This past Saturday at the Ivy League championships, senior Kate Mills only had one more relay to swim in her entire college career, the 400 freestyle. The swimmer had no need to excel beyond her expectations, and as her time on the Harvard swim team was drawing to a close, she had already accumulated the highest number of points of any single participant at the meet.
But Mills is not one to let down her teammates or turn down a chance to compete.
“I don’t swim for Kate Mills, I swim for my university and the team of 40 girls who I train with all year,” Mills stated. “What I love is the last 75 [yards] of a race when it’s head-to-head and everyone is tired, and it [comes down to] who can pull out and get their hand on the wall first.”
Anchoring the 400-freestyle relay, Mills led her team to a close second-place finish with a time of 3:20.32, establishing a new school record for the Crimson.
“She gave it her all, which is how she swims all the time.” reflected co-captain and senior teammate Ali Slack. “She’s always 100 percent.”
After Harvard secured its spot as runner-up, Mills was honored as the Career High-Point Swimmer at the Ivy Championships, racking up 330 points over the course of her four years with the Crimson.
While Mills’ athletic career is one marked by repeated success in the pool, it’s not the path she had planned for herself a high school student.
Beginning at age 13 in her hometown of Sacramento, Mills’ talent between the lanes was complemented by her dominance as a water polo player, which had earned her the recognition of several water polo college scouts across the nation. As a high school senior, Mills was set on being recruited for water polo until she had her knee cap kicked out of place during a match.
Doctors told her that continuing to play would mean risking permanent damage to her knee. She would have to undergo multiple surgeries to keep her knee in place, but she was told that if she were to ever get her knee strong enough, she could attempt to make a return to water polo.
Because she knew her knee might never fully heal, Mills made the pivotal decision in the fall of her senior year to pursue a career as a collegiate swimmer. She chose to attend Harvard because of its respected swim team, but also took into account its respected water polo program, holding hope that she may one day return to the sport.
Mills had surgery on her knee following her freshman year here at Harvard, but by then she had found her calling on the swim team.
“To be quite honest, [my knee] is fine, and it gets the job done at walking and what not, but it’s never going to be what it was before the injury.” the swimmer noted. “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest for me to ever play [water polo] again.”
Though fate pushed Mills to swimming, she put in the work. In a sport where scores and times are centered around the individual, Mills continued to maintain the team-oriented mentality of a former water polo player.
“We have a saying on the team that your teammates should be so trustworthy that you would want them in a foxhole with you [during] a fight.” Slack remarked. “I would definitely say that over the four years, Kate has become the first person that I would pick to be in a foxhole with me.”
“It’s been fun over the past years just watching her develop a mind-set that really is ‘team first,’” coach Stephanie Morawski said on the evolution of Mills. “It isn’t about how she swims or how she performs or what her times are, but it’s about how Harvard swims and how Harvard performs.”