There are many different versions of an athlete’s climb to the top. Everyone has a different path. Some are undervalued overachievers, people who are doubted the whole way until there is nothing left to doubt. Others are simply expected to succeed. Nobody is stunned to see them thrive — it is assumed from the start that they are going to make it, that they are going to be elite.
This was the destined path for one Courtney Mykkanen.
“My great-grandfather was an engineering professor here,” Mykkanen said. “So I’m actually a second-generation swimmer because (of) my dad, and now me — and then fourth-generation student.”
Like father like son, or in this case, like father like daughter.
“I started swimming competitively when I was seven years old. I joined the same club team that my dad swam on before he went to college. It’s called Irvine Novaquatics. I’m from Southern California,” she explained. “I did swim a little before that, just like swim lessons, and my dad would take me in the pool.”
Being from Southern California and coming from a strong athletic background, it is a surprise to nobody that Mykkanen picked swimming as her sport of choice.
“I just really liked being around the water. Especially growing up near the beach, I liked going into the ocean and that sort of stuff,” Mykkanen said.
She would go on to swim with Irvine Novaquatics for more than 10 years and never swam for another club. This was the first taste of real competition for Mykkanen.
Another important factor is the relationships she made along the way.
“I made great friends throughout swimming and it just made me want to keep swimming because they say your friendships in swimming last forever,” Mykkanen explained.
One of these friendships is with current Cal teammate Aislinn Light. The two were teammates on Novaquatics from ages eight to 14. Although they did not swim together in high school, Mykkanen and Light managed to stay connected — and this eventually led them to an exciting reunion in Berkeley.
“We actually took the same official trip here,” Light said. “I had already committed and she committed soon after, but it was pretty exciting. We were huge Cal fans when we were little, so it was kind of the dream to go here.”
Both having multiple Cal alumni in their families, it was no surprise to see Mykkanen and Light follow suit.
“I was thrilled she chose Cal,” said John Mykkanen, Courtney’s father. “I consider myself very lucky that I have all three of my kids as swimmers, because if they played soccer I would literally have been a fish out of water. So I’m thrilled that they all love swimming.”
John Mykkanen was a swimmer at Cal himself and competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics, winning a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle event.
“He was 17 when he went to the Olympics. He was super young before he even got to Cal,” Mykannen said. “And his name is out there on the pool deck — on the plaque. It’s really cool swimming in the same pool he did. Being able to look up at his name and his event, it’s pretty cool.”
For Courtney, keeping motivated is cut and dry: Keep your eyes on the prize.
“The goal is Olympic trials,” she said.
Considering that Courtney has already made it to both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic trials, 2020 isn’t far fetched.
To reach the level of success Courtney has so far, it takes more than hard work and determination, however. Nobody can do it alone. A strong support system is key for personal success — and for Courtney, that support comes from her parents.
“I’ll turn to them if I need advice. Anything I need, I know they are always there for me and are going to support my decisions,” she said. “Yes, they will guide me, but they always want me to be able to make my own decisions — whether that’s to come to Cal or what direction I want to go in after I graduate. They will just help support me in any way that I need it.”
Life is a series of ups and downs: highs and lows, good and bad. It’s easy to keep going during the highs, but it’s getting through the lows that is a true testament to your character. It’s also a test of strength not just for you, but your support system as well.
“I think that the most challenging part as a parent, watching your child grow in any sport, is watching your kid go through the hard times,” said Joanna, Courtney’s mother. “There’s going to be be the highs and the lows. Watching them go through that, but knowing that they have to experience that to continue to go forward.”
For Courtney, the lows hit hard and hit fast.
“(The) biggest hurdle I would say for me is being injured, because that is such a test mentally and physically. Really working through that and finding the mental strength to get back into it and also finding ways to get better even when you can’t swim,” she said. “I found other ways that I can work on myself — I always want to find something that will help improve me as a person even if it’s not becoming a better swimmer at that moment, because I physically couldn’t.”
Courtney has dealt with major injuries in each of the past two years. During her sophomore year at Cal, she fell and broke her elbow. A year later, she broke her toe getting out of the pool and needed surgery.
“Only a swimmer would hurt their toe getting out of the pool,” John said.
Overcoming injuries like these is no easy task. A look into the professional sports world will reveal plenty of examples of injuries either ending an athlete’s career, or significantly derailing it. Luckily for Courtney, that wasn’t the case.
“She made it look so easy transitioning from her injury into swimming super well at Pac-12s last year. If you didn’t know, it didn’t even seem like she had an injury by the end of the season last year, the way she bounced back so quickly,” Light said. “She had no complaints throughout the whole entire journey. It’s definitely inspiring to see.”
To become an NCAA Division I swimmer with Olympic potential takes a combination of talent, hard work and confidence.
And Courtney is not short on any of those traits.
When asked what makes Courtney so successful, her mother’s answer is clear.
“Her confidence,” Joanna explained. “Her drive, her dedication to the sport and putting the work in that you need to do to become a high-level athlete.”
When asked to describe Courtney’s work ethic, the response is telling.
“She’s very hardworking,” Light said. “I think her performances kind of show how hard she’s worked in the pool. Some days I train right next to her and she’s constantly pushing me to do my best. I know that every workout that we do, she’s putting in her all.”
When asked if it was a surprise that Courtney has become a Division I swimmer, the response was simple.
“No, it wasn’t a surprise. From the moment she was starting swim lessons you could see there was just God-given talent in her,” John said.
It wasn’t a surprise. With Courtney Mykkanen, there are no surprises — only expectations.
Tom Aizenberg covers women’s swim and dive. Contact him at