Tara Kirk won a total of fifteen medals in major international competition, this interview was conducted years ago but gives us a good overview.
THE KIRK FILE
Name: Tara Kirk
Date of Birth: July 12, 1982
Hometown: Bremerton, Wash.
Height: 5-6 (“On my team, a lot of the girls call me, `Little Tara.’ I’m not that small.”)
Weight: 145 pounds
Club: MetWest Stanford National Training Center Team
Coach: Richard Quick
Parents: Jeff and Margaret (both engineers)
Favorite Food: “I make an effort to eat healthy.” (But when she can’t control her urge for sweets, she loves dark chocolate and Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream.)
Question: How many Stanford University swimmers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: A light bulb? Who needs light bulbs when senior team captain and champion breaststroker Tara Kirk is around to light things up with a smile that rivals Julia Roberts’?
It’s true, when Tara Kirk busts a grin, people notice, especially when that grin occurs during a meet.
“She always does her best when she has a big smile on her face,” says her younger sister, Dana, who also swims at Stanford. “We love it when she gets excited,” echos teammate Katy Blakemore. “She gets this big smile on the blocks, it’s gorgeous.”
However, come race time, Tara is focused. Her tunnel vision has paid off, she’s a nine-time NCAA champ and 12-time All, American who holds American records in the 100-yard breast (58.41), 200-yard breast (2:07.36) and 400-yard medley relay (3:31.74).
Stanford coach, Richard Quick, knew early-on that Tara had the talent to go far.
“Her freshman year, we were doing a high-quality set,” he recalls. “Let’s say she was going 35 for the 50 breast. I would tell her to go 34, then 33, then 32.” Each time he lowered the number, Tara met the challenge.
“After practice she said, `All you have to do is tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.’ That’s a dream-come-true for a coach to be able to hear something like that from his swimmers.”
It was also a dream-come-true for Tara when she arrived at Stanford.
“Stanford was a whole new game. The team aspect was so amazing to me,” remembers Tara. It was totally unlike anything she experienced in high school.
“When I came to college, I really improved. I dropped a second or two in the 100 and five seconds in the 200.” And she attributes much of her improvement to the team atmosphere: “The team means a lot to me, it’s the competition and it’s them cheering me on.”
Sometimes that competition gets extremely intense.
“Kristen Caverly swims a great breaststroke, and when we swim against each other in workouts, we can do ridiculous stuff,” Kirk says. “One day we did a set of 8 x 100 breast on 1:35, short course meters. We started at 1:17. We would just keep pushing each other.
“Although it was very intense, it was also very friendly. It’s like, `I want to win this set, but she’s also my friend.’ We got it down to 1:13 by the end, which is really fast. We both finished the set completely exhausted. As much as it’s stressful, it also makes me perform better.”
Watching Kirk in the water is nothing short of inspirational.
“She’s nearly unbeatable in short course competition because of her power,” Quick says, calling her starts and turns “amazing.”
Her teammates, too, are impressed.
“Tara has a very exciting breaststroke,” says fellow senior Blakemore. “Not only is she kicking people’s butts, but her stroke is also very efficient. It looks fast. Her breakouts are phenomenal. Her body is up out of the water and shooting forward.”
Lacey Boutwell, who is also Kirk’s roommate, notes, “When you watch her take a stroke, it’s an explosion of energy. It’s really amazing to watch. She has great technique and form and line.”
It’s that straight line that impresses her sister, Dana: “From her fingertip to her toes, you can draw a straight line when you watch her swim. Her technique is so good that she’ll be two to three lengths ahead of the field in the 100 when she’s having a good race. She gets ahead and stays there.”
But her in-water mastery is only part of what makes her a well-respected team captain, a position she’s held for two years.
“Tara is a humble swimmer and person in general,” says Boutwell, “It’s kind of amazing_she’s extremely intelligent, beautiful and an awesome athlete, but it doesn’t go to her head. She’s willing to take her good qualities and use them to help others.”
Blakemore agrees: “She’s been our team captain for two years because she really does lead by example. She does an awesome job in practice, being emotional when we need to be emotional and working hard when we need to work hard. She’s really good about stepping it up and helping others.”
Gymnastics’ Loss, Swimming’s Gain
Tara didn’t start out as a swimmer. She spent most of her childhood pursuing gymnastics. Then, at age 10, she broke her arm. Even when it healed, she was fearful of getting back on the mat because of the strength she lost from the injury. So she joined her sister, Dana, who was already having a lot of fun in the water.
“I didn’t start to get serious until I was 14,” she says. “Three or four months later I won my first junior nationals, then things started going up from there on a steep curve.”
Yet, it still took awhile for her to realize just how good she was.
“My freshman year I was so clueless,” she remembers. “I kept winning my events at our dual meets. Then I won the 100 breast at NCAAs. I don’t think I realized at the time just how big NCAAs were. I just thought, `Cool, I won.'”
After March when Tara concludes her stellar NCAA career, she’ll be able to focus solely on the U.S. Olympic Trials in July and, she hopes, a chance to represent the United States at the Olympics in Athens.
Coach Quick is helping her keep things in perspective.
“The defending Olympic champ in the 100-meter breast (Megan Quann) is returning, so Tara has an extremely high mountain to climb in order to make the team,” notes Quick.
“Tara is one of the people in the hunt, but she is not a slam-dunk by any means. She has to get by a couple of people whom she hasn’t beaten many times, if ever in long course competition. She has to swim faster than she ever has in her life to make the team. Then to medal, she’ll have to swim faster. To capture gold, she’ll have to swim even faster.
“I know she has the talent, and she has every right to believe she has a legitimate chance to do all those things_make the team, medal and win gold.”
Tara, who won silver in the 100-meter breast at the 2002 Pan Pacs and who finished 2003 ranked in a tie for seventh globally in the 100, also seems realistic about her prospects.
“The breaststroke is a very deep event,” she admits. “With so many fast swimmers at Trials, it’s by no means clear who will qualify for the team. It’s definitely going to be the swimmer who has the best day on the most important day of her life.”
Kirk is still deciding on a future career.
“Stanford is a pretty vigorous academic institution,” she understates. “I’m a human biology major. Infectious disease is my area of concentration. I think that I would be a good doctor. I think I’m one of the rare people who would enjoy med school, but I’m not sure if it’s my true calling. It’s seven years of your life, so you’d better be sure. I’ve always been interested in public health, international health, immunology_something definitely in the health field.”
For now, though, she’s in no rush to exit the pool: “I envision myself swimming for at least another four years,” she says. “I enjoy swimming. I enjoy being in shape. It’s been such a big part of my life.”
Tara Kirk Today
She has won a total of fifteen medals in major international competition, three gold, seven silver, and five bronze spanning the Olympics, the World Championships, the Pan Pacific Championships, and the Summer Universiade.