Laura Gorinski: Learning to Lead
Sept. 27, 2012
Laura Gorinski: Learning to Lead
By Justin Kischefsky, Navy Assistant Sports Information Director
"What characteristics should a leader have?"
This question hung in the air for a stumped Laura Gorinski when it was asked of her back in 2008. A high school senior at the time of the query, she had previously vowed to her guidance counselor that she was, "NOT going into the military!" Yet there she was, interviewing for an appointment to the Naval Academy in Congressman Tim Murphy's office before an intimidating Army general who was anxiously awaiting her response. Only adding to Gorinski's nervousness in the setting was her being baffled as to what was an appropriate answer to the question.
After some fidgeting, she broke the silence by stating in a shaky voice to the patient general, "Uhm, a leader should be ... confident?"
"I had no clue how to answer that question," laughingly recalled Gorinski in the fall of 2012.
Gorinski may have stumbled through her response to the general four years ago, but her experiences since as a midshipman and standout member of the Navy women's swimming team have prepared her to provide a much more knowledgeable answer to the question today.
Currently a squad leader within the Brigade, Gorinski has already been selected for the nuclear Navy, aspires to be an officer aboard a submarine and is conducting research as a Bowman Scholar. In the pool, she has helped guide Navy to a pair of Patriot League team titles, has twice been tabbed as the Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year for her sport and was the 2012 league swimmer of the year. Gorinski also competed at both the 2012 NCAA Championship and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
"I think being a member of a sports team is one of the best leadership practices available at the Naval Academy," said Gorinski. "Most midshipmen have to wait until their senior year to experience leadership positions. As a member of the swimming team, I've had first-hand experience with leadership roles since day one during my Plebe year."
While swimming may have helped hone her leadership skills, Gorinski found success in the sport itself from an early age. She comes from a long line of swimmers in her family, which includes a sister who swam at Duquesne and an 89-year-old grandmother who still swims a mile every Saturday and Sunday, and took her first lessons at age two. Gorinski began swimming competitively when she was seven and remained a member of the Greensburg (30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh) YMCA team for the next 12 years. She would close out her club level swimming career by winning the 200 breaststroke title at the 2009 YMCA National Championship.
Even with her emphatic guarantee as a high school freshman, as Gorinski progressed through high school and looked more seriously at swimming on the collegiate level she began to recognize the Naval Academy was offering her a perfect opportunity.
"I realized what I could do with the combination of academics and athletics if I came to Navy," said Gorinski of why she chose to attend the USNA. "I felt if I could test myself as I would here, I could become a better person for the rest of my life. I wanted to do more than just go to college. I wanted to excel somewhere that was challenging and Navy was perfect for that."
To say Gorinski was challenged in a myriad of ways during her first few months in Annapolis would be an understatement. In Plebe Summer alone she developed shin splints on the third day before dislocating an elbow and incurring a stress fracture to her hip before classes began in August.
"It was really frustrating; it tore me apart to not only not be able to swim, but also not take part in any aspect of the physical mission of the Naval Academy," recalled Gorinski of the disappointment she had felt in the fall of 2009.
"I vividly recall our team's first away trip of Laura's freshman year," said Navy women's swimming head coach John Morrison. "She was not able to travel due to her injuries, but she still met the team at the bus prior to our leaving to wish everyone good luck. As we pulled away, I could see tears rolling down her face as a heavy feeling of her having let the team down fell over her.
"On that day, I knew she would be a special leader on our team."
Despite not being able to swim until December and unable to compete in a meet until late January, Gorinski set Navy-record times in winning both breaststroke events and the 200 individual medley final at the 2010 Patriot League Championship in February. One week after helping the Mids to the Patriot League team title and being named as the league's freshman of the year for her individual efforts, she won the 200 breast and 200 IM finals and placed second in the 100 breast at the ECAC Championship that was contested in her hometown.
"As a leader, Laura has been `all in' for our team from day one," said Morrison. "While her physical setbacks during Plebe Summer were devastating for her, she did not let her dream of competing at Navy that season die. Even though she couldn't compete and, for a time, even swim, she literally was at every practice to help her team in any other way she could.
"Her devotion to the team led her to attack an incredible training regiment once she returned to the pool. She finished that year with two school records, was named the freshman of the year in the league and, most importantly to her, helped her teammates win a championship."
A healthy Gorinski attacked the record book with a vengeance during the 2010-11 season. She both broke the school standard in the 400 individual medley and established a new school and league record in the 200 breaststroke during a meet in November, then lowered the pair of 200 breast records again during the Army-Navy meet in December before establishing a new Navy mark in the 100 breast just a few days later.
Gorinski carried that early-season form over into the championship portion of Navy's season in February of 2011. She won both breaststroke crowns -- in the process setting a new school and league mark in the 200 breast -- and placed second in the 200 IM at the Patriot League Championship. She would end her sophomore season by sweeping the two breaststroke finals and lowering the 200 breast standards at the ECAC Championship in Pittsburgh.
