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When Courtney Kent took to the starting blocks for the R.I. Interscholastic Girls Swimming Championships at the University of Rhode Islandâ€™s Tootell Natatorium back on Feb. 25, she desperately wanted to defend her titles in the 200- and 500-yard freestyles.
Naturally, it had something to do with her desire to achieve personal-best times â€“ not to mention proving to herself she still was the Ocean State's fastest â€“ but much more so to show her father, Michael, how much she had improved over the years.
Mike Kent hadn't seen his daughter compete in almost two years; in November 2010, he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one called soft-tissue sarcoma. In fact, just a few days after the 2011 state championships, he had a segment of his quadriceps muscle removed from his right leg, and spent several months rehabbing.
When the younger Kent captured the crowns in the 200 freestyle (1:54.38) and the 500 freestyle (5:00.39), she failed to post personal records. In fact, she wasn't even close, but that hardly mattered.
â€śAs soon as I finished (the 500), I went up to see him, and he said jokingly, 'Courtney, why didn't you swim in the middle of the lane? You were swimming in circles!'â€ť Kent laughed Tuesday afternoon, as she waited for her mom's shift as a downtown MRI technician to end. â€śI showed him my medal and gave him a hug. He just told me he was very proud of me.
â€śI was suped,â€ť she added. â€śI didn't do best times, but I did have two impressive races. I was way ahead in both, but â€“ more importantly â€“ my dad saw me win. It had been a really long time. You have no idea how much that meant to me.
â€śI love him. I wanted to do well with him there.â€ť
Kent explained after those races she had yet to â€śtaperâ€ť (or slice training yardage, which causes the body to recuperate faster, resulting in more speed), and had an outstanding reason why: On March 20-25, she will trek to the U.S. Junior National Short-Course Swimming Championships in Orlando, Fla.
Kent is scheduled to swim the 200-, 500-, 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestyles, and â€“ of course â€“ wants to post faster times at that meet, due to its extreme importance.
â€śI'd like to make it into the finals,â€ť stated Kent, referring to a top-16 finish in each event. â€śI'm a high school junior, so my performances in bigger meets are critical to get college coaches to notice me. I'd love to do my personal bests in every event because it's been a while now.
â€śI'm riding plateaus right now (meaning her times have remained the same), but â€“ once you push through them and get some PRs (personal records) â€“ it makes everything worthwhile again.â€ť
Kent was only four years old, and living with her family in Voorhees Township, N.J., when she first entered a pool. She started competing at age seven for a local YMCA club, though that had to do with the aquatic success of her older sister, Tori.
â€śWhen I was younger, I swam just for the thrill of it,â€ť she chuckled. â€śI liked the way it made me feel. I was just a kid, so I was only doing 25-yard swims. It was pretty simple. My sister, Tori (a New England YMCA age-group champion at 10), had all the natural talent, and I've always been the one who had to work really hard at it.
â€śShe decided she wanted to have more fun and not spend every waking moment in the pool, so she just swam for Cumberland High for Bruce (Calvert, who coached the Clippers for over 40 years before retiring in 2011).â€ť
When the Kents moved to Cheshire, Conn. in 2002, Kent became more serious about swimming, and captured as an eight-and-under division competitor the state title in the 100-yard individual medley.
â€śThe success I had definitely had something to do with me staying with it,â€ť she mentioned. â€śEarly on, it had a lot to do with the relationships I had built with my friends. When we moved to Cumberland and I was a freshman, that's when I started thinking maybe I had some potential.â€ť
She had previously represented the Hockomock YMCA Lightning youth team, then moved on to swim for the Little Rhody Aquatic Club, which trained at Bryant University. A year or so later, she joined the old Magnus Aquatic Group, and, not quite two years ago, Magnus became Crimson Aquatics (based out of Harvard University), and she stuck with that club (which conducts workouts at the Whitinsville Community Center) and head coach Carl Cederquist.
â€śI noticed immediate progress at Crimson, as I began making bigger cuts (for regional and national meets),â€ť she offered. â€śI noticed at Little Rhody that I definitely wasn't an 'IM'er. I didn't know I was a distance freestyler until I was in ninth grade and swimming with Crimson.
â€śThat's when I saw I had the greatest success in the 500, the 1,000 and 1,650.â€ť
In December 2010, she went to the New England Senior Championships at Boston University, and stunned herself when she finished third in the 500 freestyle (with a PR of 4:53.50). With that clocking, she also earned her first-ever Junior National qualifying standard (or cut).
The success didn't end there. Kent placed second in the 1,650 and fifth in the 1,000, both with respective best times of 16:48.42 and 10:07.57.
â€śI was astonished, at a loss for words,â€ť Kent admitted. â€śI was so fired up, I couldn't wait to get back to training and see how much faster I could become.â€ť
The meet ended on a Sunday that December, and the team carpool dropped Courtney off in Foxboro, where her mom, Wendy, was waiting to pick her up. On the ride home, Courtney told her mother all about her triumphant weekend, but Wendy didn't tell Courtney the bad news: Mike Kent was very sick.
â€śI didn't say anything; I didn't want to ruin her great meet,â€ť Wendy said. â€śShe wanted to give me all of her good news. She had trained so hard, and swimming has such a huge mental component to it. I told her the next day, and she cried. We all did. It was such a shock. My husband hadn't really missed a day of work in his life.
