Feb. 5, 2003
by Ken Kleppel
As the daughter of a Notre Dame legacy, senior guard Karen Swanson has mastered the art of following in footsteps.
Yet after four years of carving her own niche at the only school she ever hoped to play for, Swanson has set the charter course on chasing dreams and in the process laid out mighty footsteps of her own.
On that very first three-hour car ride from her Cleveland-area home in Westlake to South Bend as a Notre Dame student, she would ultimately step into the shoes of her father, Bob, a 1974 graduate, her sister, Julie, who earned her Notre Dame degree in 2000, and her mother Rozann, who graduated from Saint Mary’s College in 1975.
Eight weeks into her freshman year, she would step onto the Joyce Center floor as a walk-on guard.
Within two years, she would swagger off the Savvis Center floor in St. Louis, Missouri, a national collegiate champion.
And throughout the next several months, her basketball career would march her from Breen-Phillips Hall to the White House and even throughout Europe.
But it is the overwhelming ovation that she receives from the Joyce Center crowd each time she walks onto the home hardwood — one game at a time, one step at a time — that elicits the biggest attention of all.
That is, they cheer for Swanson because of who she is and what she does.
“One of the things that have been most special is the way the fans have received me,” says Swanson.
“Just their support is very touching. It gives me so much reason and so much reward for all the efforts that I put in.”
Upon graduation in May, Swanson and her efforts will leave an indelible impression on the Notre Dame community as one of the most popular student-athletes in the history of the women’s basketball program. Her well-documented story reads better than a movie script.
Throughout high school, Swanson sent notes to the Notre Dame women’s basketball office in hot pink envelopes, followed by tapes of all her games, in hopes of catching the attention of Irish head coach Muffet McGraw.
And, after just five days of tryouts in October of her freshman year — following a lifetime of preparation — she finally did.
“I’ll never forget receiving that phone call and hearing her say ‘you’re on the team’,” says Swanson.
“As soon as I hung up, I was jumping for joy and the tears were flowing. I called pretty much everyone I knew. It was really an awesome feeling. Every day since then, I’ve been pinching myself — is this really happening, am I really living out my dream?”
Today, she strives to make that dream a reality for others — in her actions and through her example.
Ask her family. Ask her teammates. Ask the Notre Dame community. Ask the South Bend community.
But just don’t ask Karen because the ever-humble Swanson will credit others first. Currently on her mind are former Irish teammates, Meaghan Leahy and Imani Dunbar.
“They taught me about selflessness and what it means to be a team player and putting the team’s goals before my own,” says Swanson.
“Now I feel like I am in the shoes they were in for me. I feel like I have to be that example to the people that follow in my footsteps. I feel that I have to pass that message along to other people.”
Swanson has done just that.
As part of an entrepreneurship class project in the fall of 2001, Swanson helped raise nearly $7,000 for the World Trade Center Public School Relief Fund by creating, marketing, and selling a calendar that featured candid photos of the women’s basketball team.
She also returns the support of the South Bend community and frequently attends local middle and high school girls’ basketball contests.
“First thing that comes to mind when I think about my role as a student-athlete is being a role model for children, especially young female athletes,” says Swanson.
“Being a role model for them, I try to set a great example and uphold strong moral Christian values. I try to show them how hard work and perseverance can help you do whatever you aspire to do in life.”
To see the true Karen Swanson, look no further than the lives of those she touches. But to see the true Notre Dame, look no further than Karen Swanson.
At the end of the day, the call of her name echoing throughout a boisterous Joyce Center very well may mean more to the people in the seats than Swanson herself.
Swanson makes sure of it.
“I feel like I have an important message, especially for young girls, and people who are focusing on any kind of aspiration,” says Swanson.
“If you work hard enough and opportunity knocks, and if you can conceive it, you can achieve it.”
Dreams do come true — just take that first step forward.
Swanson has set forth the footsteps. Today, we follow her lead.
— ND —