just build up into one favorite memory,” she says, smiling at the thought. “I’ve gained second family through swimming, so many people I love come through swimming...it’s just always going to be a huge aspect of my life and I’m going to try to continue swimming for as long as I possibly can—I hope to be one hundred and swimming in the Sound.”
Special thanks to Ray Sommerstad, Kate Sommerstad, Brian Veit, and all those interviewed for their help. Featured image from Kyra Sommerstad.