Tara Kirk is one of the world's top breaststrokers. She was a silver medalist (prelims swimmer) in the 400-meter medley relay at the 2004 Olympic Games and recently won three medals at the 2007 FINA World Championships.
Kirk currently holds several American breaststroke records in the 50, 100 and 200 short-course yards and meters distances. She broke a world record in the short-course meters 100 breaststroke in 2004 at the women's NCAA championship (it has since been broken). That victory gave her a fourth consecutive title in that event and capped a perfect 35-0 collegiate record.
Kirk graduated from Stanford in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in human biology and a master's degree in anthropological sciences. Her master's thesis compared the bird flu virus with the influenza epidemic of 1918. A 2005 Rhodes Scholar finalist, she was recently honored by the Toyota Engines of Change campaign, which recognizes the nation's top athletes who work to create positive change in their communities.
Active.com: You're being recognized for your support of the Bremerton (Washington) Schools Foundation. Why is it important for you to stay connected to your hometown, even though swimming has taken you all over the world?
Tara Kirk: When I think about my roots, where I came from, and how I came to be the person that I am today I think about my hometown-- Bremerton. I'm proud of how I turned out and I think that Bremerton had a lot to do with that. I've traveled all over the world and loved how it expanded my horizons and made me see the world for more than what is right in front of me. Hopefully my work with the Bremerton Schools Foundation will help other young people from my community realize that they can have that too.
In what ways do you work with the foundation and the school system?
Tara: I'm part of Toyota's Engines of Change campaign. It's a project that encourages people to open their eyes to and meet the challenges our changing world has given us. They gave me $10,000 dollars to give to the charity of my choice. There was really no question which charity I would choose, since I was already involved with the Bremerton Schools Foundation. I'd already spoken at their charity events and given donations, but I was especially glad to be able to bring the publicity to the foundation and connect them with Toyota. My mom helped to set up the foundation and they were doing exactly what Toyota was describing: providing the means for students to broaden their horizons and educate themselves beyond high school.
What was your swimming experience and academic experience like growing up?
Tara: I started swimming because of an accident in gymnastics. I had a bad fall and my arm was pretty messed up with some temporary nerve damage. My parents had me start swimming on a club team for rehab. My younger sister was already involved in swimming and was really great (she was a 2004 Olympian as well) but I wasn't very good. As a matter of fact, when she went to swim camp one summer I went to what I call "brain camp," where I took classes in New York for the summer.
When I started getting more serious about swimming, I got better. I swam for my high school for two years but it was difficult because we actually didn't have a team and I just practiced with another school district and had to swim in the junior varsity heats in their meets--at least I got to represent Bremerton. My senior year, I didn't swim for the school. It was the Olympic year (2000) and I needed to stay with my club team to get the right training to give that a shot. I didn't make it but still had a top-eight finish that year. Even with all my awards and accolades I still have to admit that I never won a high school state championship. I don't regret it though.
How did your choice affect the friendships and activities you had at school?
Tara: Combining swimming, school and friends required a lot of time management and a few late nights. I had to be dedicated to what I thought was important. I had time to fit in the things that I wanted to do but was too tired to get into trouble.