Kevin Zhang: when (pool) water meets fire


One UW swimmer is making quite a splash.

First-year computer science student Kevin Zhang has seen a string of successes over the past year, including a gold medal at the OUA Swimming Championships, a bronze medal at the USports Swimming Championships, and a fifth place finish at the Pan American games. This April, Zhang also picked up the Male Rookie of the Year award at the 2024 Athletics Awards Banquet. With three podium finishes in the books, Zhang shows us what’s possible with determination  — and training.

Swimming up to nine times a week, two hours every session, along with three to four gym workout sessions focused on strength and power development, it is not surprising that Zhang has learned to manage his studies and training well. When asked how he balances courses with training, Zhang acknowledged, “I’ve had to make many sacrifices. The time off most people have, I commit that time to training.” With the Olympic trials on the horizon this May, Zhang’s ability to persevere and acknowledge what matters most, inspires us to reach past perceived limitations.  

Zhang’s Story 

Zhang learned to swim at the age of three and began swimming competitively at age 10. After playing hockey during his youth, he traded in his pair of skates for fins after his parents expressed concerns about the danger of the sport, given ice hockey’s high-contact reputation. Studies find that concussions are increasingly common among NHL players and the high injury rates exceed that of nearly every Olympic winter sport.

When Zhang’s father purchased an NBC documentary on acclaimed Olympian Michael Phelps, a young Zhang watched with interest as Phelps swam on-screen, winning medal after medal. Flash forward to 2024 and Zhang appears closer and closer to achieving the dreams inspired by the same Olympian he admires.

This past swim season has been Zhang’s most successful to date: he finished fifth in the 200 metre butterfly at his first Pan American games last fall, placed first in the 200 metre butterfly and second in the 100 metre butterfly at the OUA championships, and third in the 200 metre butterfly at the 2024 USports championships in March. 

Zhang’s Tips and Tricks 

When it comes to pre-race rituals, Zhang has one suggestion for male swimmers: make sure to tie up those speedos! After an unfortunate incident when he was eight years old, Zhang learned the hard way why tying things up is a great pre-swimming habit to get into. 

As for this athlete’s favorite and recommended post-swim snack? Bananas, which comes as no surprise, as studies show that its high potassium and magnesium content promote muscle recovery and improve performance during prolonged and intensive exercise. 

Reflections on Relationships and Resiliency 

Throughout his competitive career, Zhang has worked with over eight different coaches, adding he has “truly enjoyed working with” all of them and that “they’ve helped [him] along [his] career.” Jacky Beckford Henriques, varsity swim coach at UW and Zhang’s current coach, describes Zhang as a competitive, goal-driven athlete, who is “always seeking ways in which he can contribute to the success of the team.” When asked what keeps him committed to the sport, Zhang said, “The people I’ve met, the fun I have and representing my country.” 

One of the most admirable traits one notices while speaking with Zhang is his humility and ability to recognize the people and relationships that have enabled him to excel in the sport. Alongside coaches, Zhang is thankful for the support shown to him by his family and teammates: “Knowing that there are people that believe in me makes me want to make them proud.” Zhang’s ability to self-reflect on values and notice the importance of such relationships will only support him in his pursuit of success; a social psychology journal article found that simply reflecting on values that are personally significant and related to love and compassion increases approach motivation and the confidence and determination that go along with it. When difficult situations arose, hostility and defensiveness were less likely among those who had reflected on loving or compassionate values. What does this mean for us? Reflect on the relationships in life that inspire you to love and express kindness, like Zhang, and you just might find yourself closer to your goals and more resilient to adversity. 

When workouts get tough, a saying Zhang often reflects on is “There’s no point in doing things if they’re easy.” For him, it is not as much about the medals or even the records — above all, it’s about finding a challenge that is worth overcoming. 

Closing Thoughts and Lessons from the Pool 

Zhang acknowledged the reality of having faced “many, many challenges and disappointments.” Finding motivation in doing what is difficult is a lesson many of us can learn from. When you don’t get the grade you want, when you aren’t ranked on Waterloo Works, when the relationship doesn’t work out… Realize you have an opportunity to prove yourself stronger than the things that try to weigh you down. With this mindset, you might see that tough course as a chance to learn to study more effectively, that NR as a chance to find a better job, and the relationships that don’t work out — you’ll find yourself led to the people who’ll love and accept you as you are. 

So, through it all? Keep swimming towards everything that matters to you most. When life’s trials get you down and it gets hard to breathe? Perhaps we ought to take a page from Zhang’s book and remind ourselves that life’s greatest possibilities often hide behind the toughest challenges.