BY MIKE BROTHERS, DIRECTOR OF MEDIA RELATIONS
Swimmer Katya Rudenko was just 13 when she competed in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, representing her native Kazakhstan. The budding young star swam in several more international competitions over the next four years and again earned a spot on her national team in the 2012 London games.
An intense competitor, Rudenko was performing at the highest level on the sport’s biggest stage.
Yet at the same time, her competitive fire was being tempered by a new reality: her skills were plateauing. “After London I was kind of lost for a year,” she says. “I was stuck. I was down. My times were not good enough, and my coaches didn’t think that I could improve.”
She began thinking about retiring from competition. She was 18 years old.
Too young to retire, she thought. Too much of a competitor to just flip the switch to “off.” So she sought out a change, a new arena in which to perform. She came to the United States to attend college. Using an international recruiting agency, Rudenko ended up receiving 48 full-ride offers from schools around the country at both the NCAA Division I and Division II levels.
Rudenko settled on Drury after a visit to campus and meeting with coach Brian Reynolds. Her goal: learn from Reynolds and do whatever it might take to get back on the path to faster times. She would measure her performance not so much against those in the lanes next to her, but against herself.
“I want to be an MVP,” she says, flashing a radiant smile that belies her competitor’s edge. “I want to be the best.”
Rudenko’s challenges didn’t stop at the water’s edge. She was in an entirely new country and spoke very little English. Her college classes were difficult and she would have to make new friends. But those difficulties actually aided her athletic progress, she says. Her mindset while at Drury was one of total and complete growth and improvement.
“I was thinking more, writing more, studying more,” she recalls. “It made for a good influence on my sports career. I think it’s all connected.”
With her teammates and coach pushing her, she began the process of re-tuning for better performance. She learned new training techniques, worked to become stronger and began to truly understand how to get more in tune with her body. Rudenko also began to harness the emotions that she admits could overwhelm her during competition, causing her to sometimes lose focus on the task at hand.
“Focusing on your feelings and listening to your body—that is what makes you different than the medium level athletes,” she says.
After two years swimming at Drury, Rudenko’s times dropped dramatically. She rose to the 11th ranked swimmer in the world in the 50-meter backstroke, and competed in the 2014 Asian Games. She then felt confident enough to take a year to train and set her sights on a third Olympics. She met that goal, representing Kazakhstan for a third time at the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro.
Rudenko is now back at Drury, where she just helped the women’s swim team earn a 2nd place finish in the NCAA-II nationals this spring. The exercise and sports science major says she will likely go into coaching after she graduates in 2018. She believes the lessons she’s learned about improving her performance in the pool will help her as a coach.
Her biggest takeaways: patience, dedication, and a mindset that is open to change are all necessary to rise to the top.
“You cannot change yourself by doing the same thing over and over,” she says. “You have to try something new, something extra, something different. Hard work always pays off. There’s no way that you work really hard and nothing happens. You’re either not working hard enough or you didn’t make that change.”