Jan. 9, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Kaitlin O'Brien has always been surrounded by large groups of friends or family. Her father Jay is one of six kids in his family, while mother Jane is one of 12. Combined, O'Brien boasts 40-45 first cousins. There are so many she doesn't even know the correct total. Now as a junior on the Penn State women's swimming team, O'Brien is one of the leaders of the Nittany Lions' 32-person squad, which she admits is just like having 31 siblings. But looking back, it's shocking to believe that O'Brien would not be where she is at today had she not been so lonely.
When she was in the second grade, O'Brien's father moved the family from New Jersey to Sarasota, Fla., a city home to, well, as O'Brien puts it, "mostly old people." The move was tough for O'Brien has she left her new grade school friends back home and struggled to make new ones in Florida.
"I didn't really know anyone," said O'Brien. "I didn't have any kids my age to play with."
Thus the reason O'Brien's mother took her to the local YMCA and signed her up for the swimming club.
And off she went.
In her adolescent years, the family moved back to New Jersey to the town of Caldwell, where O'Brien won three state championships at Mount Saint Dominic Academy. After reuniting with her roots, O'Brien claims she was obsessed with becoming a college swimmer at the Division I level. However, her passion and drive to reach that level did not exactly mirror the practice and training regiment that becoming one demands.
"I wasn't exactly your typical Division I recruit," she said. "I didn't have the times and didn't have the practice schedule. I only practiced six times a week, no doubles (two practices in the same day), and did not lift weights."
A coach's dream, right?
But her mentality and approach to swimming changed when she was a junior in high school. She attended a national swim camp, which was held on the campus of Penn State, and immediately fell in love with her temporary surroundings. She attended the camp in May and called Nittany Lion head coach Bill Dorenkott in July to express her interest in going to school there. Penn State turned out to be her third and last recruiting trip, as she cancelled all of her remaining stops and actually committed to the Nittany Lions in Dorenkott's office while still on her visit.
"I told Bill this is where I wanted to go, and he kept telling me to go home and talk to my parents," O'Brien said. "I kept telling my dad on the way home that this was where I was going to school and I committed the next day."
For Dorenkott, the chemistry was there from the first introduction.
"We recruit a lot on personality and on fit," he said. "We met her and it just clicked."
And things have continued to click throughout O'Brien's first three years.
The newcomer won 10 events her freshman season, including a convincing victory in the 400-yard individual medley at the 2006 Big Ten Championships. She captured the win by over three seconds with an NCAA A-standard qualifying mark and a pool record time of 4:12.03. Her victory earned her first-team All-Big Ten status and made her one of 12 PSU swimmers and four freshmen to qualify for the NCAA Championships. There she earned All-America status by playing sixth in the 400 IM, and swam in the 200 IM and 200 breaststroke as well.
Shockingly, sarcasm intended, O'Brien attributes much of the early success to a more regimented training schedule.
"I was really training hard for the first time in my life," she said. "I think it also had to do with being in a new atmosphere and being able to learn from a great senior class. I was inspired to become the best swimmer I could be."
In fact, a day prior to departure for the conference championships, O'Brien found herself back in Dorenkott's office staring at the accumulation of All-Conference trophies that his swimmers had earned in the past. She looked at the hardware and thought to herself that she would like to win one of those one day, leaving her almost as eager as she was when she sat in the very same office a year prior and committed to Penn State.
Clearly it did not take long for O'Brien to add to the collection of trophies.
"She has a ton of talent," Dorenkott said. "I wish I could tell you it was coaching, but she was blessed with a lot of talent. She's just an upbeat, talented kid with a great attitude."
O'Brien continued to find success as a sophomore as she successfully defended her conference title in the 400 IM, becoming the first Nittany Lion swimmer to repeat at Big Tens since Kristen Woodring in the 100 breaststroke in 2004 and 2005. After earning her second first-team All-Conference accolade, O'Brien qualified for the NCAA Championships, where she set career bests in the 200 breaststroke and 400 IM and finished ninth in the latter to earn honorable mention All-America status. Her time in the 400 IM was again a school record and she finished the season winning 12 events.
This past summer, O'Brien entered the U.S. Nationals looking for a roster spot in the 400 IM for the Japan International Grand Prix in Chiba. She placed 20th in the 200 IM, seventh in the 200 breaststroke and sixth in the 400 IM. Ironically, the 200 breaststroke was her first event and her time was good enough to join the team.
"It was a shock to make the team in that event," she said. "I thought it was a joke when I was handed an envelope saying I made it."
There she finished 10th in the 400 IM, 15th in the 200 breast and also swam in the 200 IM.
While O'Brien's efforts impressed Dorenkott, he left Japan amazed by how others flocked to O'Brien and how she "brought out the best in people."
"She's just an extroverted, energetic, fun-loving kid that loves to smile."
Still, there is work to be done this year as Penn State attempts to regain the top of the conference after missing out on three-straight Big Ten Championships last season with a third-place finish. O'Brien is hoping for that team championship and a top-15 finish at NCAAs, while looking to repeat individually in the 400 IM and earn a top-three finish in the event at nationals.
Already this season she has broken her own school record and set a new conference mark in the 400 IM with a time of 4:08.40. She has also reached the Olympic Trial standards in all three of her events.
"She has to make sure her highs aren't too high and here lows aren't too low," Dorenkott warned.
Good advice, but funny considering he describes his talented product as grounded, when she is talking about the "sky is the limit" for this season.
Regardless of how high or how far she goes this season, it's safe to say that O'Brien's parents, brother John, 31 other siblings and Dorenkott will be cheering her on.
And who knows, maybe even a few cousins as well.