Sept. 20, 2012
By Craig Chval, Sr.
Just about every student-athlete that attends Notre Dame attains the pinnacle of his or her athletic career at some point after enrolling at Notre Dame. For most, their prior athletic accomplishments are eclipsed simply by being members of Division I athletic programs that are competing at the highest levels. For a relative handful of the dozens of student-athletes who first enroll in Notre Dame each year, the highest levels of athletic success come as professional athletes after leaving Notre Dame.
But for Jilen (Siroky) Bouwer, the crowning achievement of her athletic career came four years before she took her first class at Notre Dame, when she qualified at age 14 as a member of the United States Olympic Swim Team for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Not that she planned it that way.
Earning a spot on the U.S. team - and becoming the youngest U.S. Olympian at the Atlanta Games - was almost a fairy tale for Bouwer. Years before she became a world-class swimmer, Bouwer assured her parents that they wouldn't have to find tickets to attend the still-far-off Olympic Games in Atlanta, because she was going to make it there as a swimmer.
And then she proceeded to do just that.
"Dad, I'm going to be there," Bouwer remembers insisting to her father as a 10-year-old. "I don't know how seriously my parents took me at the time."
Although Bouwer admits to having had no idea at the time what making the U.S. Olympic swim team entailed, it wasn't long before people were taking her seriously. By the spring of 1995, Bouwer's coach realized that the Olympics had become more than a distant dream for Bouwer.
"He sat me down after the spring nationals and said, `You could have qualified for the Olympic Trials with your time. I think you're good enough to make a run for it,'" remembers Bouwer.
"I've always enjoyed setting goals like that - trying to set times and break times was very rewarding to me," Bouwer says. "So I said, `OK, well then I will.'"
And after a rough patch over the summer of '95, Bouwer did exactly that, making good on that long-ago (at least from the perspective of a 14-year-old) promise to her parents.
But that's where the fairy tale ended. After posting a time of 2:28.23 to finish second in the 200 meter breaststroke at the U.S. Trials, Bouwer swam a 2:33.43 to finish 15th in Atlanta.
"For a long time after the Olympics, I would never even talk about it," Bouwer confesses. "I was very angry, although now I realize that part of it was just being 14 and not having the maturity to handle disappointment like that properly."
While Bouwer's immediate reaction was to set her sights on redemption in 2000, she never really got the chance. A stellar high school career led to recruitment by every elite college women's swimming program in the country, but Bouwer injured her rotator cuff just before the start of her senior year.
"My parents suggested that I look for a school that had more to offer than just swimming," she relates. "They said, `You obviously know what happens when you don't do well in a sport; do you really want to go to a place that doesn't offer much more than swimming?'
"I took that to heart and included Notre Dame on my list."
Like so many other student-athletes, Bouwer was sold during her official recruiting visit.
"I fell in love with it," she says. "I think I was just as surprised as anyone else. My dad said to pick a school that is going to impact you, and while Notre Dame has a great swimming program, it's probably not what you would consider one of the top, top swimming programs. But the camaraderie with the team, that feeling of being at home on the campus ...."
So Notre Dame found itself with an Olympic swimmer in its ranks, but injuries had already robbed Bouwer of a shot at competing in the 2000 U.S. Trials, and they would plague her for the rest of her swimming career. Bouwer earned monograms as a member of Notre Dame's BIG EAST championship teams in 2001 and 2002, helping the Irish to a 19th-place finish in the '02 NCAA championships. She was recognized as a BIG EAST Academic All-Star in 2002. But she missed her final two seasons with injuries, serving as a student-coach as a senior.
It was a college swimming career that many swimmers would have been proud of, but hardly what Bouwer would have envisioned when she was dreaming - and achieving - big dreams as a youngster.
"My swimming career at Notre Dame was very different," she explains. "I wasn't the best, and I was so used to being the best. That puts a whole new spin on how you view yourself, and you just don't have a lot of perspective.
"I learned a lot being on that Notre Dame team," says Bouwer. "Thank God there were some wonderful people that loved me and embraced me - I owe a lot to some of those swimmers.
"Notre Dame was a real transformation for me," she offers. "I learned that life was not all about swimming, that it was about friendships and education, and I tried my best to take advantage of every opportunity and be absorbed by the culture. Bouwer also is grateful to her parents, who not only made great sacrifices to allow her to make the commitment necessary to become a world class swimmer, but also didn't wait for disappointment and injury to appear to begin teaching their daughter about life after swimming.
Her father told Bouwer that she could be a world-class athlete for a short time, but that she could be a world-class person for a lifetime. "My dad was telling me that long before I understood what it meant,"says Bouwer.. "Maybe he was telling me that to keep me grounded, and he told me that again when my career was coming to an end. "Many of us have a difficult time finding ourselves after we're done competing - finding out who we are outside of that can be difficult," she says.
With the passage of time and the help of teammates, parents and friends, Bouwer found herself.
"You can stay disappointed or you can move on," says Bouwer. "I wasn't going to let the Olympics define me."
Bouwer parlayed a summer internship with KPMG into a full-time position following her graduation from Notre Dame. She was hoping for something in Charlotte, where she had attended high school, but wound up instead in Chicago, where she performed technology audits.
She also met a co-worker, Jason Bouwer, at a kickball game in Grant Park. After a couple months they began dating and then married.
Today, Bouwer is retired from the business world - at least for now - staying home with the couple's infant daughter, Juliette.
"Being a stay-at-home mom is not very glamorous, and not quite where I thought I'd be," she admits. "But I look at my life and think, `Wow, God must have really had a plan for me. If it weren't for all of the injuries and disappointment in swimming, my life might have taken a different path, and I really doubt I'd be where I am right now.
"And I wouldn't trade that for a hundred gold medals."
Bouwer spends most of her days at parks and zoos with Juliette, who apparently has the energy level of a world-class athlete.
"I hope people understand that even though I don't like to look back, I really do appreciate my swimming career," she says. "I learned a lot of lessons and it's opened a lot of doors for me.
"I've tried very hard to be aware of all the blessings in my life," says Bouwer. "And hopefully, I can be that world-class person someday, or at least somebody my daughter can look up to."