It’s a summer for bronze, silver and gold, but Kyle Owens made a star-spangled splash last week that left him proudly drenched in red, white and blue.
Owens, a rising senior at Auburn and 2009 graduate of Science Hill, advanced to the finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100-meter backstroke in Omaha, Neb. Needing to finish in the top 16 of a field of 127 swimmers, Owens sailed through the preliminaries and then swam a new personal best (54.18) to advance to the finals with a seventh-place finish in a semifinal field of 16.
He also placed seventh in the finals. The top two — Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman — advanced to the Olympics in London, but realistically, at that point, anything else would’ve been gravy for Owens.
“My main goal was: if I can make it to finals in the 100 back, I’ve got a shot,” said Owens, who also competed in the 100 freestyle, 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley at the Trials, which concluded Monday. “You get a lane, you’ve got a chance, right? So I cruised through prelims and semifinals, and my goal in the finals was to go out and hold on as long as I could. And I think I did pretty well with that.
“I met my goal. And when I got to finals, it was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever swam at a championship meet. Behind the block, I was just kind of in the zone. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was ready to swim, and it felt awesome just to be there with a crowd of 16,000 people.”
Swimming for the Barracuda Swim Club, Science Hill and Auburn all instilled a sense of pride, but nothing like what Owens experienced while swimming for his country at the CenturyLink Center.
“They really try and do it up big for the U.S.,” Owens said. “They have flags in the scorer’s area, and they’re having us sign them and they’re sending them over to Iraq and everything. I thought that was really cool. It’s really patriotic. Whenever someone finishes or sets a new record they’ve got red, white and blue fireworks going off in the arena.
“It kind of makes you — you’re swimming for something bigger, you know? You’re swimming for your country, which is huge.”
Barracuda Swim Club coach Chris Coraggio has worked with Owens since he was 11 or 12. They spent countless hours in pools at Freedom Hall and Legion Street Rec, as well as those at Dobyns-Bennett, Milligan College and Elizabethton when Freedom Hall was temporarily unavailable at times.
And all the time washed over Coraggio like a wave when he saw on the internet that Owens had advanced to the finals.
“There was his name and I was like, ‘Yes!’ I was pumped,” Coraggio said. “I sort of gave it a little fist pump and said, ‘Yeah, there you go!’ I was very proud of him for doing that.”
Coraggio had to work in Asheville the day of the finals, and ended up watching Owens compete on national TV on a big screen in Mexican restaurant in Asheville.
Owens could feel East Tennessee encouraging energy for days — every time his phone vibrated. Unfortunately, he broke his smartphone prior to the meet, and the backup his mother sent wasn’t ideal for being inundated with texts.
“Oh man, my phone was going off,” Owens said. “So I’d been trying to scroll through them throughout the meet, and the night I made finals, I just had to turn my phone off for the night, because it was buzzing all night. Everyone from back home, all my friends from high school, all my teammates from Barracuda Swim Club — I hadn’t talked to a lot of them in years — and it was really humbling to get texts from all these people that I hadn’t talked to in years who were still supporting me and saying, ‘Good luck’ or ‘I was watching you on TV. That’s awesome.’ I’ve been at Auburn for almost four years, and it’s cool to have people back home still supporting me.”
Owens has excelled at Auburn in the pool and in the classroom. Coached by Brett Hawke, a two-time Olympian for Australia, Owens won the SEC 100 backstroke and led the 400 medley relay team to victory as the Tigers claimed their 16th straight league title.
Owens, a microbiology major with a 4.0 GPA four of his first five semesters, was named SEC co-scholar athlete of the year with Tennessee’s Ryan Helms this past season. He caringly recalls receiving inspiration from Science Hill teacher Guy Mauldin.
“He was my calculus teacher,” Owens said. “Pretty much, at Science Hill, if you’re in his class you’re one of the brightest students in the school. I think being in that atmosphere — I always had high academic goals and aspirations for myself, but being in Mr. Mauldin’s class, I guess it solidified those goals for me.
“Now, I’m applying for med school for next year. I don’t think the academic goals for me would’ve been as strong had it not been for Guy Mauldin. He’s just such a great role model and set such a high standard for us in the classroom.”
Coraggio’s passion still inspires Owens.
“I guess he took over the Barracuda Swim Club when I was 11 or 12,” said Owens, who moved to Johnson City from Charlotte in the fourth grade. “I couldn’t describe how much he’s done for me and he still continues to do for me. Throughout the whole meet he was texting me good luck and words of encouragement and everything. … He’s the best coach I’ve ever had, and probably always will be.”
