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#TGW: Smelling the Flowers

June 28, 2017

by Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

Courtney Shealy Hart jumped in the water again a while back, but it wasn’t exactly a familiar experience for Georgia Tech’s head swimming & diving coach – even though she’s an Olympic gold medalist.

Hart closed a circle of sorts in stroking the Flowers Sea Swim off of the Cayman Islands – twice — to raise money for the Cayman Islands Cancer Society.

Organizers have a knack for inviting Olympic swimmers to this epic fund-raising event (, and Hart’s been invited before. She nearly did it before tragedy struck a friend, shortening her trip to the Caribbean in 2001.

Finally, it was a blast, even for a former world-class sprinter asked to swim 1,000 meters on a Saturday and 5,000 more open-water meters two days later.

As a matter of fact, Hart plans to make the event an annual part of her life.

“Yes, absolutely …,” she said. “They’re so hospitable. It’s a great event, a great cause.”

Plus, Hart knows people.

Among participants on June 10 and 12 were a couple of her former Olympic teammates from the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia in Kristy Kowal (also a teammate/roommate at the University of Georgia) and five-time Olympic medalist Ian Crocker.

Hart knew this event before finally participating in it. She was lined up to swim in 2001, in the summer after she won gold medals as a member of the 400-meter medley and freestyle relay teams in Sydney.

Shortly after arriving in the Caribbean, however, her mother called to let her know that a dear friend, former UGA pal Stephanie Conway, had just been in a serious automobile accident.

Hart bee-lined back to the U.S. on the first flight available, and missed the Flowers Sea event. She was able to visit with Conway – who was not an athlete for the Bulldogs, but rather an Oregon native who had previously served as the Beavers’ mascot — in the hospital before she passed away.

“She lived in an apartment near me when I was going for my masters,” Hart recalled. “Mom called, and it was my car [Conway was driving], and the state troopers went to my house . . . Mom knew it wasn’t me because I was in the Cayman Islands.

“She was in the hospital for five days, in a coma. She was an organ donor. Her mom still lives in Oregon. They made the decision that because she was such a big organ donor [to take her off life support].”

Hart didn’t overthink the Flowers Sea event after that.

Then, Tech last summer played host to the U.S. Olympic swimming teams before they went to participate in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

On Tech’s pool deck, or nearby, U.S. assistant Dave Kelsheimer, previously a coach in the Cayman Islands and a long-time acquaintance of Hart, suggested that she accept her standing invitation to the Flowers Sea Swim.

So she did. The decision was made easier by the presence of Kowal, “my roommate at Georgia for eight years, and two degrees,” Hart said.

Kowal had done the event almost annually for nearly two decades; Hart, not so much. Swimming in open water is quite different than pool stroking.

“One of the great things about the Cayman Islands is there’s not much current. It’s very clear, you can see all the way to the bottom,” she said. “They had a ton of safety boats and crystal clear blue waters. [But] I felt like I was going against the current all the time. I’m a sprinter.”

Hart went into this expecting to swim the 1,000 meters. A couple weeks ahead of time, she learned of the 5K option and after arriving with her husband, Justin, she jumped at that, too, and knocked them both out.

“Saturday, we did the mile; there were 1,100 participants,” she recalled. “It took me a little more than hour-and-a-half to do the 5K. I didn’t see my time in the mile. My guess is . . . 28 minutes or something like that.”

Hart, whose teams having gradually improved over her eight years as head coach at Georgia Tech, noticed that several high school teams were present in the Cayman Islands to use the event “for training” and some collegians were present, too. Perhaps this could be a recruiting tool in some way moving forward.

Hart’s swims, though, were a bit of a struggle – when is swimming not?

She broke out of her stroke pattern a couple times. Her game plan was, “Mostly freestyle. I swam some backstroke to keep the [turn] buoy in sight, and a couple breast strokes to change it up.”

Hart is not finished with this event. She plans to return.

“My goal is to be in shape for the 5K,” she said. “They’ve already asked me back.”

About the Flowers Sea Swim

Over two decades ago, against such an ideal backdrop, the tradition of the Flowers One Mile Sea Swim began. As the event completed its 25th year on June 10, 2017, it has been named one of the World’s Top 13 Open Water Swims.

The Flowers Sea Swim is Grand Cayman’s flagship sporting event. Participants vary in age from 8 to 80 years old and in skill from novices and first-timers to gold medal Olympians and world championship open water specialists from around the globe. The Flowers Sea Swim welcomes Swimmers from all strokes of life!

The unique draw of the Flowers Sea Swim is not only its flawless course conditions along Cayman’s beautiful Seven Mile Beach, but the numerous random prizes. The race is the world’s richest open water event with over $100,000 in cash and random prizes. The odds to win a random prize are 1-in-7 and previous giveaways have included blackberries, IPad’s, hotel stays, and dozens of airline tickets to premier destinations such as Miami, New York, Panama, Rome, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, London, Dublin, Rio De Janerio, and Toronto. All finishers receive a fantastic t-shirt and goody bag filled with prizes and surprises!

All registration proceeds are donated to the Cayman Islands Cancer Society.


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