A freshman at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., Michelle Konkoly excelled at a lot of sports, but swimming was her passion and what she was most successful at, having already represented her High School in State competitions. After a terrible fall out of her dormroom-window, where she shattered her foot, fractured several vertebrae & ribs, punctured her lung, and suffered nerve damage, she underwent extensive surgery, and turned to her love of swimming to assist with her rehabilitation.
After 8 months of hard rehab, she worked her way back into her university's swimming team; training & racing with her able-bodied team mates. This dedication, resilience, attitude and perseverance would set Michelle up for an extraordinary few years in para-swimming.
Graduating in 2014, Michelle threw herself into Para-swimming, and has achieved a incredible haul of medals and records in just a couple of years; picking up 3 x Silver Medals at the World Championships in 2015, then four medals at Rio 2016 (2 x Gold, 1 x Silver & 1 x Bronze) plus, the World Record in the S9 50m Freestyle.
Michelle took spent a little time away from the pool to answer a few of our questions about her nutrition & journey into sport. In the last few years, a lot of academics and athletes have examined the "10,000 hours" theory (put forward by Malcolm Gladwell), in that what is required to be a master of a of anything, including sport, is hours of purposeful training; how much of your success do you put down to good genes, or good coaching/training, or do you feel both have played a role?
"I think that attitude and mindset trumps either! An incredible work ethic, dedication, and attention to detail can turn people who may not have been born with an athletic genes into great athletes. People who are naturally gifted may not have to work quite as hard, but I think putting in the hard work creates so much trust in your training, and that’s what you can depend on in the heat of the moment. It’s easy to have confidence when you know how hard you’ve worked".
Arsene Wenger has said, 'to perform at your maximum you have to teach yourself to believe with an intensity that goes way beyond logical justification. No top performer has lacked this capacity for irrational optimism; no sportsman has played to his potential without the ability to remove doubt from his mind'", as a top athlete how do you rationalise/bounce back from missing out on a medal? How do you stay optimistic after a poor performance?
"It’s not easy! For the year and a half leading up to the Rio Games, I didn’t improve in competitions at all. It was so frustrating to be working harder than I ever had before, but not seeing any results. I had to find a way to motivate myself to continue working hard with the hope that it would all pay off at the right time. Keeping a log book was really helpful for this – everyday I’d write down my set, the paces I held, how I felt, etc. I was able to look at this and see that I was improving during practice, getting faster and stronger, so just because it hadn’t paid off during meets just yet didn’t mean that I wasn’t making progress".
So how did it feel to come away with a Gold medal just four years after entering para-swimming? "Haha, it was quite the trip! I actually tried out for the London team but didn’t make it. Even though I had only found out about para-swimming just a few months before London Trials, I was still so disappointed and vowed to never go through that disappointment again. Though I’d only been in para-swimming for a few years, I swam for years before I was injured, so all of that work went into my performances as well".
Having spent the last four years as an elite athlete, do you find your diet changes much in & out of competition? "During competitions I eat a lot more refined carbs than I do when I’m training, since they digest so much faster. I also make sure to get plenty of carbs and protein after a race – usually I chug a Core Power shake. When I’m at home training, I prepare most of my own food, rather than relying on prepared shakes and bars".
At an event like the Paralympics or World Championships, do you prefer to eat before you compete, or do you prefer an empty stomach? "I like to be just on the verge of hungry – definitely not full, but not with a totally empty stomach either! Typically I’ll have two slices of toast with peanut butter, a banana, and a glass of OJ about 3 hours before a race, and then another small snack (applesauce or a granola bar) about 90 minutes before".
What is you cheat meal & what meal(s) are the most common in your household? "My ultimate cheat meal would be chips with salsa and guacamole, delicious pork tacos, a margarita on the rocks with lots of salt, and ice cream for dessert! Midway through the competition in Rio I had the biggest craving for mango salsa!
Naturally I don’t eat this meal very often! The most common meals I make are pasta with pesto, olives, sun dried tomatoes, and spinach; eggs with avocado toast; or quinoa salad. I love to have smoothie bowls for lunch after a hot morning training session".
How important have you family and college been to your success? "My family has been so important to my success. My parents have always supported me wholeheartedly in whatever I want to do, and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I have two younger sisters who I am very close to as well, and to have them all there in the stands in Rio meant the world to me. I put my family through the ringer when I got hurt, so this was one small thing I could do to repay them".
Has there been a race/performance in your career that really stands out for you? "There are many memorable races, especially over the past year, but the start of it all was my first race at 2016 Paralympic Trials, the 50 free. Before this meet, I hadn’t gone a best time in the 50 in a year and a half. When I swam the race in prelims at Trials, I went a best time by almost a second and set the World Record by half a second! This finally confirmed that all my hard work was paying off. Plus, it qualified me for the US Team, and put me seeded #1 for the Games!"
You have enjoyed incredible success since 2015, if you choose to carry on swimming, how do you plan to sustain this success? "Thank you! I have a few more meets coming up this summer, but in July, my focus will switch to medical school. I deferred my admission to medical school in 2015 so I could train full-time for the Games, and have really enjoyed this period. I’m excited to take on the next challenge now, though! I’m sure I will continue to stay in shape while I’m in school, but as for competing, I’m going to have to wait and see how much I can fit in with my schedule".