By JENNA SEIGWORTH
At the bottom of the stairwell of the Oil City YMCA sits the office of Jen Kissell. Before I even sat down, my eyes were drawn to dozens of photographs: Jen on the pool deck beaming with pride for her swimmers; post-race, exhausted after her own race; and simply enjoying time in the water with her family. Before I even asked her a question, it was clear to see that swimming was the center of her life.
Kissell, an Oil City native, has always been a part of a swimming family. Following in her older brother and sister’s footsteps, as well as finding support from her mom, Kissell began swimming at five years old. She swam on the Oil City High School team and continued swimming her freshman year of college at Clarion University.
“I’ve always been drawn to swimming,” said Kissell when asked why she has been at it for so long. She also noted that swimming has always come naturally to her, and when “you see rewards, it is easy to stay with it.”
Swimming wasn’t always showing her those rewards, however. She admits to walking away from swimming her sophomore year in college. On a scholarship to swim, she found that her times weren’t dropping, and with the satisfaction of the sport gone, Kissell turned her back on the thing that she had known and loved for twelve years.
In 2013, though, as fate would have it, Kissell began working as the Aquatics Director at the Oil City YMCA. Simultaneously, Kissell became the Swim Coach of the YMCA team. Years later, she now coaches a team of 76 athletes ranging from ages 5 to 18, as well as teaches 15 private swim lessons each week.
“Jen Kissell has been such a huge part of my life both in the pool and out,” said Nick Richar, a junior at Cranberry High School and a swimmer on Kissell’s YMCA team for several years. Nick, with lots of thanks to Kissell, is now a successful swimmer on both the Oil City High School team and the YMCA team.
“She constantly gives me amazing advice that I can take with me everywhere. If she is in a bad mood, you can never tell because she has such an amazing personality. I was just an average swimmer before she came to coach and turned me into what I am today. She gave me all the necessary stepping stones to be strong, and I couldn’t thank her enough.”
Kissell’s YMCA team has been met with great success this year, having the vast majority of her team qualify for districts and even winning the Franklin Invitational as a team.
Trisha Dixon, a parent of two swimmers on Kissell’s team, stated, “What I love the most about Jen is that she celebrates the accomplishments of all of the children, whether they just made Districts or simply set a personal best.”
From her years of coaching at the YMCA, many of Kissell’s students are also now avid swimmers for the Oil City High School team. So avid, that during one of OC’s swim meets this year versus a challenging Grove City girls team, every female swimmer who earned points to win that night was also a part of Kissell’s YMCA team. That same girls team ended this season undefeated and took home first place at Regionals.
When asked about seeing all of her former swimmers accomplishments, Kissell said: “As a former swimmer, I know that putting in all that hard work and not seeing results is frustrating, so seeing them all with success makes it all worthwhile.”
Kissell can often be found on the pool deck, but is also known to be found in the pool alongside her swimmers. During YMCA practice, Kissell says she often will jump in with her swimmers. For her upper level swimmers, she does this to give them a push to be better, whereas with others, it is to show form and stroke. She also noted that she enjoys doing this so that her swimmers can see that she wouldn’t make them do anything that she wouldn’t do herself.
When asked what her goal was for her YMCA Swim Team kids, her response came easily:
“I just want them to have a good season and be happy kids! For me to set a goal with any numbers involved would be hard for them. I don’t want them to ever feel like they haven’t accomplished what I want them to.”
She put great emphasis on not stressing her kids out over their times: “Kids are always putting so much pressure on themselves! They need support however they perform from all other aspects.”
Kissell truly enjoys being a coach. When I asked her what she considered her greatest attribute as a coach, she responded:
“My biggest coach attribute is to get the kids out of their own minds. Kids are so hard on themselves, so if I can make them remember that it’s just an average day, it helps!”
Kissell also made it clear that although she wants her athletes to succeed, it is ultimately up to them to put in the work: “I make the workouts, but it’s their responsibility to make themselves better.”
Although all those years ago, Kissell left the sport she loved for lack of time drops, her personal return has been met with great success and joy.
Currently, Kissell is ranked nationally in several swimming events. For the 2018-2019 United States Masters Swimming, she was ranked 1st place in the 25 freestyle, 6th place in the 100 IM, 8th in the 100 Freestyle and 20 IM, 11th in the 200 freestyle, 12th in the 50 breaststroke, 14th in the 50 butterfly, 17th in the 50 freestyle, and 18th in both the 100 backstroke and 500 freestyle.
So far, in the 2019-2020 season, Kissell is ranked second in the 50, 100, and 200 freestyle, as well as the 100 IM.
Kissell has also represented well at the Keystone State Games. She has won all five of her events each year, qualifying to represent Pennsylvania at the State Games of America, which are held every other year. She currently holds the record for the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 50 breaststroke, 100 breaststroke, and 100 IM at the Games. When competing in the State Games of America, she had four wins in 2018 and four in 2019.
Considering all of her qualifications and work in the community, I asked Kissell if she was sponsored by any swimming companies. Although she answered no, she had to add:
“I love using Arena’s gear. I’ve been using their swimwear for a long time, and if there is anyone I’d want to be sponsored by, it’d be them!”
Among all the stats and the hectic schedule, Kissell is a mom. Her two children, Madyson and Oliver, ages eleven and five, respectively, have followed right in her footsteps, finding the pool a second home just as she had. When asked about her kids, Kissell’s eyes immediately lit up, and she ruffled through her office for pictures of both children.
Madyson’s photographs included her smiling with her mother after a hard race. Like Kissell, she has taken to the competitive side of swimming, practicing daily with the YMCA. Oliver, however, is more in it for the fun and enjoyment of being in the pool. Both children have found a love for the water, just as their mother has.
In the future, Kissell says she sees herself staying right where she is. She plans on growing the program at the YMCA, continuing her personal swimming goals, and overall living a happy and swim-centered life.
Jenna Seigworth and Ava Fischer are students at Cranberry High School and members of Cranberry Chronicles, the school’s journalism/publications class.