Beyond the still waters of Slauson Pool, Kaylen Hewko ’11 sits at a picnic table surrounded by textbooks, an iPhone, and sunglasses. The straps of a yellow swimsuit peek out from the collar of her old T-shirt, and the tread on the bottom of her flip-flops has completely worn off, but the record-breaking swimmer doesn’t seem to notice. Her mind focuses on more important things.
Recently, Hewko made a splash with her swimming achievements and claimed the title as APU’s first-ever NAIA All-American swimmer. She captured three NAIA titles, broke a 16-year-old record in one of the races, and helped push the Cougars into an unexpected sixth place finish at the NAIA Swimming and Diving National Championship Meet in March.
Reaching High, Meeting Goals
Months prior to actually winning the national titles, Hewko wrote that feat as one of her goals for this past season. She thought she had a chance of winning a title, but she never expected to break the record. “It’s still unbelievable,” Hewko said with a grin. “I didn’t expect to do as well as I did, so it was a cool surprise.”
Despite Hewko’s solid focus at Nationals, she returned home to APU with a week’s worth of homework promptly due the next Monday. APU’s top-rated nursing program allows Hewko the opportunity to blend her passion for nursing with an outlet for her athletic talent. Still, the swimmer admits to struggling for balance between the two. “For some, being an athlete and going to school is easy, but my major is very hard,” she said. “You’ve got to stay a step ahead or you fall behind. I love nursing, but I also love swimming. I just find time for both.”
The Start of Something Great
Two years ago, that would have been impossible. With no pool, APU has never offered an aquatics program. But pool or no pool, the Athletics Department leaders asked veteran swim coach Robert Fleming to investigate the feasibility of starting a swim team.
After many months of analysis and budget review, Fleming received approval to launch women’s swimming and water polo programs utilizing Slauson Pool in Azusa. Fleming quickly called upon several swimmers he had coached in previous years to serve as assistant coaches, and together they recruited more than 40 women to join the new teams and become full-time APU students.
The women rose to the challenge, and the program’s early success has other colleges noticing the swimming force that APU can become. Gary Pine ’84, MBA ’05, associate athletics director, sees the team’s accomplishments as an exciting promise for the future. “We’re used to having individual and even Olympic stars on the track and field team, but we just didn’t expect something like this to happen so fast for the aquatics program,” he said. “Kaylen led the way and set the standard. It’s just stunning, and far exceeds our expectations.”
Now at the end of their second season with three NAIA individual titles under their belts, the lady Cougars seem to have settled into a comfortable rhythm. With no aquatics facilities to call their own, Fleming and the team are grateful to the city of Azusa for the use of Slauson Pool. Though they started off as guests, Assistant Coach Parisa Dana ’11 has witnessed the girls’ sense of ownership increase this season over last year. “We get sole use of the pool during the non-summer months,” Dana explained. “Having our own pool one day will add a lot to the program, but for now, the girls are able to come to Slauson and feel like it’s theirs, and that means a lot.”
A Natural Leader
Both Dana and Fleming noticed changes in Hewko from one season to the next. Standing 5’10” tall and toned, Hewko naturally commands attention. Add in her boisterous, encouraging personality, and the team captain stands as a strong leader and a model for what younger women can achieve through APU’s aquatics program.
“When Kaylen first came to APU,” said Fleming, “she was really shy and hesitant to share her faith. But at Nationals, I saw her lead a team prayer at the starting block. She’s come out of her shell this past year and grown into her role as a natural leader. It’s been fun to watch her progress.”
Dana agrees and believes Hewko can establish a legacy in swimming. “I want her to be at the top and stay at the top, to break records and have them last. I think she sees something in herself that she’s never seen before. She knows she can do it.”
With big goals and high expectations, Hewko faces life one day at a time with a strong sense of purpose. “I’m proud to represent APU and what it stands for,” she said, appreciating not only the opportunities, but also the responsibilities, of her role. “This is definitely a journey, but I’m ready to take on the competitive swimming world and make a name for APU.”
Lauren Zaczek is a freelance writer in Glendora, California. email@example.com