Kasia Wasick laughs when she’s asked whether swimming was any kind of popular sport when she was growing up in Poland. Maybe it was a dumb question. We’re talking about a European country, after all. There’s soccer, and then there’s everything else.
But in the Land of Fields Wasick learned to swim. She competed first with her two older brothers, both prominent swimmers, and later on the world’s biggest stages and taught the country to take its collective eyes off the pitch and train them on the pool. Even if briefly.
As a teenager, then Kasia Wilk, she reached swimming’s heights, representing Poland at the 2008 Beijing Games in the 4x200 relay when the country took 15th.
“My first Olympics, I was 16 years old,” said Wasick, now a volunteer assistant coach for UNLV. “I was so scared that I was basically frozen when I was racing.”
In London in 2012, Wasick again swam for Poland’s 200-meter relay team (13th) and added “solo Olympic competitor” to her resume when she swam the 100-meter freestyle, finishing 27th.
After the closing ceremonies for those games, Wasick made the biggest decision of her life: Leaving Poland to travel 6,000 miles east and compete for the University of Southern California under coach Dave Salo. In that moment, Wasick laid the groundwork to adopt the American West as her homeland, relocate to Las Vegas, and take two more — but not two final — cracks at Olympic dreams.
As a Trojan, she met her future husband, professional poker player Matthew Wasick, and the two of them moved to Las Vegas after she graduated in 2016. Just in time for another Olympics. Her third time taking on the best in the world was at the Rio de Janiero Games, and this time she finished 27th in the 100-meter freestyle, and joined the 400-meter relay team for a 15th-place finish.
And with that, Wasick retired from competitive swimming.
Everybody in the Pool
In 2018, she returned to the pool, swimming in a master’s event hosted by UNLV. That’s where she met swimming and diving head coach (and 2022 men’s coach of the year in the Western Athletic Conference) Ben Loorz. He offered her a place with him helping to coach.
“The two years that I got away from swimming taught me a lot,” she said.
“I was more aware of my career and how professional I have to be to be the best. I was so lucky, meeting Ben, (assistant coach) Pat (Ota) and all the coaches at UNLV. They really treated me as a peer. They were always listening to me and I think that’s a huge part of my success, that my coaches were basically my family.”
Now, as a volunteer instructor, she can further her own training while she helps shape the future of aquatic athletics in Las Vegas.
It’s also a chance for Rebel swimmers to float up to a world-class athlete and learn how she goes about her business. A coach, but a peer who’s right there in the pool with them every morning at 7:30 a.m.
“I think the biggest thing is that I’m in the water with them most of the time,” Wasick said. “So I struggled with them. If they see, I do the same things, they’re going to be like, ‘OK she’s doing it. We can’t complain.’ There’s that mental (state) that we’re hurting, we’re hurting together, but we all want to make each other better.”
Back in the Hunt for Gold
After two Olympics placing in the mid-20s in the 100-meter freestyle, and a yearlong coronavirus pause, Wasick returned to the Games inin Tokyo, but competing at an even shorter distance. She swam the 50-meter freestyle — a race where she holds the Polish national record.
When she arrived though, it was as a new competitor, changed and matured by age, but also by mindset.
In her fourth Olympiad, Wasick reconnected with fellow swimmers from around the globe in the Olympic Village, but she came to the Games with an understanding of how they operated, how unusual the setting was, how unique the pressures.
“I was really proud that I was representing my country. A lot of people I know from home were watching and cheering for me,” she said. “But at the moment of racing, I didn’t hear anything. I was so focused on my performance. In that 25 seconds of the race, I didn’t think about it.”
The best in the world going the shortest distance you can swim. The fractions are imperceptibly small. Gold medal: Emma McKeon of Australia, 23.81 seconds, a new Olympic record. Silver medal: Sarah Sjöström of Sweden, the world record holder in the event. Bronze medal: Pernille Blume of Denmark, 24.21 seconds. Fifth-place: Kasia Wasick, Poland, 24.32 seconds. A tenth of a second from the podium. Half a second from gold and the record book.
It was a remarkable showing and a huge improvement for Wasick. But fractions that small couldn’t help but haunt her.
“After, it was painful when I was thinking about the 11 one-hundreths, because for four years, I was waking up and thinking about Tokyo, Tokyo,” she said. “After my final race I knew I’m never going to have a chance to race in Tokyo again. I felt a heaviness in my heart. But I knew going from 25th to fifth, people would say that’s impossible. You’re racing the best in the world. There is no room for mistakes, and you have to be ready to swallow it afterward.”
What she heard from her own coaches was to get ready. The Summer Games had been in a pandemic-delayed odd year. The 2024 Games were right around the corner.
She’s already committed to trying again, to erase those 11 one-hundreths of a second in Paris. In the meantime, she swims professionally as part of the International Swimming League. She doesn’t know which team she’ll swim for this year, but she knows the competition and training will keep her sharp.
And if climbing out of the water and onto an Olympic podium isn’t enough motivation, she’s still got her brothers’ numbers to chase down.
“I’m the only one in the family swimming,” she said. “And I’m always laughing, saying, ’I’m going to get your time.’”