Owens’ mother Heather, a first-grade teacher at Ashley Academy, made it to Omaha.
“I got to eat lunch with her,” Owens said. “Of course, she was proud and everything. She’s a huge supporting factor in everything I do. She’s there for the SECs, she’s there for the NCAAs and she’s there for Olympic Trials. … It’s awesome to have a parent like that supporting me in everything.”
It was evident early Owens was exceptional, especially when it came to intangibles.
“When I met Kyle he’d had some coaching before,” Coraggio said. “Obviously, he had a lot of talent, but more importantly, I think, he had a vision. He wanted to be the best. He had a really good acumen for being aware of what he was doing — both from a technical perspective as well as from a performance perspective.”
Owens charted practice times in his mind better than many young swimmers remembered their meet times.
“You see a lot of kids who have good feel for the water and good talent as far as, you know, they’ve got a good body type to be a good swimmer,” Coraggio said. “But Kyle, fortunately for him, also had the mental capacity and the desire to do something with that talent.”
Of course, the demanding Coraggio and the ambitious Owens occasionally clashed. Peak weeks required 23-25 hours of training, and Owens averaged 17-18 hours a week.
“He would come in sometimes just really grumpy, but he never let that deter him from his long-term plans,” Coraggio said. “He might have a bad practice or something, or I might say ‘Hey Kyle, how ya feeling?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, I feel really, really bad today.’ But then he’d go in the water and attempt to do the work, and that’s what sets champions apart from people that are just good. When possible distractions come up, they don’t let them become distractions. …
“I remember one day he came in and says, ‘This is ridiculous. We’re practicing six hours today.’ And I said, ‘Kyle, how good do you want to be?’ And then after that, he understood what we were trying to accomplish. That doesn’t mean there weren’t days he would’ve preferred to be somewhere else.”
Next up for Owens is the U.S. Open in Indianapolis in August. He needs to be one of the top two college swimmers to qualify for the World University Games in Kazan, Russia next June. Presently, Owens’ time is more than a half-second faster than any other college swimmer.
“He’s still got the U.S. Open … and his senior year of college,” Coraggio said. “There’s quite a lot more on his plate in the sport in the next year and a half.”
Beyond 2013, Owens’ swimming future gets murky with medical school. Physically, the 21-year-old Owens would be in his prime for the 2016 Olympics, if not 2020.
Anthony Ervin, 31, made the Olympics last week 12 years after winning a gold medal — and after a long hiatus from the sport.
“My gosh, Brendan Hansen was out of swimming and made a comeback and won the Olympic Trials in the breaststroke,” Coraggio said. “And he’s considered an old man. As far as Kyle returning in 2016, I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility.”
Along with being 25 years of age, Owens would also have the invaluable experience of last week to propel him.
“Just like I told him going into these Trials compared to when he was in high school going into the Trials in 2008, he’s got experience,” Coraggio said. “And that’s the one thing that you can’t just teach. You have to earn that. He’s got that experience now of going to the finals in the event, and you know, that’s something that he certainly can build on. …
“When we see what some other people are doing — dropping into the sport, dropping out of the sport and making their comebacks — it’s crazy. And the people who are doing it successfully are the ones who have paid their dues when they were younger. It’s not like you or me deciding, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be an Olympic swimmer. I’m gonna start training now.’ … Kyle has that background. And if he wanted go on to medical school and then try to return to the sport after doing medical school, it’s certainly not without precedent for someone to do something like that.”
It isn’t too soon to ponder 2016, even for someone still dripping from dreams of 2012.
“If you look in the top 16 of any event, you’re gonna see the bigger guys, (Michael) Phelps, (Ryan) Lochte, they’re 26 now and still getting better,” Owens said. “You’ve got Brendan Hansen … in his late 20s now. The guy who won the 100 back, Matt Grevers, I think he’s 26 or 27. I mean, I’m 21, and there’s not, I guess, many younger guys, you know? …
“You’ve got people tweeting and writing on their Facebook, ‘2016, here I come’ or ‘I’m Rio bound.’ You’ve got really bright hopefuls coming up, and there’s talk of a bunch of us — me and a few others — really coming out in 2016.”
Indeed, advancing to the finals will whet a swimmer’s appetite.
“There are some individuals going to the Olympics who, the last time around, they weren’t as close as Kyle was (this year),” Coraggio said.