Embedded within the early morning practices, coaching clinics and weekend meets are the very real life-long lessons you learn as a competitive swimmer. You learn what it takes to win. You learn what it feels like to lose by a finger length. You learn to be self-directed and independent. You realize the only thing you can control is what happens in your lane.
Colleen McKenna learned these lessons at an early age. She started swimming competitively at the age of seven and trained year-round for more than a decade. From local summer leagues in her home state of Virginia, to high school competitions, AAU leagues and even a stint at University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC)—competitive swimming was an integral part of Colleen’s early years.
A love for the water
“My whole life, I’ve been around the water. My family grew up on the beach and we would go to the pool all summer long. One day as a young girl, I was swimming at our local pool when a coach saw me and asked my mother if I would like to swim competitively,” Colleen reflects on how her swimming career started. “The passion I found for competition, aquatics, and athletics in general…it has really defined my life and career.”
Colleen’s success in such events as the 100- and 200-breaststroke helped her earn spots on junior traveling teams, which she credits as some of the best experiences in her swimming journey.
It was always great to hit personal bests and milestones, to shave a second off your time,” she says. “But, the team relays—when four of us would work together to win—nothing beats the camaraderie that came with those races.
Eventually, while a student at UNCC, it came time to focus on life beyond the pool. Colleen chose to enroll in the university’s undergraduate architecture program and stepped away from full-on competitive swimming. Not surprisingly, she eventually anchored her architecture studies in the world of swimming.
Passion for sport and design
“I was so lucky to be able to use my graduate thesis as a platform to parallel my personal interests. I had the chance to travel to Atlanta and study the future aquatic venues for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. I met with members of the Atlanta Organizing Committee and learned so much about how to address the challenges of creating competitive spaces for an international competition. It was amazing,” she smiles. “When I graduated I took my thesis to architecture firms who specialized in sports. It helped me get hired and launched my career.” Her thesis and competitive spirit helped her secure a position with Bob Johnston’s firm in Canada, which eventually led to her joining CannonDesign and moving to Boston. Since joining the firm, she’s been able to design sports facilities for universities across the country and also helped with London’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. She’s worked with universities to create dozens of award-winning facilities.
Through it all, Colleen has never lost her love for the water and swimming. When she first moved to Boston, she coached young competitive swimmers. She still swims, and now she’s picked up rowing as another way to channel her love for water and competition. She credits traveling to the World Swimming Championships in Rome as one of the best experiences of her life.
And now, thanks to hard work and good fortune, Colleen will be able to help her alma mater design a new recreation center for their students. CannonDesign secured the opportunity with UNCC in mid-2015 partnering with Jenkins Peer Architects.
“I’ve kept in touch with many people at UNCC. While they’ve done a great job of growing their athletic facilities in recent years, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before they focused on campus recreation,” says Colleen.
The UNCC Student Health and Wellness Center project is now in the early stages of design. Colleen and the team will be meeting with students and staff to talk about ideas for the campus’ future in the months ahead. And, while nobody will be wearing goggles or swim caps during the meetings, the parallels between Colleen’s competitive swimming days and passion for sports architecture still run deep. The early mornings, the ups and downs, the power of camaraderie, and knowing that no matter what, it takes 100% effort to be successful.