Something is different about Madison Kennedy.
Yes, there’s the streak of neon color in her blonde hair, the septum piercing, the gray lipstick, the fact that she’s 6 feet tall and wearing 5-inch heels.
But the difference runs deeper than a few wild style choices.
She’s a swimmer aiming at the 2016 Olympics who insists her part-time jobs are more important than getting to every training session, and that she knows better than her coach – a nationally revered figure who happens to also be the U.S. Olympic women’s coach – how to get her body to peak strength, an opinion she underscored by choosing a trainer he had declared wrong for her.
And perhaps most different of all: The 28-year-old openly criticizes the self-sacrifice and laser focus we’ve come to expect of world-class athletes, and repeatedly rejects the notion that winning a medal – or even making the team – is worth giving up who she is.
The Olympics? “It’s a swim meet,” she says. “It’s a really cool, kick-ass swim meet – but it’s a swim meet.”
Call it defiance. Call it being radical. Or call it how SwimMAC Team Elite coach David Marsh sees it.
“It’s probably one of the most interesting relationships I’ve ever had with an athlete,” Marsh offers, and if this feels like an understatement, that’s because it is.
“I think we butt heads almost every day to some degree,” he says. “And it’s not anything big and furious, it’s more she’ll walk in 10 minutes late, and she’s coming from work ... and I’ll say, ‘It’d be nice if you got here on time.’ ”
Marsh laughs: “At this point, it’s kind of comical to me. I roll with it.”
This is, to be sure, unconventional latitude to extend to a professional athlete. But if it’s not yet clear, Madison Kennedy is a strikingly unconventional professional athlete.
The question is, will this atypical path cost her a ticket to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio?
The day everything changed
Kennedy didn’t always swim against the current.
At Avon (Conn.) High School, where she swam for the boys team all four years, she adhered strictly to her coaches’ training regimen and philosophy. Same at Rutgers University (where she spent two years, then transferred because of program cuts), and the University of California, Berkeley, where, at age 20, she made a solid but unsuccessful run at qualifying for the 2008 Olympics.
On Dec. 1, 2011, she arrived in Charlotte to train under Marsh with SwimMAC Carolina’s Team Elite, one of the most prominent producers of Olympic hopefuls in the country. For the first seven months, if he said it, she did it.
In June, the team headed into the pressure cooker of the 2012 Olympic Trials. Swimmers must race their events three times in about 36 hours – preliminaries and semifinals the first day, finals the next evening – and Kennedy was competing in two events (the 50-meter freestyle, where she’s strongest, and the 100 free).
And before one of her finals, she cracked.
“I was at that point just thinking, ‘Oh God, how do I swim this third race?’ ” Kennedy recalls, “and looking for David to be very attentive. ... ‘What do I do? What I do for a warmup? You’re a genius and I trust everything that you say, so what do I do?’ ”
But she couldn’t find Marsh. She knew he had others to coach, but: “I didn’t know how to handle it.”
She finished eighth in the 100 and fifth in the 50 – lifetime-best times in each, but not enough to get to London.
Kennedy finished fifth in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2012 Olympic Trials, 0.28 seconds away from fourth, 0.32 seconds from third, 0.38 seconds from a spot on the U.S. team.
Then came a pivotal moment, one Kennedy and Marsh remember pretty much the same way: As they reviewed her performances, he said something like: “You are too dependent. You need to be more independent about your swimming.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, really? Independent?’ ” Kennedy recalls. “ ‘Well, fine.
“ ‘I will become the most independent person ever.’ ”
The key to finding balance
Getting away from the pool was her surprising first step.
Within months, she took a job at Lululemon Athletica in SouthPark, helping customers try on yoga pants up to five days a week. After being introduced to the Hilliard Studio Method (a core-centric, Pilates-based workout) through free classes for Lululemon employees, she got hired to teach, eventually leading five hourlong classes per week.
I like disengaging from the culture that is swimming, because it’s so ‘You have to do this amount of yardage – you have to do this, this and this, in order to get this time.’ And I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think there’s a prescription ... for everyone. Yet some people treat it like: ‘Fit in the hole, square peg! Fit in there!’
Marsh was unhappy. Kennedy was happier than she’d been in awhile.
“I kind of need but also want to work. Not only to live, but to be sane – emotionally, mentally, physically sane,” she explains.
The Lululemon job allows her extrovert flag to fly; the Hilliard job does the same, with the added benefit of building strength and conditioning while she works – in a place that’s not the pool.
“I like disengaging from the culture that is swimming,” Kennedy says, “because it’s so ‘You have to do this amount of yardage – you have to do this, this and this, in order to get this time.’ And I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think there’s a prescription ... for everyone.
“Yet some people treat it like: ‘Fit in the hole, square peg! Fit in there!’ ”
Adds New York-based Olympic medalist Kim Vandenberg, who has known Kennedy for six years: “There’s a lot of opinions that people have about what athletes should or shouldn’t do – ‘You should do this, and you should only be swimming, and you should be taking naps in between training sessions ...’
“But what Madison is doing is what is good for her and what works for her.”
