Competitive swimming is about rising to the occasion for Serra’s Joe Kmak.
The junior owns the Serra record for his specialty event, the 100 breaststroke, but took quite the circuitous route to etch his top time of 55.09 seconds.
As a sophomore last season, Kmak bested the 17-year-old record of 56.87 set by Ray Looze in 1986, doing so in the last home match of the season in a dual meet with St. Francis at Serra’s Aquatics Center. Just two weeks later at the Central Coast Section Swimming and Diving Championships at Santa Clara Swim Center, Kmak broke his own record with a time of 55.80.
It took Kmak one full year to again break the record, but when he did, he obliterated it, swimming a 55.09 to take second place at the CCS championships May 17. In addition, Kmak was named Serra’s team MVP and an All-American for the third straight year. For these impressive feats, Kmak has been named the San Mateo Daily Journal Boys’ Swimmer of the Year.
“Serra has an incredible history of swimmers,” Serra head coach Bob Greene said. “You have Tom McBreen, he was a 1972 (Olympic) bronze medalist. You have Leffie Crawford, who was the best swimmer ever to come out of Serra High School. ... You have to look at Joe as probably up in that top-five area, I think, of the best we have had. And we have a great history.”
How it took Kmak an entire year to break his own record, then to do it so authoritatively, has much to do with tapering. He trained hard throughout his junior campaign, maintaining a rigid practice pace until the playoff season, when he tapered his schedule to adequately rest for the most important races of the season.
But the phenomenon of topping his previous record by the eternity of three-quarters of a second has as much to do with good, old-fashioned competitiveness.
“Mostly it’s just racing. I love to race,” Kmak said. “I definitely love that competition. If I’ve got someone next to me, I’ll get going extra fast in that last lap to chase them down to try and catch up.”
Kmak found himself in the rare position of playing catch-up at the CCS championships. And while he finished in second place, it took St. Francis senior Curtis Ogren setting a CCS record with a time of 53.81 seconds to better his Serra rival.
With the promise of a senior season still ahead of him, Kmak has his sights set on more record-breaking performances. However, he’s taking aim for more than just the individual events. A mainstay on the 200 medley relay team, Kmak and his teammates are especially hungry to top the Serra record in the event.
“We had a really good team this year and we almost set the school record,” Kmak said. “We tried hard and put our all into it.”
The team of Kmak, senior Zach Zamecki, junior Luke Balzarini and sophomore Cyrus Morrison twice came within a few 10ths of a second of breaking the record, at the CCS championships and the West Catholic Athletic League championships. But with three members of the squad due to return next season, Greene is optimistic about the chances of raising a new Serra-record placard atop the 200 medley relay greats on the wall of fame poolside at the Aquatics Center.
“We just missed school record,” Greene said. “But we can get there next year.”
Kmak certainly has a busy year ahead of him, but he seems up to the challenge. He is currently competing for his club team, Pasa, with Stanford Aquatics. This summer, he is slated to contend at the Junior National Championships July 30-August 3 and the National Championships August 6-10, both being held at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Complex in Irvine.
Then he returns home in the fall for his senior season of Serra water polo, for which he is also a force in the pool. As a junior, in addition to being named Serra’s team MVP, he earned All-WCAL and All-CCS honors as an attacker.
“He’s really pretty diverse for a guy that most people just think of him as a breaststroker,” Greene said. “But … he can swim everything well.”
Come swim season, Kmak certainly seems to do everything. He competed in three events at the CCS championships, while taking eighth in the 200 individual medley. Throughout the season, he customarily topped out at the maximum four events, also swimming the 400 free relay.
“For me, mainly, my breaststroke is No. 1,” Kmak said. “I’ll swim that every meet. I just love doing breaststroke. I can adapt though. You can put me in free, back and fly. Usually I’ll be able to put up a good, solid time in any race — but butterfly is a little iffy.”
A lifer in the pool, Kmak grew up swimming since before he could walk. He looked up to four older cousins, all of whom swam in college. Rebecca Plume swam for Loyola Marymount, Liz Plume competed at University of the Pacific, and Joe and Olivia Plume each were on the team at UC Santa Barbara.
And with Kmak’s talent for academics rivaling that of his athletic prowess, he may be in for quite a recruiting season in the coming months. According to Greene, some of the colleges currently interested in Kmak are UCSB, USC, Cal and Stanford.
“When you really look at him as an athlete and in the classroom, you’ve got to look at him as one of the best (Serra swimmers) ever,” Greene said. “He’s a wiz in the classroom. He’s great obviously in swimming. But he was also our MVP in water polo. … So, he’s just loaded with talent.”