By the time he graduates next spring, 22-year-old Missouri State swimmer Uvis Kalnins will be a two-time Olympian, a four-year Division I athlete and, likely, one of the highest-ranking students in his class.
Kalnins traveled more than 4,700 miles from his home of Valmiera, Latvia to attend Missouri State in Springfield, Mo. But distance wasn’t the only thing that made his small European country seem worlds apart from the town known as the birthplace of Route 66.
As a freshman, Kalnins faced complete cultural immersion — he had a new language to learn and even the swimming seemed different in the U.S.
In Latvia, “the swim community is pretty small,” Kalnins said, noting that he is one of two swimmers competing for this year’s Latvian Olympic team. His coach at Missouri State, Dave Collins, was recently chosen to coach Kalnins and his teammate in Rio.
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Because of that small community, “swimming was more about the individual” for Kalnins, said Collins. “Here, he learns to be a part of a team.”
Collins recalled Kalnins’s first meet swimming for MSU.
“He was more nervous for that race than he was in the Olympics,” Collins said.
Just before his freshman year with the Bears, Kalnins competed in the 2012 London Games. At age 18, he swam in a freestyle heat just a few lanes away from Michael Phelps. But it was his first meet at Missouri State that truly gave him butterflies. He didn’t want to let his team down.
Simply being on the swim team, however, gave Kalnins a tight group of friends. Being on a team, “you get exposed to a lot more,” Collins said. This is especially helpful for international students, whose arrival from another country only complicates the already huge transition into college.
“About one-fourth of the team is international,” Collins said, and for him, the exchange goes both ways. “Just as (Kalnins) learned cultural things about the U.S., we can learn cultural things from him.”
Missouri State paired Kalnins with three roommates during his freshman year — two Americans and one Colombian. They’ve all lived together ever since.
“We went to the lake, and they brought me home for Thanksgiving and holidays,” Kalnins said. “It’s been fun.”
There’s been plenty of hard work, though, too.
Kalnins holds a 3.8 grade-point average as an international business major — a GPA Collins praised, noting that “most students, let alone student-athletes, can’t get that.”
Back home, Kalnins said, “college is different. Athletics and academics are separate. People will play club sports in college, but there’s not really an opportunity to play competitive sports” while working toward a college degree.
A college schoolday in Latvia unfolds similarly to those in many U.S. elementary schools. Students are required to be present in classrooms for uninterrupted portions of the day, making it very difficult to also focus on athletics.
When Kalnins started contacting colleges in the U.S., he ran into a roadblock faced by a lot of foreign student-athletes applying for spots at American schools: He wasn’t able to visit and try out in person.
For many colleges, that’s a deal-breaker. But after delving into the Latvian teenager’s swimming experience, awards and times, Missouri State offered him a scholarship and spot on the team.
“MSU was the best fit,” Kalnins said, and since his arrival, he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity he sought out nearly five years ago.
“He really embodies the ‘student-athlete,’ ” Collins said. “He shows his determination in everything.”
That determination often finds Kalnins in the pool, where he trains every day.
“I think I’m more excited about going (to the Olympics) for the second time,” he said. “I have more of a set goal what I want to accomplish rather than just participating.”
“Goal number one was getting there,” Collins added. “You want to go and enjoy the experience, because this is something that is a dream for about every athlete in every sport that the Olympics is offered for.”
At the London Olympics, Kalnins placed 30th out of 56 swimmers in the 100-meter freestyle prelims, finishing less than a second away from the top 16.
This year, both coach and student-athlete are hoping Kalnins might make a second swim, “which would be great for him, great for Latvia and great for our program as well,” Collins said.