It's the first Saturday in October, and Karen Austin spends much of her day participating in the Oakland County high school girls' championship swim meet. When she leaves Clarkston High School, the site of this year's district-wide competition, she has a first-place medal in the 500 freestyle and two hours to squeeze in a hair appointment, a makeup appointment, and get dressed for homecoming.
The time constraint hardly bothers this Groves High School senior. As a competitive swimmer who trains 20 hours a week, maintains a 3.8-grade point average, and shoulders the responsibility of being the co-captain of her swim team, going from pool to primped in two hours is no big deal.
Her win, however, is significant. Her time is almost identical to the school record she set last year when she swam 20 lengths in under five minutes.
"We're a program that has a rich tradition of strong swimmers, including (Olympian) Annie Lazor," says Danny Torriglia, head varsity swim coach at Groves. "So, to be on our record board is a tremendous accomplishment."
Holding the school record is just one of Austin's accolades. In September, USA Swimming recognized her as one of this year's Scholastic All-America recipients.
The recognition puts her among approximately 1,200 high school swimmers from across the country who maintained a minimum 3.5 grade-point average and qualified for the upcoming Winter Junior Nationals competition.
Austin, 17, received her Junior National qualifying time over the summer in the 400 individual medley. According to her mom, Julie Austin, if she can shave several seconds off her time in the IM, she could earn a spot to compete in the 2024 Olympic trials.
Austin, who committed to swim at the University at Buffalo next year, doesn't focus on records or accolades. Despite her accomplishments, she preferred to discuss her team's achievements and how others help motivate her.
"I don't really like to give myself credit for everything I do because I know there are the people who have helped me get to where I am, and it's not just me. For example, my friend Nikki (Barnas), and my coaches, my teammates, and my family, they're the ones that really push me to get me to where I am today and keep me on track. I mean, I do work really hard, and I do put the effort in; it's just that they do too," says Austin.
Her coaches praise her for her dedication and leadership. Torriglia calls her the perfect example of what you want a varsity swimmer to be because she "leads by example, takes good care of herself in and out of the water, and knows how to motivate her teammates.
"She takes the freshman under her wings and shows them what they need to do in their swim career to have the success that she does. She never takes shortcuts. She's always setting goals and pushing herself to be the best swimmer she can be," Torriglia says.
Johnny Austermann, head coach with swim club Atlantis Swimming, concurs, describing her as one of the hardest workers he's ever seen.
"She's always looking for ways to train and get stronger. She really embraced that during the pandemic when the pools were closed, and she was swimming in Walled Lake in a wetsuit," says Austermann, who has coached Austin for around 10 years.
Outside the pool, Austin sets goals for herself as well. In particular, she says she strives to be a better person, and one of the ways she tries to accomplish this is by making five people smile every day. "You never really know what a person is going through, especially during COVID this past year. I like to think I could make a difference in someone's day."
Story: Jennifer Lovy
Photo: Laurie Tennent