Rock Chalk Weekly: Leading in the Right Direction
Written by Ryan Levine, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant, & Kevin McCarty
Try to view a bunch of photos or watch a video of pugs without smiling. There’s a bunch on twitter and Kansas swimming and diving’s Haley Molden seems to follow, and retweet, them all. A pug just might be Molden’s spirit animal, and it makes perfect sense. Spending any time around her conjures warm fuzzy feelings and is guaranteed to produce a grin.
Unlike a pug – especially that pug Vine from @puppyboyfriend with sunglasses on, rolling around on its back in the tiny backyard swimming pool – Molden is actually pretty graceful in the water. Her infectious personality, commitment to excellence in her sport and eagerness to help make her teammates better has led to a two-year captaincy and is one factor contributing to what could be a special season for the Jayhawks. Those traits might also lead to more time around the pool after she graduates, as a swimming coach.
A four-year contributor for Kansas’ sprints and relay teams, Molden has found ways to bring out the best of her team as a whole – including the program’s highest finish at the Big 12 Championships two years ago, something the squad is looking to replicate or surpass in February at this year’s league meet. Part of that is building into the individuals, like teammate and close friend Yulya Kuchkarova.
“She does a lot in the pool, as well as out of the pool,” the junior back stroke specialist said. “She’s someone that you can look up to and stay positive, because she’s a really bright person who has a big heart.”
Molden prides herself on team culture and bringing her teammates together. She accomplishes this by reaching out to newcomers to make a conscious effort to make them feel like they belong with the rest of the team. That outgoing charisma had a big effect on Kuchkarova, now a junior, who picked Kansas after a brief stint in California, half the globe away from her home in Uzbekistan.
“I am kind of shy and not really talkative, but Haley was so helpful in bringing me out there and helping me get out of my shell,” Kuchkarova said. “She became a best friend to me here because I struggled a lot to get involved with the group.”
Thanks in part to Molden, Kuchkarova feels right at home in Robinson Natatorium where she owns a facility record and could challenge for a pair of school records, as well as Big 12 titles in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke. She’s also a candidate to represent Uzbekistan at the Summer Olympics in Rio, four years after swimming at the Olympic Games in London.
—There’s something about the way a pug moves – maybe it’s the squatty legs, big eyes peeking out of a folded face, the bounce in its curly tail, or the sheer bulk of cuteness crammed into a tiny body – that exudes happiness. Check out Doug the Pug (@itsdougthepug) pulling a tiny sleigh while wearing a Santa suit, another Molden follow and retweet, if you’re unconvinced. Similarly, watch Molden any time before the starter pistol is raised, before joyous energy turns into serious focus and determination, and you’ll likely see a dancing, singing, laughing, bounding happy girl.
Molden’s big heart and upbeat personality is what stands out the most amongst not only her teammates, but the Kansas coaching staff also. The positive characteristics she displays on a daily basis have been apparent to head coach Clark Campbell since the first day Molden stepped on KU’s campus from nearby Topeka, Kansas.
It wasn’t until her sophomore season that her big smile and shining positivity became solidified as a formal position. Campbell – ever tinkering to find ways to make the team better – had an idea to build team culture and designated specific jobs to everyone on the team. For Molden there was only one that he felt was right: Director of Fun.
“For a kid her age, she’s incredibly positive and optimistic,” Campbell said. “She always sees the glass as half full and she can see the best in almost any situation, which is an admirable trait.”
Molden has taken the title to heart and executed her duties of her unique role perfectly. She helps organize group-bonding activities, such as team dinners and lip-sync contests.
Like most leaders naturally do, Molden showed off her creative mind last season, when her and then-teammate Caroline Patterson decided to change how the team’s lip-sync contests were conducted. They came up with the idea to add props to the contests and make their own microphones.
