English and French major Zara Konstapel excels in the pool and on the page
Most of the year, Zara Konstapel can be found gliding gracefully through the University of Missouri–St. Louis Swimming Pool. Of course, that’s excluding the time she spends on the medal stand, which has been considerable lately.
Konstapel, a junior from Doetinchem, Netherlands, is a standout breaststroker on the women’s swimming team and the first Tritons swimmer to be named a first-team All-American. In February, she finished second in the women’s 100-yard breaststroke and third in the women’s 200-yard breaststroke at the 2022 Great Lakes Valley Conference Championships in Elkhart, Indiana.
The stellar performance officially qualified her for March’s NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina. She was one of 10 UMSL swimmers to qualify for nationals, where she earned first-team All-American recognition with a seventh-place finish in the women’s 100-yard breaststroke.
“At midseason I made the cut for nationals,” she said. “They don’t send the official invitations out until after our conference meet, but I knew at midseason that I would be qualified. That was just a huge weight off my shoulders because that’s what I’ve been practicing for the last three years. Then at conference, I only improved my time, and I also placed on the podium. That was just so cool.”
However, swimming is just one area where Konstapel stands out. She has also excelled in the classroom, double majoring in English and French. As a sophomore, she won the Roy and Hilda Bergmann Scholarship for Literature, and the past two years, she’s contributed poetry to Litmag, the university’s annual literary and art journal. This year, she’s serving on the public relations committee for the publication’s upcoming release.
Konstapel developed interests in English and swimming growing up in the Netherlands. She started swimming as an 8-year-old and competed for the same club team for the next 10 years. Though swimming wasn’t exactly a family pastime.
“I’m the first athlete in my family,” she said with a laugh.
At 12, she began learning English in school and became enamored with languages and writing.
“I just really loved my English class because we did literature and creative writing, and I loved writing,” she recalled.
As high school graduation approached, a friend of Konstapel was recruited to swim for Grand Canyon University in Arizona. Konstapel had planned on attending college in the Netherlands, but it most likely would have meant the end of her swimming career since there is not a culture of collegiate athletics in the country.
Suddenly, she saw an opportunity to keep training while studying. Her friend put her in contact with a recruiting manager, and after a discussion about her options, she decided to go for it.
“This opportunity just came up,” Konstapel said. “You can continue on swimming if you go to the United States, and I really wanted that. I just felt like I like hadn’t reached my full potential at home, and there was no way for me to combine studying and swimming at that level at home.”
Head Men’s and Women’s Swimming Coach Tony Hernandez made an immediate impression. Hernandez reminded Konstapel of her coach in the Netherlands and came across as very genuine while other coaches seemed to be making sales pitches disconnected from Konstapel’s interests.
The move across the Atlantic was nerve-racking but also exciting. Adjusting to a new country could have been a daunting proposition, but the rest of the women’s swimming team, many of whom are also international students, instantly welcomed Konstapel to UMSL and provided a sense of camaraderie. Assistant Coach Kale Kirchner has also been a positive influence, pushing Konstapel to constantly improve her swimming.
At times, it has been difficult balancing school and the swimming team’s demanding training and competition schedule. The season runs from September to February, but can extend into March for nationals, and swimmers practice about 20 hours a week during that time.
“From my experience, my professors have always been very accommodating and give me extensions if needed,” Konstapel said. “They understand that as a student-athlete you are just very, very busy and on a very tight schedule.”
Despite the complicated logistics, Konstapel still finds time to work hard in the classroom and on her writing. Last school year, her humorous essay on Tinder earned her a $4,000 Bergmann Scholarship. The essay chronicles the ups and downs of dating apps, including one of Konstapel’s own disastrous Tinder dates.
The piece was fun to write, and Konstapel likes to think that she can write about anything. But her poetry tends to draw upon more serious concepts. The 2020 edition of Litmag included her poem “Bouquet,” which is about how love can consume a person and leave them heartbroken. Last year, the magazine also published her poem “afgekoeld”/“cooled down,” a reflection on emotional struggle, in Dutch with an English translation.
The Litmag staff will launch the latest edition on Friday. Konstapel has been involved in the production and promotion of this year’s magazine as a member of the public relations committee. As a writer, she’s enjoyed the role reversal.
“I really love the process of seeing all the works coming in and then deciding as a staff what should we publish,” Konstapel said. “As a writer yourself who submits, you don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes. Now, being on staff, it’s fun to see how this all works out.”
Konstapel’s senior season lies ahead of her, but she also plans exercise to her fifth year of eligibility due to a COVID-shortened season. She’ll use the extra year to earn a minor in communication and spend more time with the teammates and coaches who have meant so much to her.
“I’m very happy that I can be a part of this team for a year longer,” she said, “because they’re all like family to me.”
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