The Grand Haven Tribune is counting down its top five teams, as well as male and female athletes of the 2017-18 school year. The No. 4 girls athlete of the year is Kathryn Ackerman of Grand Haven.
As a sophomore, Ackerman continued to impress on both the local and national level, as she broke an All-Class record in the 200-yard individual medley this past fall at the Division 1 state meet.
Ackermann then took her talents to the national stage and had several breakthrough performances at last weekend's USA TYR Pro Series in Columbus, Ohio. While racing against Olympians like Leah Smith and Lilly King, Ackerman reached multiple finals and recorded new personal best times in the process.
Ackerman finished fifth in the 400-meter individual medley with a time of 4 minutes, 46.8 seconds, finishing just ahead of King, an Olympic gold medalist (4:46.49). Smith, an Olympic bronze medalist, won the event in 4:37.64.
The new time by Ackerman bested her previous high-mark by three seconds.
The momentum from that event helped her take sixth in the 200 IM (2:15.92) and 27th in the 200 breaststroke (2:36.77).
Ackerman swims with the Michigan Lakeshore Aquatics team during the summer. The Holland-based travel team wasn't expecting to make a big splash at the event but was happy with the results.
"We didn't expect much, because we had only rested for three or four days," said MLA coach Jim Whitehead. "It was a real gamble, but we were trying to set up Kathryn for Nationals in a few weeks.
"The whole team really blew up in the pool.”
Ackerman will next be off to the Phillips 66 National Championships in Irvine, California, on July 25-29. The event is one of the requirements to make the National Junior team. If Ackerman finishes as one of the top two finishers in the 18-and-under age group for her events, she'll qualify for the team.
She currently sits near the top five in the country in all five of her events.
MLA HEAD COACH JIM WHITEHEAD
On his first impression of Kathryn
"Holy cow, she is humble. It can go both ways when you have a swimmer of that caliber. Usually, it is the other way. Sometimes, it takes that attitude for kids to get great, but not for Kathryn. She is so selfless. She's a great kid, teammate, and is even a talented violinist when she's not in the pool. There really is nothing she doesn't do at a high level.
"She is a great influence on our youngsters. They look at her like she is an Olympian. On Day 1, I thought, ‘Wow, she really doesn't like the spotlight.' She wants to swim in it, but doesn't like it a whole lot."
On her training
"It is hard to beat her with a set. As a coach, you are constantly trying to find that limit and break the athlete a little bit. I can think of maybe one set over the two years we have had her that I really got close.
"She is an aerobic monster. She is a hard worker but doesn't show it like other swimmers do. She is very graceful in her training. I'm a tough coach, and she is hard to break."
On her competitive drive
"About a year ago, she was swimming really fast girl times at practice. Now, she is swimming fast boy times. You hate to say it like that, but that's the way it is. She trains with our fastest men; there are only one or two boys on the team she can't beat.
"It is to the point now where after meets, I have to check her times against the rest of the country to see how good they are. At age 14, she had the fourth fastest 400 IM for her age group in American history."
On what makes her special
"She does things as well as a lot of other swimmers, but what she does the best is she is really internally motivated. Her goals are very tight to the vest. She actually spoke her goals on camera at the TYR Pro Series and I had to go back and listen to them because I don't know all of them. She doesn't like talking about it, because it feels like bragging to her.
"That internal drive is really what sets her apart."
On her ceiling as an athlete
"There is no doubt in my mind she can go all the way up. Sometimes, I feel like I'm coaching royalty a little bit. Nothing surprises me with her anymore."
On goals for Nationals
"She would tell you both the National junior and National teams. Her goal for Nationals is to make the National Junior team. That sets her up for two years on Team USA 18-and-under, going to Pan Pacs and everything. That would lead her to the Olympic Trials, which she has already qualified for and then some.
"A year and a half ago, she had a phenomenal state meet, then had a sectional meet that put her on the national stage, then made the national select camp, now the goal is to make the national junior team."
