March 15, 2001
By Blake Kirkman
“I have to be warm,” explains Kelly Hecking, a junior member of the Notre Dame women’s swimming and diving squad.
In fact, after seeing Hecking bundled up poolside with her parka, hood and sweat pants, warm may indeed be an understatement.
“My teammates make fun of me for it, but if I’m really warm, I swim better,” the backstroke specialist says.
By all thermometers, Hecking has been nothing short of red hot this season en route to 15 individual victories in the 100 and 200 backstroke events.
Two of those wins came in February at the 2001 BIG EAST Swimming and Diving Championships, as Hecking defended her titles in the 100 and 200 backstroke and the Irish won the team title for the fifth consecutive year. Hecking also claimed two relay wins at the conference meet, raising her career total to 14 BIG EAST championships – nine relay and five individual championships – in becoming the winningest swimmer in BIG EAST and Notre Dame history.
Winning races is really nothing new to the junior from Rutherford, N.J. Rather it is something she has been doing her whole life – well almost.
Hecking started swimming at the age of four in her family’s backyard pool, while also taking lessons with a local summer league coach. It didn’t take long before the coach asked her to join the five-and-six-year-old team.
“I didn’t want race at first,” Hecking recalls.
“I didn’t want to wear the cap.”
After a tough sell, the coach was finally able to convince the young swimmer to come out for just one race.
“I ended up winning the race and they gave me a trophy. Then I realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t that bad,’ and I went out for the team the next year,” Hecking says.
That next season, Hecking repeatedly found enjoyment in her newfound sport and she began to pile up the blue ribbons awarded to the winning swimmer. For a girl who had a pre-race tradition of eating colorful candy Skittles before every race, until she dropped a bag of them in the pool one day thus delaying a meet – like the candy, one color of ribbon soon was not nearly enough for Hecking.
“I was sick of getting blue ribbons, so I used to stop right at the end of the race and wait for the first girl to touch the wall so I could get the yellow ribbon,” she explains with a smile.
So it is with Hecking, a ball of energy that winds tighter and tighter with each set of the team’s grueling practices. She points out that it is a lot easier for her to have fun than to become overly focused to the point of feeling fatigued. It is with this attitude that Hecking has reached a level of comfort and confidence associated with a veteran varsity athlete. With just one year left in her collegiate swimming career, Hecking has found the simple keys to continuing to perform at a high level.
“The key for me is staying relaxed and having the confidence of knowing I’ve already gone fast and have the training behind me that will allow me to do it again. I look at our seniors in their last race and it’s hard to think about that. I just want bring it all together, train hard and go out with a bang.”
Coming from someone who, before this past summer, had never trained during the off-season, this may prove to be a very dangerous thought to the competition. Hecking has her sights set towards being in the best shape possible going into next season. All of this is a far cry from practicing just three days per week during high school, and dealing with the adjustment of early-morning practices her freshman year.
“I remember my freshman year being so hard. I’d sit up all night afraid that I’d miss my alarm for the early-morning practices and I’d end up not sleeping at all. I’m not a morning person. Still to this day, the only thing that pulls me out of bed in the morning is telling myself I have wake up for breakfast,” Hecking laughs.
Waking up at 7:00 a.m. during the season had its benefits for Hecking, as she is one of three members of this year’s team (the others being junior diver Heather Mattingly and freshman individual medley specialist Marie Labosky) to qualify for the 2001 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships held in Long Island, N.Y., this weekend.
“It’s different because we all look at the BIG EAST as our big meet of the year. That’s where most of the team will go, and it’s really the main event that we train for during the season. It’s a lot harder training for the NCAAs because the rest of the team is done and out of the water. It’s just the three of us left.”
Hecking, Mattingly and Labosky haven’t been short on encouragement though, as teammates have shown their support by making signs and leaving treats for the trio in the locker room.
“It’s hard not having the whole team in the water with you, but I’m ready for it.”
The competition at the NCAA Championships will be fierce, but don’t expect the junior from Rutherford, N.J., to wilt under the pressure. After all, she’ll be the one bundled up poolside enjoying the heat.