Glancing through Kentucky men’s swimming’s top 10 performance list, only one swimmer has put on a top performance in three different stroke disciplines while also contributing to a pair of relay records. That swimmer is Kyle Higgins, a versatile junior leader for the Wildcats who will be heading to Omaha, Neb., for the 2016 US Swimming Olympic Trials.
As a freshman, Higgins swam what is now the 10th-fastest 200-yard backstroke time and followed it up in in sophomore season with currently fourth-fastest 100 butterfly and second-fastest 200 fly along with the anchor leg of the school-record 800 free relay. This past year, Higgins added the 500 free to his arsenal with the fourth-fastest swim in UK laurels and swam the butterfly leg of Kentucky’s new standard in the 400 medley relay.
Higgins came to Kentucky as a butterflyer out of high school and has continued to embrace the 200 fly as his specialty, yet enjoys the benefits of his versatility adding balance to his swimming life through other races. “When I swim fly, I feel like there’s so much pressure,” which he attributes to a desire to be perfect and fast in every race. “But swimming another event, I kind of get to have fun and relax a bit.”
How does he alleviate the pressure of swimming butterfly? Higgins, who will be competing in the 100 and 200 long course meters fly in Omaha, says it all comes down to confidence. Furthermore, he says it’s not something that he’s always had in himself.
Just as most swimmers at Kentucky will say, Higgins’ sense of confidence stems from the support of head coach Lars Jorgensen.
“My senior year (of high school), I didn’t really think I’d ever make Trials or even think about NCAAs. But then when I got here, Lars changed my perspective on everything. It wasn’t just to make Trials or to make NCAAs. It was to score and have a presence.”
Looking back on his freshman year at UK, Higgins’ goal was simply to make the Southeastern Conference Championship squad. He even joked with his parents that if he couldn’t do that, maybe swimming wasn’t for him. By his sophomore year, he was an SEC finalist in the 200 fly and qualified for his first NCAA Championships.
However, this past collegiate season was a hit to his confidence. He qualified to the national championships once more and swam the 100 and 200 fly along with the 500 free, but did not post times that were as fast as his sophomore bests in the fly. He certainly didn’t have a major dip in performance, as both of his season-best marks in the 100 and 200 fly were within half a second of his career bests. But Higgins is used to seeing his times go down each year and started seeing the unwanted trend the previous summer.
“Last summer was my first that I didn’t go a best time in the 200 fly, so that kind of threw me off. And this time, I didn’t go a best time in short course either, so that also threw me off. It was hard.”
A much needed and unexpected confidence boost came for Higgins in May at the Atlanta Classic. He had already swum multiple Olympic Trials cuts prior to Atlanta, his fastest to date being a 2:00.61 at the 2015 U.S. National Championships.
In Atlanta, he shaved nearly two seconds off his time to finish third overall, nearly breaking the Kentucky record in the process in 1:58.83.
“I wasn’t expecting to go a best time at all in Atlanta,” he admitted. “I was just there to prepare for Trials and hopefully go a best time at Trials. I just felt really good there and went for it, and was racing Jack Conger and Tom Shields. So I had pressure, but it was more fun, so I just went for it and was happy with the results.”
To give perspective on the talent that he out-touched, Shields is the American record holder in the short course meters 200 fly and seventh in American history in the long course meters 200 fly, while Conger sits at fifth on the US all-time list for the LCM 200 fly.
With a renewed sense of confidence, Higgins is geared up not only for Trials, but also for his final season donning a UK cap. After coming so close to Daniel Cruz’s 2004 record of 1:58.58, he has his sights set on breaking that record, and could also overtake Cruz in the short course with a half-second improvement.
Jorgensen can also see the difference that the swim in Atlanta made for Higgins, which if he can duplicate would give him a good chance of getting a second swim at Olympic Trials. “That’s the first step,” he said. “We want our kids to get second swims and be in contention. And I think he’s got that chance.”
In Omaha, Higgins also hopes that his confidence will spread to the rest of his teammates whom he served as a captain for the majority of UK’s meets. “If I’m confident in my training and know what I did – and everyone else did the same training – if I’m showing them that I’m confident, then they should believe in themselves. And further on, everyone believes that they should be there and have a presence there.”
The Trials also hold more meaning for Higgins because it will be his first appearance at the event while also being part of his last hurrah for the long course season, as he plans for this LCM campaign to be his final one. All that leads up to his senior season, with Higgins maintaining, “no matter if I break the record or not, I’ll be confident going into next year because of my time in Atlanta and I believe in my training and know what I’ve done to lead up to my senior year. I know I can go out leaving a mark for the team and myself.”
In addition to the confidence that he gains from his performances in the pool, he also relies on an extensive support system, as he credits, “just having the support of my family believing in me, and my teammates and coaches and everyone pushing you to be your best – it’s kind of easy to succeed when everyone believes in you that much.”
Knowing the importance of confidence and support is a vital factor in Higgins’ success both as a performer and as a proven leader for the Wildcats. A lead-by-example type athlete, he has the ability to impact the team and leave a lasting impression on the program even more in his forthcoming senior season at Kentucky.
For the latest on the Kentucky swimming and diving program, follow @UKSwimDive on Twitter, on Facebook at Facebook.com/UKSwimDive, and on the web at ukathletics.com. ‑
NOTE: The third of a five-part series of individual features stories leading up to the 2016 US Olympic Trials. Today, learn about junior butterflyer Kyle Higgins Previous features: Cobe Garcia | Geena Freriks