RCW: Going for (Neon) Gold
UPDATE (9/19): Kansas sophomores Libby Walker and Haley Bishop slapped the finish board at the same time during the 2016 CSCAA Collegiate Open Water National Championship at Lone Star Lake Saturday, Sept. 17, and after photo and video review, they were declared co-champions while helping Kansas sweep the top three spots and the team title. Walker wasted no time after the long-distance swim and sped off to her other passion, music. Prior to attending a concert by recording artist Flume in nearby Kansas City, Walker stopped for coffee and was approached by a gentleman who asked about the temporary race tattoo numbers she was wearing. It was Flume, adding another interesting chapter to her already thrilling KU adventure. The original story is below.
Libby Walker got a taste of U.S. Olympic Swimming this past summer. Her sights are set on 2020, but first comes her KU career … and picking out the perfect playlist.
Libby Walker has been quite busy in 2016. After completing a successful freshman swimming campaign that included All-Big 12 honors and contributing to one of the best seasons in KU history, Walker continued with a top-30 finish in the 10-kilometer race at USA Swimming’s Open Water Nationals in April. Swimming amongst one of the deepest Open Water Nationals fields in recent memory, Walker finished her first 10-kilometer swim in just over two hours. Her focus shifted to the much shorter 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter individual medley, which she swam at the U.S. Olympic Trials just a few weeks before the opening ceremonies in Rio.
While the loaded schedule may have overwhelmed many others, the morning swims and afternoon workouts necessary to compete in races that last anywhere from two minutes to two hours have been a part of Walker’s life for as long as she can remember. The youngest of three, Walker grew up at her brother and sister’s swim practices and developed a passion for swimming at an early age.
“My mom was actually a summer league coach and my brother and sister both swam so I just kind of showed up to practice. I wasn’t old enough to practice but I would swim with the kids and swim laps around,” she remembered. “I basically taught myself how to swim by watching everyone and got into it that way.”
When she became old enough, Walker participated in the summer league for two summers and swam at the Macher Swim School. It was quickly realized that a greater challenge was needed for the talented nine-year old Walker. She joined the Columbia Swim Club, where she developed a strong work ethic and mental toughness to complement her natural ability. At 11 years old, she was swimming for hours at a time and competing in open water swim competitions.
By middle school, Walker had carved out her specialty in distance freestyle and butterfly events. Swimming in college came into focus as a long-term goal, though the then-Missouri Tigers fan couldn’t fathom swimming for the Jayhawks. As her swimming career progressed, another passion of hers was developing, music.
Walker and McManus met swimming for Columbia Swim Club and have been friends since.
“My brother was always super into music so we would just listen to everything when I was younger. When I was in middle school I kind of took off and went in my own direction,” said Walker. “I listen to basically everything. I went to my first concert, Miley Cyrus, in 2009.”
Though her musical taste has become more refined since she bought her first CD, Hilary Duff’s Metamorphosis, Walker still retains a guilty pleasure in mainstream pop. Her passion for music and swimming helped her develop close bonds to her teammates that shared her musical taste. She gained one of her best friends, Matt McManus, through music and swimming. A new addition to the Columbia Swim Club in 2013, McManus noticed Walker listened to the same music he did and introduced himself. Since then the two have become concert buddies and have attended several concerts and festivals in the past year alone. The duo has a special affinity for the record label Neon Gold.
“One day I just mustered up the courage and said, ‘Hey have you heard of so and so before,’ and she replied, ‘Oh my gosh, yeah. I saw you were listening to her the other day and I was going to say something about it,'” McManus recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow she is following me on social media, this is crazy.’ I didn’t think anyone paid attention to me.”
Relationships not only take Walker to concerts, but they helped her find her way to KU as well. The one-time Mizzou fan attracted the attention of KU head coach Clark Campbell, who was excited to see a local prospect so talented.
“I knew her abilities and as the recruiting process came along, she had some friends on our team. Her and (former KU swimmer) Haley Molden are very good friends so Haley was always telling me to watch Libby so we took a good look,” said Campbell. “We saw her times and how she races and we knew she would be a really good collegiate athlete.”
A home visit to Columbia ensued and Campbell convinced Walker’s parents, both Mizzou alums, that Kansas provided good opportunities in and out of the pool. Some of the opportunities they discussed have already come to fruition for Walker, such as the chance to compete in open water competitions and participate in the Olympic Trials. The official visit to Lawrence sealed the deal for Walker, who connected with the team and fell in love with the city. Walker decided to forgo her remaining official visit and commit to being a Jayhawk.
Another factor that drew Walker to Lawrence was its music scene. The eclectic town boasts the Bottleneck, Granada, Replay Lounge and Liberty Hall, all located on Massachusetts Street, as popular tour stops for indie groups. In conjunction with the bigger venues in Kansas City such as the Midland, Sprint Center and CrossroadsKC, live music of all genres are accessible in the Lawrence-Kansas City area. Campbell, who used to swim for KU in the 1980s, could relate to the draw Lawrence has for the musically inclined crowd.
“One of the first concerts I ever saw was REM at (what is now) the Bottleneck. Even back in 1984 when I went to school here, Lawrence was a stop in the indie music scene. Nobody knew who REM was and then they ended up becoming who they are,” Campbell explained. “The scene is something that we sell. Lawrence is still a big deal on the indie scene.”
