Committed to Service Katelyn sowinski's dedication to helping others has helped define her time at penn state in and out of the pool // By Trey Miller

In the summer of 2015, five Penn State students traveled more than 1,500 miles to Haiti to participate in a mission trip. Among them was swimmer Katelyn Sowinski, now a senior.

Sowinski and crew kept busy. In the mornings, they would help build a mission house, or help construct greenhouses to grow food in a climate that isn’t conducive for doing so. In the afternoons, they would go to an orphanage, Sowinski’s favorite part of the day. There, they would spend a few hours with the kids, holding them, playing with them and giving them much-needed love.

“It was eye-opening,” Sowinski said. “It made me more grateful for what I have and introduced me to a lot of amazing people in a different culture. It was cool to be immersed in that, learn from them and about what they do. It was really awesome.”

The work was hard, and it was a long way from home, but for Sowinski, helping others is just what she does. It begins with her faith. From the time she was young, giving back and being selfless were qualities that were woven into her values.

“She’s just very, very friendly, super outgoing, super assertive and not afraid to stand up for what she believes in.” - Cheryl Gigante

Her dad, Jeff, was in the Navy, so growing up, Sowinski, who was born in Mississippi, moved to different states, including California, Florida, Virginia, Texas and Maryland.

Despite the moves, swimming has been a constant for Sowinski. Admittedly though, it wasn’t love at first sight.

When her mom, Jennifer, had her try it for the first time at the age of 5, she was scared of the water.

“I hated it. I screamed,” Sowinski said.

But, when she came back the next year, it was different and she decided to get involved. She was the first person in her family to take up swimming as neither of her parents were swimmers and her brothers, Andrew and Matthew, tried it but didn’t like it.

It wasn’t until she was a freshman in high school in Texas that, through swimming, she became aware of Penn State when her teammate Claire Singley was making a visit to State College. After Sowinski moved to Maryland later in high school, Singley, who became a Nittany Lion, convinced her to take a trip to check it out. While she originally wanted to go to school in the south, she came to Penn State and fell in love.

“It was the pride of the university and the pride that people had in who they were and what they stood for (that appealed to me),” Sowinski said.

Sowinski is the Penn State record holder in the 500 free and competed in last year’s U.S. Olympic Trials in three events.

Sowinski and Mackenzie Hornibrook came on their recruiting trips on two different weekends. Hornibrook, a native of West Chester, Pa., and Sowinski, who was from Severna Park, Md., hadn’t known each other. After their visits, some of the girls on the Penn State team felt the two were very similar, and suggested they would be good roommates. Four years later, they still live together.

“We’ve gotten so close and have been with each other through really good times and really hard times,” Hornibrook said. “Obviously, the life of a student-athlete can be kind of busy, crazy and hectic sometimes, so it’s nice to have a close friend who is going through it with you and can kind of support you. I think we have definitely been that support system in each other’s lives for a while.”

As a freshman, then-teammate Megan Siverling invited Sowinski and Hornibrook to attend a bible study through Penn State Christian Athletics (PSCA), a student-led group. For Sowinski, faith is important to her and something she wanted to get involved with when she came to Penn State. It’s through that organization that she met Cheryl Gigante.

“There is something about Katelyn when you first meet her,” Gigante said. “She kind of leaves a lasting impression on you. She’s just very, very friendly, super outgoing, super assertive and not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. It’s very easy to remember her.”

Cheryl and her husband, Will, help run PSCA. The two, who have been in campus ministry for 20 years through the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) and have been involved with athletes at Penn State for more than 10 years, host a weekly bible study, Sunday dinners and mentor students in the group.

Sowinski found out about the Haiti trip through a member of PSCA and had the opportunity to make a difference. After Sowinski returned from the trip, Gigante noticed a difference in her.

“When she came back, that was probably one of the best times, just that ‘aha!’ moment of ‘Oh, wow, this is real life and I can have an impact on other people,’” Gigante said.

