When Kelli Callahan first arrived at the University of Puget Sound, there were doubts about how long she’d last. A standout swimmer for Aspen High School before graduating in 2016, the mental and physical strains of studying and competing at the collegiate level looked daunting on her already frail body.
Longtime Puget Sound swim coach Chris Myhre called her “brittle,” part of what Callahan said was “a pretty bad over-usage injury” stemming from her AHS days.
Not only did Callahan overcome this, she went on to dominate the Northwest Conference for three years and rewrote the NCAA Division III school’s record book.
“Her first semester was really a nightmare. I didn’t think she was ever going to come out of it. There were days she couldn’t swim,” Myhre recalled. “She went home for the break over the holidays and came back and was a different person. She was able to put in the work and actually swam pretty well her freshman year, but it wasn’t anything like she did her next three years.”
Callahan wrapped up her collegiate swim career this past season by earning her first All-American honors for her performances in the 100 breaststroke and 100 IM. While this alone is worth noting, she wasn’t alone in the feat, as Callahan was actually one of three former AHS swimmers to earn All-American status this season alongside DI standout Kennidy Quist and rising DII star Davy Brown. The honors were handed out by the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America.
All three even swam together for one season for the Skiers, who were then coached by Kelli’s mother, Kathleen Callahan, a former Division I All-American in swimming. A year later, when Quist was a senior and Brown a sophomore, AHS won its first state championship in girls swimming.
The trio gives a lot of credit to former Aspen Swim Club coach Gordon Gerson, who grew the club into a dominant force despite coming from a small ski town. Gerson stepped away last spring and handed the reins over to Tom Jager, a seven-time Olympic medalist, and his wife Becky.
“I hope this is motivation for a lot of the younger swimmers,” Quist said. “Hopefully this is motivation for them to continue and show that despite being in a small town you can continue through college and you can do well in college. I think Gordon was a great coach, but Tom has also changed the program a lot and I think a lot of those changes will be positive.”
After getting her feet under her at Puget Sound, Kelli Callahan never looked back. She was named the Northwest Conference Women’s Swimmer of the Year as a sophomore, junior and senior, qualifying for the DIII national championship each year. Her career, like so many others, came to an abrupt finish after the coronavirus outbreak canceled the championship meet in March.
“I was very excited to hear I got it. It definitely helped end my career,” Callahan said of her first All-American honors. “I wish I could have had that one last swim, but it is what it is.”
Callahan holds Puget Sound’s school records in the 200 IM, 400 IM and 100 breaststroke. She was recently given the school’s Alice Bond Award for the Most Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year — that is, across all of the university’s sports — an award she also won her sophomore year.
She will graduate this spring from UPS with a degree in biology and minor in English. She’s been accepted into the Peace Corps, where she has plans to teach English in Sri Lanka once the pandemic is over.
“If she had been 3 to 5 inches taller, she probably would have been swimming in the Olympics,” Myhre said of Callahan, who is listed as being a mere 5-foot-4 on the team’s roster. “I just finished my 29th year of coaching the women at UPS — 26 years of doing both men and women — and she is definitely the most accomplished, most talented and received the most accolades of any female I’ve ever coached, ever. It’s been a good ride.”
Quist, a 2017 AHS graduate, is finishing up her junior year at Harvard University, where she earned DI All-American honors for her roles on the school’s 400 free and 800 free relay teams. She said the group of 10-plus swimmers sent to the NCAA championships before it was canceled was the largest for Harvard since the 1980s.
“From the time I came to Harvard to now, that was something the coaches had always talked about, was getting a relay to NCAAs,” Quist said. “You know in the beginning of the year you have the potential to do it, but everything just went right at Ivys and we made it. It’s kind of a surreal feeling to actually do what you’ve talked about for so long.”
Quist has earned all-Ivy League honors each year at Harvard, and just missed the cutoff to qualify for the NCAA championships as an individual in both her freshman and junior seasons. This is helping to fuel her upcoming senior season.
“It was pure joy and happiness and it seemed like everything sort of came together this year,” Quist said. “You always watch the seniors and you see it’s lights out. It’s your last chance, so hopefully I’ll be able to get my own cut times.”
She is studying environmental science and public policy, with a minor in economics, and plans to go into consulting.
Brown, a 2019 AHS graduate, is wrapping up her freshman season at Colorado Mesa University. She earned DII All-American honors in the 200 back and 800 free relay, as well as honorable mention recognition in the 400 IM.
“It was everything I thought it would be. I took a break in the summer, which I thought was the best thing I could have done to refresh. When I got there I was ready. I was missing swimming,” Brown said. “Once I got the hang of it, it was easier to relax into the process and trust the process I was given and I was able to excel after I got everything under control and learned the ropes.”
Brown was a standout in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference this season, where she was named the 2020 RMAC Freshman of the Year and won the league championship in the 200 IM. The aspiring medical doctor seemed to be peaking heading into the NCAA finals before they were canceled.
“I put blood, sweat and tears into swimming and when I was actually being recognized for all the hard work and succeeding in what I was doing, it was very fulfilling,” Brown said. “Gordon started it all. He taught us how to act in the pool and out of the pool. I think that really set me apart when I was an NCAA athlete, because I was able to carry those self-driven lessons that l learned from him and adjust to the program.”