For that freckle-faced, fiery competitor


Nathan Herde

Kate Walkup preparing for her final individual race of her swimming career.

Every difficult set I attempted, every 5:35 a.m. alarm I programmed on my phone, every rainy walk to the pool I took this past season, I reminded myself of who I was doing this for. It wasn’t for my parents. It wasn’t for my coaches. It wasn’t for my teammates. It was for me. 

Sure, sometimes jumping in the cold pool at 6 a.m. wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but I didn’t go to 12 workouts in a week because I loved every second of it. I did it for the little girl who begged her mom to allow her to join the swim team—even when she was already crazy-busy with gymnastics and dance—when she was only 8 years old.

August, 2010. My 9th birthday was coming up, and it had been about a year since my older sister had started swimming competitively. I’d spent too many weekends sitting in the bleachers watching swim meets, so I decided it was time for my turn. If you know me, you know that I don’t do anything just partway. If I was going to start swimming, I was going to go to as many practices as I could and get the absolute most out of the sport. 

February, 2023. The Northwest Conference Swimming Championships were coming up, and I took some time beforehand to reflect on what the past 12 years had been filled with. When I thought back to the first time I put my red hair up in a swim cap and squished my pink goggles onto my freckled face, I thought of one word—determination. 

I was always determined to get to the next level, to achieve the next time standard, to perfect my race tactics. As a young club swimmer, once I found out I could make the test sets for the next group up, I’d try my hardest to achieve them. Even when the next goal was several years out of reach, I’d still push myself to get as close to that goal as I could. Gotta get it gotta get it gotta get it, I would tell myself over and over as I swam.

With every difficult set I completed during my final collegiate season, I reminded myself of how many countless hours that little girl had put in. How I never, ever quit during a practice. How I always raced hard, even when the only person I was racing was myself and the clock. How I constantly pushed to become a better version of myself in the water.

What I didn’t realize as a 10-year-old were the lessons that swimming would teach me over the years. Yes, I was becoming a better swimmer, but I was also becoming a better individual. I was learning how to manage my time, set a strict schedule for myself, work with other people regardless of our backgrounds, follow direction, and become a leader in a large group. 

As the bus pulled into the parking lot for the finals session of the conference championships on Sunday evening, I realized this would be my last time arriving at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center. I instantly felt tears start to pour from my eyes.

Sixty thousand hours over—in an instant.

Kate Walkup touching the wall and looking at the scoreboard after her final individual race. (Nathan Herde)

If you know me, emotions don’t usually hit me until long after something has ended.

Yet the tears continued as I stepped off the bus and entered the building one final time. I couldn’t help but think about all the years of hard work and determination that had prepared me for this moment. This opportunity to compete in my final swim competition. This opportunity to be healthy and trained to compete at my absolute best. 

An overwhelming rush of emotion hit me as I walked into the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center on February 12th for the final session of my final swim meet. I’d been walking down the twisting flights of concrete stairs with faded blue railings for the past 11 years—over half my life. I can hardly remember a time before this when I wasn’t attending this pool for big meets.

This pool hosts all of the major meets in the Pacific Northwest, so as a kid from Eugene, Ore., it was a big deal to qualify for meets here. I remember the first time I walked into the facility. Every country’s flag hung from the rafters. Fifty meters of competition pool stretched from one side of the building to the other. A dive tank with Olympic-sized platforms and springboards commanded one end of the pool. I’d never before set foot in a swimming facility as impressive as this one. 

This time, after taking in the pool for the last time in my purple hoodie and gray sweats, I wiped the tears from my eyes, grabbed my light blue and gray fastskin, and headed for the locker room to squeeze into my competition suit one more time. 

It was time to put the years upon years and hours upon hours into one final session of swim competition. The tears subsided and the determined game face was back on, just as it had been for every single race—and practice—of my swim career. Behind my green goggles were the same eyes that had looked to the end of the pool 11 years earlier as I waited at the side of my block, ready to jump into the water and do my backstroke start. 

It was time to race for her—that little fiery redhead with the focus well beyond her years and the determined expression. The tiny freckle-faced competitor who chased down her gigantic goals so relentlessly. Gotta get it gotta get it gotta get it.