Already friends with many of her teammates before ever slipping into the pool with them and living in a town with enough musical options to satiate her palette, it’s no wonder that Walker experienced a smooth transition to collegiate swimming. She stamped her name on the Kansas record books, recording the third-fastest time in school history in the 200 fly and the fourth-fastest times in the mile and the 400 IM as well as finishing in the top eight of each of her individual races throughout the year. Her performances gave hope to the staff that she will help continue KU’s meteoric rise in the past few years.
Part of the reasoning for that hope lies in the similarities between what Walker brings to the table and what former All-American Chelsie Miller did for the program. Miller holds the fastest times in KU history in six events and was a big factor in KU’s best-ever performance at the 2016 Big 12 Championship. With Miller now gone, Walker will try to fill her void and add her own legacy to Kansas swimming. Campbell believes wholeheartedly that Walker is up to the task.
“She really loves (swimming). You can tell there’s a passion for it,” Campbell said. “She always comes in positive, upbeat and ready for the challenge of the day whether it’s on land or water. When you’re a happy person down deep who’s just happy to be alive and to be given the gifts that you’re given and you’re able to be in an environment that really helps you develop those gifts, the sky is the limit.”
Both self-proclaimed swimming nerds, Campbell and Walker pick each other’s brains about swimming, training and Walker’s career goals. They’ve been able to discuss these topics at length while traveling to the Open Water Nationals and Olympic Trials. Through this time together, both have grown to respect each other’s approach to training and mental preparation. However, when the discussion moves over to her other passion, music, the conversational well tends to run dry.
“I know nothing about it. When she says groups, I’m thinking ACDC, Metallica, Jefferson Starship and the groups I really like. We’ve really got a generational gap,” Campbell said. “I love that she’s so into it because, from my own experience as a professional athlete, you need that diversion away from the sport. When I was a professional athlete I loved the music scene too but it was more the ’70s, ’80s rock.”
Walker’s spring and summer schedule certainly reflected her dual passions for swimming and music. Following her 10k race at the Open Water Nationals, she attended four concerts in two weeks during the month of May. With McManus in tow, they experienced what they agreed was one of their favorite concerts, electronic music duo Disclosure at CrossroadsKC. A few days later they saw Ellie Goulding at the Providence Medical Center Amphitheater. McManus was unable to accompany Walker to her next two concerts, but with other friends she was able to see Florence and the Machine and then HAIM on consecutive days.
The opportunity to see HAIM was special for Walker, who ranks HAIM as her favorite band. She owns several of their vinyl records and took advantage of the first opportunity she had to watch them live. Three hours after the show had ended, she and her friends were standing outside hoping to meet the band when security insisted that they call it a night. Walker and her friends left the premises and stopped for food. Then Libby saw on Instagram that the band had come out to mingle with fans. They raced back to the concert hall.
“They had talked to people for so long that they were still there. I chatted with Este for 30 minutes, she was so nice,” Walker remembered excitedly. “My friend was wearing a Fleetwood Mac t-shirt and Este showed us baby pictures of Stevie Nicks on her phone.”
Walker soon received another chance to get star-struck at the USO Trials, where she swam amongst members of the U.S. Olympic team including eventual 2016 gold medalists Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Ryan Murphy and Simone Manuel.
“I think of (Olympic swimmers) as normal people but I was in awe of Katie Ledecky because she is just so good,” Walker said.
Swimming two races, Walker finished just over two seconds out from the semifinals cutoff in the 200-meter butterfly and one-tenth of a second short of winning her heat in the 400-meter IM. The experience was valuable in that she was able to reflect on how much she had improved her freshman year and what tweaks could be made to ensure her growth during her sophomore year.
The natural follow-up to participating in one of the premier U.S. swimming events was attending Lollapalooza, an iconic music festival that is held annually in Chicago the first week of August. McManus was able to tag along with Walker this time and experience something that’s been on their wish list for a long time.
“We only went one day but it was the day there were a lot of artists that we liked. Libby takes concerting very seriously so we were always very close to every venue we went to. We planned enough time to get to the venue earlier and we would push our way to get as close as we could,” said McManus. “It was a really incredible experience, we got to see so many artists that we like and we got to meet one of our favorite artists, Dua Lipa.”
Though some may think that all the time Walker spent away from the water and in the concert hall could hurt her progress in the pool, her coach disagrees.
“I was so happy for Libby to get away from swimming for a while and go do stuff that is a passion for her. She’s come back and is so mentally fresh and ready to go. Campbell said. “Now we can put the time in that it takes to get her goals into 2020. I’m so glad she got that break. Just seeing the adventures and hearing her talk about them was really fun.”
With her break now over, Walker is gearing up for the CSCAA National Collegiate Open Water Championship on September 17. She will use the 5 kilometer race as a head start on her training for the indoor season, where she expects to build upon her strong freshman showing.
“Just the nature of the training for it is really good for me for all of my events, not just the distance freestyle events. I’m going to be in the best shape I’ve ever been at this time of the year and that is something to be excited about because you can start off the dual season on top of it,” Walker said. “I’m really looking forward to that. I think even by the Crimson and Blue meet I’ll be on top of it, so I’m excited for that.”
Walker will certainly be busy trying to sustain and add to KU’s recent success in the pool. By her next run through the Olympic Trials, she hopefully will have left a sizable mark on the Kansas record books and led the team to new heights.
Even she and her coach can agree, that sounds pretty sweet.