Swimmer Spotlight – Kurt Grote 3

Kurt Grote
Age: 45
Local Team:           MAC – Multnomah Athletic Club, Portland
Occupation:          McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm.  Senior Partner in the health care division serving clients across North and South America on strategy, operations, and organization topics.

Kurt Grote, with wife Amy, Kellen 16, and Lucy 13

Kurt Grote, with wife Amy, Kellen 16, and Lucy 13

I was born in San Diego and always loved the water.  The beach was “home base” throughout my childhood and I spent much of the summer peeling skin off my nose after long hours frolicking in the ocean (sorry dermatologists).  I loved the freedom of gliding among the waves, chasing fish, and then heading home to play Marco Polo in our pool.  I was – and I assume, am – killer at Marco Polo.

At the same time, I was firmly not an athlete.  I played soccer from age 5-12 but never made it past rec league.  I was a right fullback because I was right footed and had no coordination or reflexes.  With no disrespect to high-performing “real” soccer defense players, right fullback is where you cache your worst players in rec league.  My chief skill was waiting for a forward with the ball to approach me and trying to boot it out of bounds.  I also grew up with moderate-severe asthma and had many environmental allergies that limited my participation.  I bounced in and out of the doctor’s office a few times a month and missed a lot of school and practice.  BUT, I liked the team atmosphere of competition, and I loved my team.

As high school approached I wanted to find that same spirit of camaraderie in a high school sports team, but it was clear I was not going to make it in any of the “skill sports”.  I talked to my doctor about what might work for my asthma and he suggested swimming.  Apparently the humidity near the surface of the water is soothing to the lungs of asthmatics.  In any case, it seemed like a natural thing to try, given my love of the water and, by the way, there were a lot of girls on the team.  And there were no cuts.  So I went for it and joined my high school team.

I vividly remember my very first commute to swim practice.  I was wearing board shorts and had my first pair of goggles in my lap.  I had never used them and was curious whether they’d work.  I told my mom, “I hope I don’t make a fool of myself.”  When I arrived I slunk into the slowest lane and started trying my best but had no idea how to do 3 of the 4 strokes, what intervals were, etc.  We’ve all been there, right?

That first season was a mix of frustration and exhilaration.  I had frequent problems controlling my asthma during workouts, sometimes heaving at the side of the pool or sitting in the bleachers wheezing while the rest of the team worked out.  At one point a few weeks in, the coach approached me and asked whether I might rather quit the team.  But I persisted, as I felt if I could get my asthma under control, competitive swimming had the potential to become something special in my life.  My teammates became fast friends, and we went to battle against neighboring high schools together, on the bus wearing our team sweatshirts and chanting each other encouragement.  It was awesome, and I was a part of it!  Moreover, from pretty early on that season, I felt like this was something I might actually have some talent to do.  In my first swim meet I swam the 50 free and went 28.76 (I have this weird thing where I can’t forget times).  I even did a flip turn!  For the first time in my life I wasn’t in the bottom 10% of my sports team.

At that point things started happening that, honestly, I still sometimes look back on and shake my head.  My swimming accomplishments started building steadily and quickly, season by season.  I dropped the 50 from 28, to 24, to 21.  In my junior year, on a lark, I entered the 200 breaststroke in a ditch meet after the high school championships, and my time (2:02.40) was more competitive than anything I could do in freestyle.  So I became a breaststroker.  By my senior year I was winning the San Diego high school championships and had won junior nationals.

I was fortunate to be admitted to Stanford and the coach, Skip Kenney, let me walk on to the swim team.  I had started to feel like a big shot in high school, but this was an entirely different level.  I was awestruck by the amazing athletes on the team, many of them national champions and Olympians.  I was the slowest of 4 breaststrokers, but that was a familiar feeling, and I knew how to deal with it.  I watched the guys who were better, chased them every day, beat them when I could, and pushed to my absolute limit in every workout.  I was known as the guy who swam slow and threw up in workout a lot.  I was also a student of the sport.  I tore up my stroke and rebuilt it and watched video obsessively to figure out how to get better.  Seven years later (I’ll spare you the details) I had made steady progress every year and had won a bunch of national titles, an Olympic Gold medal on a relay, and an individual gold medal in the World Championships 200 breaststroke in 1998.  I retired 2 years later after an ignominious end to my career with knee injuries, and my swimming went quiet as I finished medical school, started a family, and launched a demanding career.

In 2016, my family and I moved to Portland from Silicon Valley to enjoy the green (my wife grew up in Seattle and missed the rain) and slow the pace of life a bit.  We have two children, Kellen 16, and Lucy 13.  Our house happens to be a 5-minute walk from the Multnomah Athletic Club.  Ok, I admit it, “happens” is the wrong word as I was pretty excited about living close to a world class athletic facility and hoped to knock myself back into shape.  But the experience has been much more than that.  I’ve found great friends at the Multnomah Athletic Club and across Oregon Masters Swimming.  Our community has fed my soul, given me an outlet away from work, and taught me to enjoy exercise again (I had been running, but let’s be candid, running sucks).  And as long as I compare my current SCY times to my old LCM times, I’m still at my peak!

I am so thankful to all of you reading this for being a part of this community, and for all you do to nourish and grow it.  I look forward to being a part of it – and it being a part of me – for a long, long time.

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3 thoughts on “Swimmer Spotlight – Kurt Grote

  • Nick

    Met Kurt at Elk Lake, remembered him from “Gold in the Water.” Great guy! And another bruiser from that powerhouse MAC team.

  • Margaret Toppel

    I watched Kurt one day at the MAC pool before workout talking with a young aspiring swimmer. He asked very sensitive questions in a way that allowed the young swimmer to open up about what he found challenging in the workout and his progress. The gentle encouragement Kurt gave him cannot be measured. The young swimmer smile told it all.

  • John Coutts

    thoroughly enjoyed your insightful article and the overview of a very successful swimming career that was accomplished by hard work and a genuine love of swimming.