Molden remembers that within 30 seconds of the idea, she and Patterson were out the door, heading to Home Depot, and used PVC pipes to create microphones. Another example of Molden’s leadership in bringing a group of girls together to gel as a unit once they step in the pool.
“I have taken that job very seriously,” the Director of Fun said with a smile on her face. “I just realize that a great part of me, as a leader and a teammate, is that I don’t want things to get too serious. We definitely do better when we’re all having fun.”
That was evident to Kuchkarova earlier this fall, during what Campbell deemed a business trip swim meet at TCU. The Jayhawks were to fly to Fort Worth, compete against one of their Big 12 foes, and fly back all in the course of one day. While sitting at the pool, waiting for the meet to start, the smaller contingent of Jayhawks had music playing, was dancing and laughing, all the while TCU sat, in mostly silence, and watched from across the venue. The Jayhawks steamrolled the Horned Frogs in a 178-119 win – who says business can’t be fun too?—
Owning a pug is a serious responsibility – think of all the clothes, booties and assorted accessories one needs to post a photo of the little guy every day. There’s also the whole feeding, watering, walking and potty training thing too. Molden hopes to tackle it someday, and she’ll do it with the fervor and tenacity with which she’s learned to approach her training and competition.
Molden, who was an Olympic Trials qualifier in 2012 after her senior campaign at Washburn Rural High School and looks to make a return trip to Omaha this summer, considered following her father’s footsteps of sorts and become a strength and conditioning coach. Ron Molden is a personal trainer and used to own a gym. Haley’s commitment to strength training is evident on her left wrist, where a small dumbbell tattoo serves as a constant motivator.
“(The tattoo) reminds me of my goals, to not give up and that it’s never too late to change what you’re doing – just to be happy and be where you think you need to be,” Molden said.
A symbol of strength and hard work, dumbbells and other training tools have always been a significant part of her life. That is part of the reason she spent last summer training with Tampa Bay Community Aquatics in Florida, where her dad now lives. Instead of intense weight sessions with her father, however, Molden exerted all the energy she needed to with her adopted club team and found a niche helping the team’s younger swimmers. They, in turn, reignited her passion for swimming and sparked an idea that she could someday serve as a swimming coach.
That comes as no surprise to Campbell, her current swim boss.
“We do a lot of peer-coaching within the team, so we have already seen that side of her,” Campbell said. “You look at her observationally, see how she is as a coach and you can really tell she has that gleam in her eye. It’s something that really captivates her and is something that she enjoys.”
Molden’s inspiration to lead and help others doesn’t just come from her dad. Her mom, Cindie, lives in Topeka and has been one of her biggest supporters throughout the years. In addition to attending almost every meet Haley swims in, Cindie, like many swim parents, volunteers at a number of events, including KU’s Big Challenge in Topeka for the last several years.
While Ron served more as a technical advisor over the years, Cindie provides valuable emotional insight and her, “Go Hay!” cheer before the start of every race is endearing to Haley, and greatly missed when travel or other rare circumstances keep Cindie away.
“She’s always there at every swim meet and has been the moral support – just there to listen to you and give her two cents,” Molden said. “It’s enough to make you feel better.”
That mix of technical knowledge and emotional tact has helped Molden as a team leader and as a formally recognized captain for the last two years.
“I take it more as a responsibility to just be a better teammate, represent the university well,” Molden said, “and also encourage the others to give them a good example of what hard work and teamwork looks like.”
Molden is also motivated to leave her mark on Kansas swimming with her final swims as a Jayhawk approaching. Molden owns the fourth-fastest, 200-yard freestyle time in KU history, swum two years ago at the Big 12 Championships, and hopes to lead a deep, talented Kansas squad to new heights at this year’s meet at Texas’ Jamail Swimming Center, Feb. 24-27.
Haley Molden is someone who puts her teammates and others ahead of herself. She brings out the best of everyone and makes sure that no matter what the situation is, people can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is why she will one day be a great coach, and an even better leader.
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