Kennedy is not the only one of Marsh’s swimmers with a job. Olympic medalists Ryan Lochte and Cullen Jones make out-of-town sponsor appearances; freestyle/butterfly specialist Mark Weber works part-time for a pool equipment company. But Kennedy has by far missed the most practices.
“It’s been less than ideal from my perspective,” says Marsh. But “we’ve gotten to a really good place. All I’m asking for is when she does come in to train that she be emotionally and physically ready to give her all.”
Also in the less-than-ideal-to-Marsh category, at least at first, was Kennedy’s decision to deviate from Marsh’s list of recommended strength coaches and hire a guy named Eric Lane.
The man who’s made her stronger
That wasn’t about Lane’s qualifications – it was about Lane being her fiance. Marsh doubted Lane could really, truly, push her because of their relationship.
Lane – a former college swimmer and powerlifter who founded a developmental program for youth triathletes in the Charlotte area called VOLO Multisport – is the yin to Kennedy’s wacky yang: introverted, even-keeled, someone who likes to go with the flow.
“(David) didn’t think that Eric could push me because a) We’re in a relationship and b) his personality is way more mellow than mine,” Kennedy recalls, “which is a) insulting to Eric and b) insulting in general. So David and I would fight about this a lot.”
Lane and Kennedy met as freshmen at Rutgers 11 years ago, and got matching hearts inked onto their wrists the following summer. The tattoos were her idea. So was the idea for her to keep her name after they get married in October 2017.
On a warm March afternoon, as Kennedy and Lane sit on the patio outside South End’s Atherton Market, Lane explains why it should be clear just from Kennedy’s appearance that she is going to do whatever she wants.
“I mean, look what she’s wearing,” he says. “She’s got colored hair, she’s got these ridiculous sunglasses on. She has a nose ring ...”
The alternative look is old news for Kennedy.
Her father, a branch manager for Northeast Utilities, nicknamed Kennedy “Jaws” when she was 13 – because of her braces and her big teeth. “He hasn’t called me anything else since.”
The oldest child of James and Jordana Kennedy, Madison and her sisters, Hannah and Jessica, grew up in a trend-setting household: Mom was a New York fashion designer who constantly brought inspiration home from the office and the runways, and put all three in hip-huggers and bell-bottoms ahead of the curve. But it was Madison who chopped off her long blonde hair to wear a boy cut in elementary school, and Madison who was least bashful about wearing zebra pants to middle school.
But on this day, Kennedy cringes as Lane describes her. “I sound like a dragon lady.”
Lane waves her off. “It’s fun. It’s exciting. With Madi, it’s always like, ‘What’s next? What’s Madison gonna do tomorrow?’ ”
The proof that it’s all working
And the remarkable thing about the defiance, the insistence on doing not what others think is best, but what she thinks is best? It’s working.
The stuff that Marsh initially frowned on? It’s working.
“With the Hilliard stuff and with Eric Lane’s lifting program, the biggest thing that’s happened this year is she’s become a stronger athlete,” says Marsh. “She understands that to be a fast 50 freestyler – with her fantastic stroke – that really what she needed to add was just raw strength. And she’s done an incredibly good job of that.”
At the Arena Pro Swim Series in Arizona in April, Kennedy swam a lifetime best of 24.45 seconds, the third-fastest time ever by an American woman in the 50-meter freestyle. At Charlotte’s Arena Pro meet in May, she was just .08 seconds off her Mesa mark.
You can have been to all the (other) meets, medal every single one, and miss the Olympics, and unfortunately, in the eyes of the media or the sport, it’s like, ‘Well, you didn’t really ever get to the Olympics. Bummer. You’re not
It’s working, and Marsh isn’t about to fuss with it. He’s not recommending she quit work as the Trials approach – “I think she needs that flow of life.”
The burning question
Kennedy will take her third shot at the Olympics at the June 26-July 3 Trials, in Omaha, Neb.
Only the top two finishers in the 50 free get to drape American flags over their shoulders and book August flights to Rio de Janeiro. (In the 100 free, the top two finishers qualify, and third- through sixth-place finishers make the 4x100-meter relay team.)
Qualifying, she says, would be “the coolest s--- ever.” But she bristles at what might happen if she doesn’t.
“You can have been to all the (other) meets, medal every single one, and miss the Olympics,” she says, “and unfortunately, in the eyes of the media or the sport, it’s like: ‘Well, you didn’t really ever get to the Olympics. Bummer. You’re not that good.’ ”
Kennedy will be “epically disappointed” if she doesn’t make the team.
But: “Does that mean that my 24 years of swimming and my 28 years of happiness that I have perceived are actually a lie? ... That is not my philosophy at all.” (Regardless of the outcome at these Trials, she plans to try again in 2020, and even 2024, if her body will allow it.)
So why, then, is this so important to her? Why does she push forward as hard as she pushes back?
She takes a slow, deep breath.
“I’m not famous ... But I would love to be, somehow, someone that could be trustworthy or valid enough to have (a platform).”
That’s key to why the rebel hopes to make the Olympics, why the so-very-independent swimmer wants a microphone. She wants to change the culture. Her message:
“Listen. We don’t all have to do the same thing. People can be different ...
“You can do great things not being the same.”