Gigante, who has watched Sowinski grow at Penn State, has mentored Sowinski since her sophomore year and sees her at least once a week. Gigante says when athletes come to college, they often struggle to find their purpose and realize that their sport doesn’t define the person they are.

“She came in as an exceptional athlete and had very high expectations.,” Gigante said.

“When she figured out that she loved swimming for what it is, even though how well she does doesn’t determine her life, she just grew and blossomed. She just came out of her shell and she became strong in leadership, strong in what she stood for and strong in the fact that she had conviction that swimming wasn’t everything that defined her.”

While swimming may not define Sowinski, she has had success in the pool as a Nittany Lion. Currently, she holds the Penn State record in the 500 free with a time of 4:40.72, which she set at the Big Ten Championships in 2015. As a sophomore, junior and senior, she qualified for the NCAA Championships and as a junior, she competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 400-meter free, 200 fly and 800 free.

Despite her success, Sowinski’s selflessness shines through when she talks about her best memories as a Penn State swimmer. While she admits that she will remember some of her good races, what sticks out to her most is the times she spent out of the water cheering on her teammates.

One memory, specifically, sticks out. In her sophomore season, Sowinski qualified for the NCAA Championships and was supposed to compete for the team in the 800 free relay. She got sick with a stomach bug and teammate Carolyn Fittin, who is mainly a sprinter and didn’t compete in 200 free events, stepped in to fill her role. Fittin ended up clocking a great time and the team finished seventh in the event, earning All-America status.

“That’s something I’ll always remember, just Carolyn stepping in and doing it even though she never had,” Sowinski said. “It showed leadership and it was really fun to watch.”

Sowinski’s selflessness continues out of the pool, as well. As a sophomore, she became a leader in PSCA, helping run bible studies and mentoring others. She regularly meets with younger students and talks to them about life and the college transition.

“I would describe Katelyn as a very motivated, hard-working individual,” Hornibrook said. “She also cares for the people around her a lot, too. She’s always looking out for younger girls and other girls on our team in addition to making sure she is working hard and doing what’s best for her, too.”

In the summer, Sowinski stays on campus to take classes and focus on her sport. She also volunteers with Special Olympics.

“I just like the joy that the kids show when they’re doing it, and the excitement,” Sowinski said. “Sometimes swimming can kind of get tedious when you’re staring at a black line all the time and you kind of forget why you’re doing it, so I just love the joy and excitement they bring to it.”

Between swimming, her involvement around campus and academics, Sowinski’s schedule fills up quickly. When she does have a free moment, she enjoys relaxing, reading, catching up with friends and being outside.

According to Gigante, it took some adjusting for Sowinski to be able to balance all of the things she had going on in her life. Gigante recalled during the first week of class in Sowinski’s sophomore year that she was a bit overwhelmed with her workload.

“That was a huge step for her just to kind of let go of all the small things. If you get caught in the small things, you don’t commit well to anything because you’re just worried and you’re always anxious and always running. She changed her perspective to see it from a bigger picture and saying, ‘OK, I’m committed to this because it’s more than just me involved,’” Gigante said.

“When she commits to something, she’s 100 percent committed because she doesn’t stress about all the minute details. She can kind of step back and say, ‘I’m going to pick this, and this, and this to commit to,’ and that’s her. She gives 100 percent to whatever she commits to, but she doesn’t commit to everything. She doesn’t overcommit.”

A graduate this past May, Sowinski has already committed to her future. Her whole life, she has been interested in biology and the body. At Penn State, she decided to move forward with that interest by majoring in biobehavioral health.

Her acceptance into nursing school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. will allow her to maintain a dedication to helping others.

“I’ve always loved to serve people,” Sowinski said. “I feel like it’s a way to be an extra support system for people that need it.

“I think we’re called to help others. Our lives aren’t just about ourselves. I think making as much of an impact as we can on other people is worth it.”

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