CARMEL, Ind. – Kelly Pash was not thrilled about her first Carmel Sprint Triathlon. She finished 15th out of 44 female entries.
She was 7 years old.
“She just hates losing,” said Jackie Pash, an older sister.
And just loves winning.
When Kelly was 12, she competed at an hours-long Indianapolis swim meet. She should have been done for the day. But she didn’t want to disappoint girls on her Carmel travel team, so she was transported to Shelbyville for a softball tournament. She pitched the team to two victories and hit two home runs.
Then there was the family vacation to the North Carolina coast. Her California cousins knew how to surf, and Kelly had never been on a surfboard. Hey, the Atlantic Ocean was no match for her.
“She popped right up right away,” Jackie said.
You want competitive?
How about picking a boyfriend who is perhaps the best male high school swimmer ever to come out of Indiana? Kelly’s Twitter profile (@Kelly_Pash) is a photo of her with Drew Kibler, the 2017 IndyStar Indiana Sports Awards athlete of the year. The two push each other, she said.
Pash keeps pushing toward what could be a historic state meet. The 16-year-old junior leads the Carmel charge to what inevitably will be a 32nd consecutive Indiana title, extending a national record for all sports and all states.
Preliminaries start at 6 p.m. Friday at the Natatorium at IUPUI. Finals are at 1 p.m. Saturday, following 9 a.m. diving prelims.
Pash’s disposition developed as she scrambled to keep up with older sisters Jackie, 19, and Sam, 21. If there was a neighborhood Wiffle ball game, there was no excluding Kelly. Nor from any other contest.
Those sisters were not easy to beat, either.
Jackie, a University of Akron swimmer, is a Mid-American Conference champion and record-holder in the 400-yard individual medley. Sam, a Marian University catcher, started all 49 softball games last year and batted .306. Their father, Joe, was a college baseball pitcher at East Carolina.
Softball was Kelly’s sport until she decided to focus on swimming. It was a difficult moment. She wanted to do everything.
“She’d want to be the pitcher and her own catcher, because that’s just how she is,” Jackie said.
Pash’s statistics are now measured in minutes and seconds rather than ERA and RBI. Her best times in the 100- and 200-yard freestyles are 48.55 seconds and 1:45.25, respectively, from winning winter junior nationals in December at Knoxville, Tenn.
State records are 48.36 by Amy Bilquist and 1:45.09 by Claire Adams, both set in 2015. Both are Carmel swimmers who have won world medals, and Bilquist nearly made the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. Seeing Adams swim so fast made Pash believe she could do it, too.
Indeed, at least five Carmel swimmers – Kibler, Pash, Bilquist, Adams and Veronica Burchill – could be in the mix to make the team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“That’s something really important to keep in the back of mind,” Pash conceded. “Like, it’d be amazing to go to the Olympics. I know it’s something I could achieve if I work really hard for it.”
Odds are better of a backup quarterback winning a Super Bowl than of a swimmer making a U.S. Olympic team. Twenty-one women made the team for Rio 2016, or about one in 9,000.
On the other hand, when Pash goes for it, she goes for it.
“She’s a very instinctual racer, a competitor, on game day,” Carmel coach Chris Plumb said. “When it’s time to race, you can always count on Kelly to bring it. She has a unique edge to her when it comes to doing whatever it takes to be successful on race day, especially when she’s put in an environment that allows that to come out.”
She barely made the national junior team at last year’s senior USA Championships, finishing 36th in prelims of the 100-meter freestyle. But that was good enough to qualify for August’s under-18 World Junior Championships at the Natatorium.
She surprised U.S. coaches, who kept putting her on relay teams. Pash emerged from that meet with three relay medals and nearly four.
Plumb said his mission is to get Pash to trust herself. At junior worlds, she did.
It was “an eye-opener,” Pash said. She said she wants more.
“Now that you have a taste of Team USA, what it’s about, it’s time to understand you’re not just swimming for yourself or even for Carmel. You’re swimming for your country,” Plumb said. “That’s a different part of swimming and why you do it. There’s a bigger purpose to you. I feel that purpose, too, as their coach.
“‘I’m not trying to be the best in the state or the country. All right, we’ve got to be the best in the world. How do we do that?’”
Just how Pash has done it: one workout, one race, one meet, one year at a time.
She will have her first college season in 2020 but did not elaborate on schools she is considering. She was on a high school team with Adams and sister Jackie in 2016 when Carmel broke the national record for successive state championships. Even if the Greyhounds weren’t on such a streak, Pash said, they would be doing the same things.
“It never gets old, honestly,” she said.
Winning never does.