Her junior year began with Gorinski breaking the Navy and Patriot League record in the 100 breast, 200 breast and 200 IM events during the Army-Navy meet in December. Those three individual event wins in Navy's 23rd-consecutive win over Army would be part of a regular-season campaign that saw her tally 20 victories and five second-place finishes in 31 races. Eight of her 11 "non-wins" came in events contested during meets against nationally-ranked teams.
She would go on to win each of her three individual events -- and set new school and league standards in the 200 breast and 200 IM events -- and swim a leg on four victorious relay teams to help the Mids win the program's 11th team title at the Patriot League Championship.
The latter achievement is what stands out most of all to Gorinski from the 2012 league meet.
"You learn pretty quickly on a team that everything is not about you," said Gorinski, the reigning league swimmer of the year. "If you are having a bad day or are not working hard in practice, it will have an impact on your teammates. You need to learn how to put your own problems aside and swim for the team. In practice, I am swimming my best so the person in the lane next to me also can improve and together we can win the conference team title. I want to swim my best at the conference meet not for myself, but for the team.
"In the Navy, it is the same thing as an officer. You have to put your own needs aside for others so they can excel. It is nice to be on a team here because you hear so much about leadership, so much about morals and ethics and what is required as a leader, but we have the opportunity to experience it multiple times a day on the swimming team."
"Since Plebe year, Laura's leadership role within the team has only increased," said classmate and 2012-13 women's swimming team captain Kellie Darmody. "While as a plebe she trained hard and set records, during her youngster and second-class years she trained hard and encouraged others to follow. She constantly challenges us all to do better than we did yesterday and she challenges us to try something new or different. As a future naval officer, she will do the same for her enlisted sailors. She will challenge them to be better.
"Laura also cares immensely for each individual person on our team. This will be a great attribute for her to carry on to the fleet."
Gorinski had to leave her teammates behind when she travelled to the 2012 NCAA Championship. Competing at the March meet, during which she became the first women's swimmer in Navy and Patriot League history to swim in a trio of individual events at the Division I national championship, fulfilled a goal she had set for herself since she first arrived at Navy.
"It was an awesome feeling when I knew I had qualified," said Gorinski of the NCAA Championship. "It is a hard meet to qualify for because you have to be as fast as other swimmers in the country are. It is not just making a time and going; you have to make a time, by a lot. Just getting there was an honor. I hope to go back this year, along with some of my teammates."
While she may have been the only Mid to make the trip to the most recent NCAA Championship, she was one of 16 current or former Navy men's and women's swimmers (plus three current plebes who were excused from Plebe Summer for a few days) who competed at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The wait for the June Trials to start was an excruciatingly long one for Gorinski, who missed qualifying for the 2008 event by less than one-half of a second before attaining cut times in both breaststroke events in December of 2010.
"It was kind of unbelievable," said Gorinski of the days leading up to the Trials. "I had more than a year and a half of thinking about the Trials every single day.
"I felt numb the entire time there. I remember walking onto the pool deck for the first time. No natatorium in the world is set up like that. Seeing all of those seats and how high they went up, the pool was immaculate and all of the lights were on; my mouth dropped open."
The experience of competing in the fastest swimming meet in the world gave Gorinski a great deal of knowledge and confidence.
"Being in the same pool and the same warm-up lane as swimmers like Ryan Lochte was an eye opener. Every so often I would look over and see someone like Rebecca Soni. I watched Michael Phelps do his starts, which was unbelievable. I automatically was thinking all of these people were so much faster than me. But then I realized I got to the meet the same way they did and that this was my time, too.
"During the meet I watched the top swimmers and saw how they handled themselves at a major event like this one. I could see how they were walking, how they were conducting themselves. They were so relaxed, even when they were swimming. I watched the 200 free and Missy Franklin was behind the whole race until about the 175-yard mark and then she goes and wins it. The amount of control it takes to do that is amazing. I learned a lot just by watching those swimmers and seeing what they know and do. It was a huge confidence boost for me. It is something I will remember for the rest of my life."
This new burst of confidence has helped to spark Gorinski's lofty goals for the upcoming season.
Already the Navy and Patriot League record holder in a trio of individual events, she wants to better her own school record in the 400 IM by five seconds so as to also break the current league standard. No female and only one swimmer in Patriot League history has won four straight league titles at the league meet in multiple individual events, a feat Gorinski could match if she sweeps both breaststroke crowns this spring. She also is three individual event titles away from breaking former teammate Tara Chapmon's Patriot League record of 10 career championships and needs to win a total of four titles in all at the meet to break the league record of 18.
"From first meeting Laura and watching her compete in high school, I had no doubt she would be one of Navy's all-time greats," said Morrison. "She has incredible physical attributes and a kinetic sense of the water. Add those traits to her ability to listen, learn and try things new, and you have a very good swimmer. One of the greatest assets Laura has is her competitive fire. When she is behind the blocks, she is like a racehorse entering a gate; a bit anxious and energetic. When she steps on the blocks, blinders are on and the focus begins. You see her mind and body are poised and confident to race. When the horn sounds, Laura is free to race. Nothing holds her back. She competes with confidence and control, with no boundaries. If the race is on the line in the last length of the pool, her heart takes over and it is all out for her team. Needless to say she embraces competition and loves to race, which has led her to compete against the greatest swimmers in the world at the NCAA Championship and the U.S. Olympic Trials."
