Kawakami's finishing kick should bring accolades, degree

Feb. 8—In a race that can come down to a tenth of a second, a swimmer never quite knows just how fast he or she is going.

In a race that can come down to a tenth of a second, a swimmer never quite knows just how fast he or she is going.

"Sometimes you think you're going fast and you look up and you have a slow time, " George Washington senior Tyler Kawakami said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Other times you think you're going slow and then you look up and you have a fast time.

"All I was thinking about was getting my hand on that wall first."

The 2019 Punahou School alum has won numerous gold and silver medals in the Atlantic-10 Championships—17 (11 gold, six silver ) if you're counting at home.

As he gets ready for his fourth and final league championship meet next week, Kawakami reflected back to the one race that meant a little more than the rest.

"The 50 (yard ) free from my sophomore year when I got first and I went 19.97 (seconds ), that was kind of a pretty big moment for me, " Kawakami recalled. "All throughout high school and all throughout college, breaking 20 (seconds ) in the 50 (freestyle ) was one of my biggest goals. Coming off a year when they had to extend conference (season ) an extra two months and I got COVID, finally breaking 20 marked one off the biggest goals I've ever achieved."

Kawakami has been on winning relay teams in the 200 and 400 medley and 200 and 400 freestyle. He's also won gold in the 100 free.

The 50 freestyle is an event unique to every swimming championships. It's one sprint down the pool. Twenty seconds goes by in the blink of an eye. The pool has barely settled at one end where swimmers dive in when hands are already slamming into the opposite wall.

"It's crazy because you don't really know what's going on until you touch the wall, " Kawakami said. "I celebrated a little bit for sure (when I saw the time ). I'll remember that one for a while."

Since he started swimming competitively when he was 10 years old, Kawakami has always been a sprinter.

It was never more evident than in the summer before his senior year at Punahou when he competed in the Oceania Swimming Championships in Papa New Guinea.

A couple of friends convinced Kawakami to compete in a 10-kilometer open water swim while there and he called that "arguably one of the worst decisions I've made in my life.

"My friends train under John Flanagan, who was an open water world champion so they train long yardages and swim a lot and I didn't because I was a sprinter, " Kawakami said. "I had no distance swimmer bones in my body, and so when I swam that 10K, I came in last. Some guy came up to me on a Jet Ski and asked if I wanted a ride in because everyone else was done."

Kawakami wasn't about to get wheeled in so he finished the race.

If he had any doubts before, he knew once and for all he would only be a sprinter the rest of his life.

It's worked out just fine during his time in Washington D.C.

Kawakami admitted he didn't think much about college until his junior year of high school. When the swim coach at George Washington reached out and asked him if he had ever heard of GW, Kawakami replied, "What the heck is a GW ?"

He researched the school and was excited to find out they had a good business school. Eventually he was convinced to take an official visit.

Once he did that, he was sold, and he's never looked back since.

"At GW, it's been quite a ride, " Kawakami said. "My freshman year we got second in conference and that kind of drove me to want to push this team to win the next two championships that we've won."

The toughest year was also the most rewarding.

A month after conference championships as a freshman, Kawakami was sent home for the COVID-19 pandemic. Only athletes were allowed to return to on-campus schooling in the fall but nothing was open.

The team would grab lunch at Chipotle and there wouldn't be another customer in the store.

Conference championships were pushed back two months at the end of that academic year and Kawakami thinks it's what helped him break 20 seconds in the 50 freestyle.

"The extra rest from getting COVID-19 probably helped me, " he said. "Although my coach would probably argue otherwise."

The result made it all worth it, but it was a grind getting to that meet. Kawakami admitted he thought about quitting swimming during the pandemic, but then he thought about his family and realized his life was about much more than just swimming.

"It was very difficult, but finishing four years of college has always been something I had dreamed of doing, " Kawakami said. "My parents sacrificed a lot to get me there and I just kind of wanted to make my grandparents and my parents proud by graduating college in four years with good grades and a good job in mind.

"Definitely there were times I was struggling to mentally stay in it, but I knew it would make things sweeter in the end."