BY MIKE WATKINS//Special Correspondent
Heading into World Championships this past March, one of the most anticipated contests was the match-up between American Tara Kirk and Australian world record-holder Leisel Jones in the 100 breaststroke.
While the end result didn’t disappoint – the two finished 1-2 with Jones earning the gold and Kirk winning silver – the best was yet to come for Kirk.
Less than a week after Worlds, the two went head-to-head again in Sydney at the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool, and this time around, Kirk came out on top.
While the two young women don’t see each other unless they’re at a large international meet, they have struck up a friendly rivalry that motivates Kirk as the underdog – an underdog who continues to gain ground on her competition.
“I think that I am in a great place for the 100 breaststroke,” Kirk said. “I am improving but still the challenger. At Worlds and Duel, all I was really worried about was my swim. It was fun to swim along with other fast people, but I try not to get caught up in it. At Duel, it just worked out for me. I was ready to race. I think Leisel is hard to beat because she is incredibly fast but beyond that very obvious reason, I don’t see why I can’t improve and have another shot at beating her.”
A two-time World Championship and 2004 U.S. Olympic team member, Kirk has repeatedly played the role of bridesmaid in international long course swimming despite once holding the short course world record in the 100 breast.
Now two years removed from earning her master’s degree in anthropological science from Stanford and being a 2005 Rhodes Scholar finalist, Kirk has all but made it her quest to win individual gold next summer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
After that, who knows what life will hold for the two-time Olympian, as she realizes how much she’s already accomplished and has very little left to prove.
“My goal is to make the Olympic team, of course, and medal individually, and I think that I have a shot at the gold,” said Kirk, who had the rare experience of being teammates with sister, Dana, at the 2004 Athens Games, the first time American sisters have been on the same Olympic team. “First, however, I have to make it through Trials, which is never a given in the United States. I also plan on getting faster, so that should help the whole process.
“However, I don’t think that I have to do all that to feel like my swimming career has been a success. I’ve accomplished a lot, and now I’m swimming for myself, not some external benchmark of success. I have high expectations for myself, but I also know when to call it quits. I am still in swimming because I think that I can do better. I want a few more shots at being my best, and then I’ll step aside and make some space for someone else.”
Whatever happens between now and the Beijing Games next summer, Kirk is more than prepared to start the next phase of her life – a career in working to treat and hopefully cure the world’s most virulent and prolific diseases.
In her Master’s thesis, “Reflections: Using Avian Influenza to Investigate the Pandemic of 1918,” Kirk examined possible similarities between the influenza outbreak of 1918 that killed millions worldwide and the H5N1 bird flu outbreak going on presently.
While the bird flu could potentially afflict as many, if not more, people worldwide as the flu did, she would rather focus her attention and energies toward eliminating diseases – some with cures, some without – that continue to plague societies throughout the world today.
“I think a lot of the biggest killer diseases or medical conditions in the world – tuberculosis, malaria, measles, respiratory infections, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS – have pretty effective treatments, cures or vaccines. We just can’t get them to most of the people who need them most,” Kirk said. “Instead of looking for a cure (for bird flu), I would like to concentrate on developing effective distribution of treatments and education to the people who need them.
“If we really wanted to make ourselves safer from these diseases, I believe we need to support a stronger public health system so that when the inevitable does happen and some nasty bug makes its way into the population, we can be ready no matter what it is.”
photo Getty Images