Wilson swimmer Shelby Kahn leaves behind a golden legacy

·5 min read

Jun. 21—To say someone won 10 gold medals doesn't fully capture it. That's only a number. A big, seemingly impossible number.

To watch someone remove 10 gold medals from a bag and place them around her neck is a different story.

The magnitude of the achievement comes into focus. It's there in a bright, shiny display. All those hours in the pool. All those tense moments on the block. All those first-place finishes.

Shelby Kahn won 10 gold medals. The Wilson grad won eight in District 3 and two at states over the past three seasons.

Most days they hang in her room as a decorative reminder of a lifetime dedicated to swimming. On this occasion Kahn put them on for a photo. It was hard to keep them all in a straight line. They clinked together like wind chimes.

"When I look at them," Kahn said, "I think about all that hard work and how much I grew from being a freshman to my senior year. I wanted to stay at the top. I didn't want to have someone come in and take my position."

Kahn is one of five finalists for the Reading Eagle's female Athlete of the Year award, which will be announced June 28. She was the Berks and Central Penn League Swimmer of the Year.

All of this was a decade in the making. Kahn was fortunate to find her athletic calling early. She started swimming for a club, moved her way to the longer races and was hooked.

The Penn State recruit dabbled in other sports. She was a gymnast, she played soccer and she ran track from seventh through 10th grade. Nothing compared to being in the pool.

"I love the grind of it," Kahn said. "Even though there are some days when you just don't want to go to practice, there's no better feeling than getting out of a hard practice and knowing you put everything that you had into it and you competed. I just love that feeling. I never really got that from anything else."

Wilson coach Tom Houck crossed paths with Kahn at the beginning. The potential was obvious. The greatness followed.

Houck said Kahn was the type of person who'd challenge Michael Jordan to a free throw shooting contest. She wanted to test herself. She was fearless. Even when she was little.

"From an early age until she graduated, this is a girl who loves to compete," Houck said. "She always thrives on it. That has been her M.O. since she was 8 years old. If you put her in a pressure situation, the more comfortable she seems to be."

The PIAA gold medals are different from the rest. They're larger. They're harder to grasp. Kahn swept the 200 and 500 free in Class 3A at districts for three consecutive years before breaking through at states in March.

Kahn won the 200 free and teamed with Rylee Wenzel, Kaitlyn Bitting and Amalia Bradburn to win the 400 free relay at her final state meet. She served as the anchor in her last race.

Those four girls formed a bond through the years.

"Every time we swim a relay we know Shelby's going to post the time she has or faster," Wenzel said. "We never, ever doubt her. We know she's going to go where she needs to go."

Entering her senior season, PIAA gold was the last item on Kahn's wish list. She was second in the 200 free as a junior and the presumptive favorite in her final go-round.

Getting to the top of that podium was different than she imagined. In fact, there wasn't a podium at all. She was handed her medal by her coach. Her parents, and her dog, Bailey, were only there in cardboard cutout form because of COVID-19 restrictions.

None of that lessened the accomplishment. Two of the most memorable moments of Kahn's career were seeing her teammates, including her sister Ella, cheering for her on video and seeing her parents, Mike and Christine, when she got off the bus.

"I don't think I'll ever forget that feeling," Kahn said. "Getting to give them a hug and show them my medal, that was the best."

Kahn won every race she entered this season until she placed fourth at states in the 500 free. She posted Berks best times in five events, including relays.

The recent grad left an imprint at Wilson that extends beyond her achievements. Whether it was the Zumba dances before each competition or the encouragement to help everyone through a tough workout, Kahn always brought energy.

"Her name is going to be there for a while," Wenzel said. "I don't think Coach Houck is going to forget her. She's a one-of-a-kind swimmer."

Kahn is leaving for Penn State this weekend to start her next set of challenges. She wants to score at the Big Ten championships as a freshman and reach the U.S. Olympic Trials in three years.

There will be many more chances for Kahn to test herself. She passed every test at Wilson.

"You have to have the full package," Houck said. "You have to have the right mindset, the right drive, the right passion and the heart. That was Shelby in a nutshell. She's always striving to be better."

That's how one gold medal gradually turned into 10.

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