Kevin Cordes was nervous as he walked toward the pitcher’s mound, glove in hand. He was set to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field in front of 40,546 fans in attendance. With his gold medal dangling from his neck, the Chicago native hurled the ball to Chicago Cubs pitcher Rob Zastryzny behind home plate before walking off the field to cheers from fans.
“I pulled out my old glove a couple days before,” Cordes said. “I tossed the ball around—didn’t want to throw it in the dirt. Never thought I would be throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game.”
Cordes has had quite the whirlwind experience after graduating from the UA in 2015. He put on the Team USA swim cap and competed for his country at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“It was such an honor, a lifelong goal ever since I was young,” Cordes said. “Being able to represent my country and wear an American flag on my cap is such an honor. It really hasn’t sunk in that I can call myself an Olympian.”
Cordes competed seven times in Rio and, at the age of 22, finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke and walked away with a gold medal in the 4x100-meter relay.
“When I was young, I would watch the Olympics all the time and dream about being an Olympian,” Cordes said.
This year’s Games were not Cordes’ only chance at competing for Team USA. In the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Cordes missed out on a shot to be an Olympian by one spot.
“After that, I was pretty determined and motivated from there to make it in 2016,” he said.
Cordes’ stars aligned when he was a kid, and his swimming career had a sudden and humorous beginning.
“My mom just happened to sign me up last-minute for summer league swimming,” Cordes said. “I was just 6 years old.”
He credited much of his success at the highest level from his experience competing as a student-athlete at the UA.
“Coming in as a freshman, our swim team was one of the best,” Cordes said. “We had former Olympians to train with. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I probably wouldn’t be here today without the UA swim team.”
Cordes found success at the UA right off the bat his freshman season, earning Arizona Athletics’ Male Freshman Athlete of the Year and four All-America honors. He managed 13 All-America honors in total to go along with six NCAA individual national championships during his career in Tucson.
Cordes won the 100-yard breaststroke four years in a row and the 200-yard breaststroke in 2013 and 2014. He also walked away with the title of NCAA Swimmer of the Year in 2013 and 2014.
The Olympic gold medalist learned first-hand how to balance the life of a student-athlete with working hard to stay on top of his academics.
“The hardest thing was time management,” Cordes said. “Swimming is pretty intense—we have a bunch of workouts. Really figuring out how to have success both in the pool, academically and managing my time was something I really picked up on in my time [with Arizona].”
Both of Cordes’ parents attended the UA, and his sister, Caroline, is now a freshman on the Arizona sand volleyball team.
“My sister is a Wildcat,” Cordes said. “It was a big goal of hers, and I’m really proud of her. It gives me a chance to visit more often, which is always nice. I look forward to seeing what she does and I know she will have a great experience, just like me.”
Cordes recalled his favorite Rio Olympics memory after finishing his semi-final race in the 200-meter breaststroke. As he walked away from the pool, he saw USA men’s basketball players chanting USA and cheering him on.
“I look up and see the USA basketball players,” Cordes said. “I had no idea. It was one of the coolest moments.”
On pure coincidence, he ran into Draymond Green and Kyrie Irving after they mistakenly got off on the wrong floor of the elevator in Olympic Village.
What sets Cordes apart from other athletes, though, is his inspiration to succeed.
“I think it’s an internal drive to be better,” Cordes said. “I just love to compete and go out and race. That’s my love for the sport.”
That internal drive was evident when Cordes shared a team with Olympian Michael Phelps.
“He is the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian,” Cordes said. “Being on a team with him, going through training camps, [just] seeing how he handled himself and what he did and how he prepared himself for the meet—I learned a lot from him just by watching him.”
Cordes will compete at the FINA World Swimming Championships (Short Course Worlds) in December. He summed up his future goals quite simply:
“On the road to 2020 in Tokyo.”
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