â€śHe was always so healthy,â€ť she added. â€śHe had traveled all over the world (as Staples Inc.'s Director of Product Design). I didn't have the heart to tell her then.â€ť
Stated Courtney: â€śWe knew for a while that Dad had something wrong with his leg. He thought he got hit with a football because he was coaching my little brother Harry's flag football team. Mom told me my dad got the results back from his biopsy, and that it was a cancerous tumor.
â€śI just cried â€“ a lot,â€ť she continued. â€śShe said it was a very rare form of cancer, and that it required a very delicate operation. Swimming had been such a high for me the previous four days, and â€“ all of a sudden â€“ it seemed so unimportant.
â€śI wanted to keep going to practice because that was my salvation; I knew it would be. Not only were my friends (with Crimson) very supportive, but the swimming helped me de-stress.
â€śIt took me three months to calm down and get back to my old self. At states as a sophomore (in 2011), I dedicated the 200 and 500 to my father, and it was the first time I ever did anything like that. He couldn't go. He was still in the hospital, but my mom came down (to URI) to see me in the 500.â€ť
Mike's surgery was slated for Feb. 24, 2011; Wendy described the tumor doctors removed as â€śhuge.
â€śIt was 16 centimeters, and it went from hip to knee,â€ť she said. â€śThey had to take out the outer section of the quadriceps muscle. He did some in-home physical therapy, and then went to therapy outside the house.
â€śMy husband is the kind of guy who believes in mental toughness,â€ť she continued. â€śNo question, Courtney got that from him. He always told her, 'Don't give up! You've got your dream, so go for it!'â€ť
Actually, as Mike went through his radiation treatments and physical therapy, the father-daughter tandem talked and decided to go through their journeys together.
â€śI knew he couldn't walk, and needed physical therapy every day,â€ť Courtney said. â€śHe had a huge brace on his knee, and I knew he was going to have to go through a ton of work and pain if he wanted to walk again.
â€śWe were basically partners in crime,â€ť she added with a grin. â€śHe was pushing himself to get back to good health, and that pushed me in the pool. Every time I got tired, I'd think, 'Kick like you have Dad's legs. That will make you better, and him, too.' He drove me a lot, and I'd like to think I drove him, too.â€ť
It took a few months for Courtney to regain her focus, even as her swimming talent was taking her to national competitions. Between Dec. 1-4, 2011, she traveled to Atlanta, Ga. for the U.S. Senior National Long-Course Championships to swim the 400- and 800-meter freestyles. She didn't place, but did achieve rather solid clockings of 4:28 and 9:10.
â€śThe meet was held long-course meters because it's an Olympic year, and (USA Swimming, Inc.) officials wanted people to make Olympic Trial qualifying cuts,â€ť she said. â€śI placed at the bottom of the barrel, but we sat with the (University of) Florida Gators, and I talked with Liz Beisel (a North Kingstown native and Olympian).
â€śYou know, I actually swam against her in the 200 free in my first-ever high school meet, and I think she beat me by four seconds,â€ť she smiled. â€śShe remembered me, and wished me luck. I told her I was on a plateau. As swimmers, we know you can train for an entire year and not see time drops. She told me it was a journey.â€ť
A week later, Kent attended her first-ever Junior National Short-Course Championships in Austin, Tex., and mustered 500 and 1,650 clockings of 4:56 and 17:02.
â€śThat was a really fast meet,â€ť she admitted. â€śIt was just like (Senior) Nationals, except it's only open to kids 18 and under. There were no Olympians there.
â€śI can't say that I dedicated my meets to him, but I did decide to dedicate my entire swimming career to him. I still do. His perseverance has made him a completely different person. If you saw him now, you wouldn't even believe he had cancer, that he had a chunk of muscle taken out of his leg. He's like his old self.â€ť
Now, Kent is just beginning her taper, and truly wants to do well at these upcoming Junior Nationals. Along with the usual honors and satisfaction of achieving personal goals, she aims to do well enough to earn a college scholarship, she hopes, to Yale.
â€śI have really strong ties there,â€ť she said. â€śBoth of my parents are from the New Haven area, and my (paternal) grandfather got his PhD there. I visited in November, and fell in love with it. I met with Cristina Teuscher, the women's head coach, she's an Olympic medalist. She told me she was excited that I was excited to become an Eli.â€ť
With a class rank of ninth (of approximately 370) and a 4.0 GPA, she definitely has the academic record for it. She's also a Scholastic All-American.
Ask her what she wants to do for a career, and she answers quickly.
â€śI want to be a reconstructive plastic surgeon, and my dad has something to do with it,â€ť she smiled. â€śI was inspired by how his surgeons worked, made such a difference in his life. I also became a volunteer at Landmark Medical Center so I could get a better idea of what the atmosphere is like in a hospital.
â€śI want to fix kids who have facial disabilities, give them fantastic smiles,â€ť she added. â€śOnce I get into college, my focus really will be on school, but I'm going to swim because I love it. My whole life, I've needed swimming to balance me out, and my time management. Otherwise, I get too lazy. Being a college swimmer will be so exciting.
â€śSwimming, you know, is a very self-centered sport, but I've always wanted to make a difference in other people's lives. I'm not worried about going into that field because, once I put my mind to something, nothing's going to stop me.â€ť
Courtney Kent, indeed, is her father's daughter.