Walker Seeks Experience, Success at Open Water Championships
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Libby Walker will officially swim in her first US Open Water Championships Friday, completing a nearly year-long, tweet-to-reality journey that will pit the Kansas freshman against some of the top long-distance swimmers in the world.
Walker will be among 33 talented swimmers holding the line when the starter pistol fires at 8 a.m. (ET)/7 a.m. (CT) in Miromar Lakes, Florida, for the start of a grueling 10 kilometer open water swim. At last year’s championship, Kansas senior Chelsie Miller finished 21st while completing the course in a little more than two hours and 11 minutes. Walker wasn’t physically there, but she was certainly in the conversation.
Walker was preparing for her Senior Prom when Kansas head coach Clark Campbell mentioned his signee on Twitter, along with the message, we can’t wait for Libby Walker to be here too in 2016.
Almost a full year and successful debut season later, Walker is ready for the challenge.
“Last year when Chelsie went down with Clark to swim at the same event he actually tweeted at me,” Walker, who finished as the runner-up in the 1650-yard freestyle at the 2016 Big 12 Championships, said. “I have always kind of been interested in open water – I did it a little bit when I was younger and so we kind of decided then. Then when I started training this fall we decided for sure that it was something I was going to do. It’s going to be really exciting, this is the longest race I’ve ever done so I’m definitely looking forward to getting that experience.”
Any competitor wants to win, but it’s the experience and preparation for the future that Campbell and Walker are after in her first attempt. They both know full well that a win would be hard to come by with the likes of Haley Anderson, who finished as the runner-up in the event last year while qualifying for the US Olympic Team, and Ana Marcela Cunha, an Olympian from Brazil who was selected as the 2014 and 2015 FINA Open Water Swimmer of the Year, leading the field.
“We’re hoping to come out of here with a really good first national championship experience,” Campbell said. “This is her first 10K. If you were to compare this to running, this is like moving up from 10K or a half marathon to a full marathon.
“Having the first go around be a good experience with the national championships at this site for the foreseeable future, we have a plan in the next quadrennial and heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to be ready in three years when the Olympic Trials could be here. We’re looking at a plan, a steady progression going from now until then in which she’ll have the experience to be able to do something special.”
In finishing second in the mile at the league championship – the longest race of the meet – Walker completed 66 laps in 16:32.71. Her swim was KU’s second-fastest in the event last year and she’s already the fourth-fastest women’s miler in KU history. Walker seems to get better as the distance increases and it will grow considerably for Friday’s event. The 10K race will be roughly six times longer than the 1650 free and would take a little more than 410 laps to complete in a short-course yardage NCAA competition pool, where she’s done the majority of her preparation.
“We’ve done some practices that have been 10K,” Walker said. “It’s broken up just like a regular practice where you’re doing sets, so I’ve never done a 10K straight, but overall combined I’ve done a 10K many times. The past couple of weeks I’ve been doing 5K swims where I just swim for about an hour, so that’s also been good practice. But I haven’t done that full distance ever so it will be something new, but I think I can handle it.”
Additionally, Walker and her Kansas teammates have utilized voluntary fall swims at Lone Star Lake near Lawrence to break up the monotony of chasing the black line at the bottom of the pool. That experience, coupled with Walker’s previous exposure to shorter open water races and camps as an early teenager have aided in her general readiness.
Having a coach going through it for a second time also helps. Campbell, a veteran coach with professional triathlon experience, used last year’s competition to help Miller parlay her performance into a summer training spot with SwimMAC in Charlotte and to gain logistical knowledge to use for future races – including a College Swim Coaches Association of America National Collegiate Open Water Swimming Championship that he’s spearheading for the end of the summer in Lawrence.
Campbell has fine tuned his coaching approach with seemingly simple steps like getting a longer pole for the feeding device that he’ll use to reach Walker with clean drinking and nutrients as she passes the dock during the five-lap race.
“Last year we learned a lot,” Campbell said. “An open water race is dependent on a lot of factors – you have environmental factors, you have the race course, the whole lay of the entire environment is very unique. I came down here wide-eyed last year because we knew Libby was going to be a Jayhawk and this was going to be something she was going to be doing each year she was at KU. We really just took everything in and got a really good sense of what this event is all about.
“This year we’re definitely going into it with a lot more knowledge than last year in just the simple things, like how long it takes to get from the hotel to the lake in the morning – the traffic can get a little crazy. And then how the course is set up and little things like the stick we use to feed her – we need to get something longer than we had last year, something that will probably make that part of the race go a little bit better. Last year’s event was a really good learning event.”
Walker will swim in the first of four total races that make up the US Open Water Championships. The men’s 10K race will follow Friday morning and the weekend festivities conclude with a pair of 5K races on Sunday. Live results will be posted online at USASwimming.org, along with links to live video of each race.
The event is the first of several for the Columbia, Missouri native this summer after she helped the Jayhawks to their highest-ever point total in Big 12 competition during the league meet in the last week of February. She’s one of three current and future Jayhawks already qualified for the US Olympic Trials after swimming a cut in the 200-yard butterfly during summer sectionals last year.
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