In the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., sits a house divided — half blue, half red, which has nothing to do with the local Georgetown-Maryland rivalry.
No, Kirsten Swanson’s home, as proclaimed by her mother’s custom two-colored hat (worn for none other than the Big Game), is a house divided by the West Coast forces of Cal and Stanford.
Kirsten’s older sisters, Catherine and Nina, both led noteworthy lacrosse careers at Stanford before it was time for Swanson to commit to a university. When Kirsten was still in middle school, her sisters had chosen to move to California, and the idea of the Golden Coast always intrigued her.
In 2015, Kirsten Swanson traveled from her hometown in Washington, D.C., to Palo Alto for a meeting with the Stanford lacrosse program as a prospective player. After Swanson’s recruitment cycle with Stanford, though, she ended up following her sisters’ longtime Cardinal assistant coach, Brooke Eubanks, to the school across the Bay — Cal.
“Our biggest complaint was we had to get all new uniforms,” says Kirsten’s father, Tom Swanson. “Cal was her way of going her own way and finding her own path to whatever the future held for her.”
Swanson, a redshirt sophomore on Cal’s lacrosse team, stepped foot on campus as a freshman, setting aside her identity as the little sister and poised to write her own story as a Cal Bear. Whether it be her leadership on the field or her pursuit of a career in media studies, Berkeley has seen the youngest Swanson bloom.
With two older sisters each competing in basketball, soccer and lacrosse in high school, Swanson spent much of her free time attending sporting events and was exposed to competitive athletics from an early age.
“She was always the kid at basketball games that would drag me out to go and shoot hoops at halftime when she was little,” Tom says.
As the youngest child, she soaked up her sisters’ work ethic and dedication to be the best they could be. Not one to be left behind, Swanson’s drive to compete with them despite the age difference always pushed her abilities to the limit — especially in lacrosse.
“We definitely showed no mercy when it came to playing with us,” Nina says. “I can think of a story where we were playing basketball and she went to shoot and I completely stuffed her.”
Swanson was no stranger to experiences like that because her sisters held her to the standard they would if playing someone their age.
As much as Swanson has been influenced and inspired by her sisters, she’s always exhibited that contrarian spunk characteristic of younger siblings, marching to the beat of her own drum and blazing her own trail.
“She’s a lefty, and … I just remember like when she was a little kid she would always pick up her fork with her left hand and we were like, ‘No, pick it up with your right hand,’ ” Catherine says. “She was just always being her own person, even by the time … she was 2 or 3 years old.”
Even donning the blue and gold rather than the Cardinal red forced her to come into her own without the help of her sisters.
For Swanson, who has previously attended private schools, Cal has been an adventure that in some ways has been entirely different than her sisters’ paths.
“Cal has forced me to mature and grow up in so many ways. … The diversity here, I love the public school experience,” Swanson says.
The lessons she’s learned as a student have proved useful to her as an athlete, also. As the most prolific attacker in the unit this season, Swanson has taken the initiative all year to embody the role of a leader.
Swanson’s impact on the field is felt beyond just her production numbers. As one of the most experienced players on a young offense, she spends many moments each game pulling her fellow attackers aside and talking over adjustments the squad needs to make.
Swanson traces the development of her leadership skills to her senior year of high school, when she was named a captain of her lacrosse team.
“My high school coaches were really big on helping us develop as leaders,” Swanson says. “We had to read a leadership book in the offseason. … We did a lot of leadership prep.”
But in her younger years back home, the D.C. native played more of a backseat role, quite literally.
“On her first recruiting visit to Cal, … she sat down with the coach to interview her and she basically says to the coach, ‘Well, I grew up in the backseat of the car (on the way to her sisters’ games),’ ” Tom says. “She got dragged everywhere.”
Back home, friends and family knew Swanson as quiet, laid-back and more of one to “go with the flow.”
“I kind of loved being the little one in the background. … I wasn’t someone who needed attention by any means,” Swanson says. “I kind of liked how I was the least of their worries for a little bit because they were focused on getting my sisters into college.”
Anybody who watched Swanson on the lacrosse field during this spring’s season, however, would know that there is nothing passive or laid-back about the way she plays.
As the team’s leading scorer, Swanson was all business and a problem for opposing defenses week in and week out. Her playing style is very direct — there’s little lateral movement, and when she’s made up her mind to drive at the goal, not much can stop her.
Standing at 5’8”, on the taller side for her sport, her height and physicality have made her one of the most effective in the Pac-12 Conference at drawing penalty shots.
Interestingly enough, in high school, Swanson’s specialty was not scoring but assisting.
“She’s always been a team player. It’s funny — she led the Washington, D.C. metro area in assists her senior year. … She was more the assist person, but here at Cal she’s had to… become a scorer more because that’s what Brooke needs her to do and the team needs her to do,” Tom says.
Adaptability continues to be a part of Swanson’s game and lifestyle.
Swanson’s pursuits as a student and member of the Cal lacrosse team don’t keep her from excelling in ventures off the field and outside of the classroom.
Last summer, Swanson completed a term at the London School of Economics and Political Science, studying marketing with two of her teammates.
In the summer of 2016, a few months before the presidential election, Swanson completed an internship on Capitol Hill with U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert.
“I would go to exclusive seminars with people like Paul Ryan and people that have really high positions in both the House and the Senate,” Swanson says. “I got a lot of exposure to people that have a lot of power. … I got to see from the inside how our government works.”
Never satisfied, Swanson consistently seeks out new avenues to explore and progress.
“I’m trying to live in New York this summer. That’s the goal,” Swanson says.
Moving across the country and the rigors of being a student-athlete at Cal are plenty to deal with on their own. But during practice late in the fall semester, Swanson began to notice a pain in her knee. No longer able to play through it, Swanson eventually found out weeks after the initial trauma that she had torn her meniscus.
Generally recognized as a challenge and period of adjustment, freshman year came with some particularly troublesome obstacles for Swanson.
“My surgeon wasn’t sure what he was going to do until he was inside doing surgery,” says Swanson. “It could have been a four- to six-week thing and I could have been back early season or it could have been through the summer.”
To her dismay, Swanson suffered the latter outcome and she was redshirted. After surgery, she spent weeks getting around on campus with crutches. On top of attending all her team’s practices and conditioning sessions, she had to work through her own rehabilitation program while dealing with the frustration of watching her team struggle from the sidelines.
“She handled it really well. … She was even fun when she was on crutches,” Nina says. “A lot of people get down on themselves when they are injured, and she stayed positive and was still fun to be around. She worked really hard to come back and have a really big year as a sophomore.”
Swanson handled the recovery gracefully, and her consistently improving performance speaks volumes about her resiliency and diligence. The student-athlete life suits her well, and she traces her walk in part to her siblings’ examples.
“The girls were always competitive,” Tom says. “I used to race them upstairs to bed at night, and Kirsten would make me do it 10 times before I let her win. … It wasn’t hard to stoke that competitive fire in them.”