Having individual success at the 2013 league meet would go a long way toward achieving Gorinski's first and foremost goal for the year, which is to help bring another team championship back to Navy.
"We haven't won back-to-back titles either in my time here (two first-place showings and a second-place finish) or in a while (1992-97)," said Gorinski. "Doing so is a goal for the whole team. We want to do that."
The swimming success she has achieved in the past and the high standards she has set for herself in the sport mirrors what she has accomplished and hopes to attain out of the pool.
Gorinski has posted a 3.64 grade-point average as an astrophysics major. She is the 2011 and `12 Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year for her sport (2008 Navy graduate Kelly Zahalka is the lone female swimmer in league history to have won the award three times) and has been recognized in each of her three completed years as a Scholar-All-American by the Collegiate Swimming Coaches Association of America for her combined academic and athletic prowess. Her ambitious research project for the Bowman Scholar Program is entitled: Integration of a Near-Infrared Component into the United States Naval Observatory / USNA Lensed Quasar Monitoring Program.
"Being a Bowman Scholar allows me to do more research than I normally would as part of the Capstone Project all seniors here do," said Gorinski. "It also could provide the opportunity for me to attend the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey."
"It is not easy to be a student-athlete at any institution," said Morrison, "and when you add in the military requirements of the Naval Academy it takes a special person to be able to excel in every aspect. There is no doubt Laura maintains high standards in everything she does. She regularly sets goals and objects to meet and often exceed those standards.
"One area that sets Laura up for success is that she never dwells on not hitting the mark or failing. Not that she misses the mark or goal often, but everyone who is trying to go faster or meet an exceptional academic expectation or do something that he or she never has done before will eventually fail. Laura uses those setbacks to learn, motivate and find a way to do it better. This philosophy enables Laura to keep moving forward, keep raising the bar and becoming the best she can be in everything she does."
As for her rapidly-approaching future beyond The Yard, Gorinski's interest in serving aboard a submarine was piqued in the summer of 2011 when she spent several days aboard the USS Maine as part of PROTRIMID.
"I had been telling people up until then that I wanted to be a Navy pilot," said Gorinski, "but I really had no idea what I wanted. Then I was on a sub for two days and enjoyed every second of it. I fell in love with the community.
"It was just with the Class of 2010 that women were first allowed to be on submarines. Being among the first women to do so was in the back of my mind, but it was never a deciding factor in my decision."
"Laura continues to set the bar higher for all of us with what she has accomplished both in the pool and in the classroom," said Darmody. "She is a physics major who has regularly been on the Superintendent's List (four times, plus two Dean's List honors) since she arrived. Not many people can say that! Laura then continued to `wow' us all with her achievement in winning the Bowman Scholarship and being an early-selectee for submarines. She does this all with such great humility. She never boasts about her academic accomplishments.
"Laura also is never short in lending a hand. She constantly offers to tutor anyone who needs it on her team. Being a student-athlete at any institution and in any major is tough; Laura just does it better than the rest of us!"
After developing the desire to be on a submarine, there was another hurdle in the acceptance process for the community Gorinski had to pass. She had to go through an interview, this time with Adm. Kirkland Donald, the Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion. Memories of her Naval Academy interview came back to Gorinski prior to this one, but her time at Navy has made her a different person than she was that day in her congressman's office.
"I had a lot of trouble presenting myself to people when I was a high school senior," reflected Gorinski. "I wouldn't say I was shy, but I was reserved. Getting up in front of people to speak and making my thoughts known to other people was hard. After being here at Navy, I've learned to project myself more and be more of a presence. I'm now a squad leader, and I don't know how I would have been able to do that when in high school.
"I sat up and looked Admiral Donald straight in the eye. I felt confident in everything I said. I didn't sugarcoat things, even when he was asking why I received a bad grade in a class or while we were discussing my SAT scores. I felt I could handle the stress now when I couldn't have four years ago."
"Laura has always been a great listener and follower with confidence in her teammates, coaches, professors and leadership," said Morrison. "She has absorbed the leadership styles of many and developed her own very effective style. I have no doubt Laura will remain on this path and continue to learn and grow into an incredible leader and scholar in the fleet and beyond."
And should she run into the general who quizzed her on that day in Pittsburgh, she now has an answer to the question that had stumped her.
"A leader should be confident and know what other people need first before they fulfill the needs of themselves. Leadership is a caring relationship; you are there for others so they can succeed for you. Part of this is recognizing the needs of others without them telling you, and then going and doing what you can to help them out.
"I'm not the perfect leader, but I feel I have developed a skill foundation to be a leader in the Navy, and I am learning more about it every day."