On training schedule
"We live in resort towns here in Holland and Grand Haven, and we are cognizant of that. We go Monday through Friday in the mornings and do doubles Tuesday and Thursdays.
"It gives her and her peers a chance to have the weekend off and hit the beach and be a kid. I think that balance is what is really working for the club. The Black Group, which is out National-Cut Qualifiers, they do dry land or weights every single day along with their time in the pool."
HIGH SCHOOL PHENOM
After her national circuit is over, Ackerman will return to the local high school swim scene, where she will be viewed as the swimmer to beat whenever she enters an event.
As a freshman, Ackerman finished second in the 200-yard individual medley and fourth in the 500 freestyle at the Division 1 state meet.
She came into her sophomore season motivated to win a state championship and did just that at last fall's Division 1 finale.
During the prelims, the emerging star shattered her previous career-best in the 200-yard individual medley with a time of 1:58.94, which set a new Division 1 and All-Class record, as well as a new Oakland University Natatorium record, and earned her the top seed by nearly four seconds.
In the finals, Ackerman dropped another second to lower the new standard to 1:57.92, capturing her first state championship by nearly three seconds.
She wasn't done there, either. She continued her day with a third-place finish in the 100 butterfly with a time of 54.76 seconds to secure her second individual All-State award of the day.
She was joined by junior Annah Taylor, fellow sophomore Alonna Clark and freshman Ocean Veldhouse for an eighth-place, All-State finish in the 200 freestyle relay, clocking in at 1:37.63.
Ackerman also helped set a new school record in the 200-medley relay at the meet, with teammates Kirbey Colella, Taylor and Clark. After nabbing the 10th seed at prelims, the Bucs made a move in the finals, beating out O-K Red rival West Ottawa for the consolation championship and ninth place with a time of time of 1:47.01.
GRAND HAVEN GIRLS SWIMMING HEAD COACH DOUG THORNE
On what makes Kathryn so special
"What makes her special is that she's very talented. She's above and beyond what a coach could ask for. She's a special blue-chip athlete that not very many high school coaches get the opportunity to work with.
"Her willingness to compete and ability to push herself is like no other kid I've ever seen. She wants to win and she doesn't want to get beat. Her talent as a swimmer combined with her work ethic is what really makes her so special."
On pre-season goals
"She finished runner-up in the 200 I.M. as a freshman. The goal this year was a state championship in that event and to get under the two-minute mark. I just told her, ‘I know you can do it. You've gone 2:02 before, so you're already right there.' She went on to go 1:57 and broke a state record."
On biggest challenge coaching Kathryn
"The pressure is probably the biggest challenge for me. She's been swimming in a lot of big events and has a bright future. High school swimming is just the beginning for her. I don't want to screw her up in any way. I want her to be successful. That puts pressure on me to help her succeed, but that also makes me a better coach in return."
On Kathryn’s impact on the program
"When she came in, I knew her times and I knew she was going to be able to compete with anybody. When you see her in action, it really impresses you that much more. She has inspired everyone within the program. She's helped 16 to 20 other kids in the program push themselves because of her inspiration. She makes them better just practicing with them and being a good teammate.
"She's also helped the boys' program in a roundabout way. I've been very focused on making sure every single work out we perform as a purpose and is going to make every swimmer better by the end of it. That, in turn, has helped me rethink some of the workouts we do during the boys' season in the winter.
"We had one of our finishes at the state meet this past winter with the boys and had some really great performances. A lot of that is due to the work out regime I picked up from working with Kathryn because I wanted to push her to get better."
On favorite moment with her thus far
"Seeing her face when she touched the wall at the state meet and realize she won a state championship, broke another record and went under two minutes was special. We made eye contact and she cracked a big smile as if to say, ‘I did it.' That was one of the most fulfilling moments I've ever had as a coach."
On career ceiling as an athlete
"With each year, she's becoming more and more of a nationally respected athlete. She's already been talking about colleges and she will be one of the most highly recruited athletes coming out of high school. She's also a 4.0 student in the classroom, so her options are limitless and so is her potential as a swimmer."