When Durango High School senior swimmer Kaitlyn Ashburn opted to choose a non-traditional route for college, she knew it had to be for a good reason. The chance to serve her country and one day help power an aircraft carrier for the United States Navy is how she plans to make the most of her future.
Ashburn signed enlistment papers Dec. 19 and will pursue a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering after she wraps up her career at DHS. In June, she will head to boot camp and will pursue her degree at the Naval Nuclear Power School in Goose Creek, South Carolina.
In the meantime, the self-admitted headstrong Ashburn is eager to achieve her other goal of qualifying for the Colorado High School Activities Association’s Class 3A Girls Swim & Dive Championship meet in February.
Ashburn was initially hesitant when considering the Navy, but after she scored highly on a practice Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, she realized she could put her strong math and science skills to good use.
“When I was younger, I was really into math and engineering, but I didn’t want to build stuff; I wanted to fiddle with hard concepts,” Ashburn said. “So, nuclear power is pretty cool. A lot of the carriers are nuclear powered, so I’ll have a pretty integral role in the Navy. I just wanted to do something out there and not just solve calculus problems for the rest of my life. I was really into making what I was doing turn bigger gears.”
Ashburn, daughter of Russell and Sabrina Ashburn, will be a fourth-generation member of the Navy from her family. Her father did a tour in the Mediterranean and helped work on aviation and electronics for helicopters.
“Traveling was also a big thing that sparked my interest,” Ashburn said. “I knew I wanted to travel, but I’ve always been a really headstrong go-getter, so I didn’t want to walk the streets of Greece for a year and find myself. I knew I wanted to dive into something and still see the world.
“Being a part of something bigger than myself means that I’m not doing what I’m doing solely for the benefit of myself, but to make sure that we get to have the things that we still have and make sure that our country is safe. There are people at home and people aboard the ship that are going to rely on what I’m doing, and that if I don’t show up and don’t give it my all, it’s not just me who’s going to suffer, it’s going to be the greater good.”
In the pool and on the swimming deck, Ashburn has been a constant motivator for a Durango team currently at 38 members, the largest girls team head coach Tom Joyner has had at DHS. The Demons are also the top-ranked team in Class 3A, according to the latest CHSAANow.com poll.
Since joining the team her freshman year after moving from Jacksonville, Florida, Joyner said Ashburn’s times have improved significantly in her three events: the 50-yard freestyle, 100-butterfly and 200 individual medley. Dropping time has helped increase her confidence, which he says has also grown a lot in her final season of competitive swimming.
“I think she came to us a freshman and moved here from Florida and it was challenging for her,” Joyner said. “Her teammates saw what kind of a personality she had and accepted her and were also concerned about her welfare in her freshman year, and when you have that much change, you can be very upset. People reached out, and I think that made a huge difference in the way she sees swimming in her life and DHS swimming in particular.
“I feel that she’s definitely dedicated to the team more so than herself, which is always good to see in a high school athlete. As evidenced by that, she’s ready to serve our country and is ready to lay her life on the line for the rest of us, which is pretty impressive.”
Her competitive edge is heating up just as the Demons enter the championship season, and Joyner said she looked like “a completely different swimmer” in her final home meet at the End of an Era Invite last Saturday.
Ashburn is currently 10 seconds behind the qualifying time in the 50-yard freestyle of 27.50 but said that if she can continue to put in the work, qualifying for state is still very much in the realm of possibilities.
“We have a positive growth mindset on the team always,” Joyner said. “In nine years of coaching, the Sunday after the last 400 freestyle relay is swum at districts is when I know there’s a state qualifier. I’ve had plenty of swimmers qualify at the last minute, and that’s a testament to their hard work and determination and ability to take and accept positive critique. Kaitlyn is always very positive and open to suggestions and tweaks and what’s going to improve her stroke.”
With Ashburn already enlisted in the Navy, she isn’t quite ready to let her season end just yet and is putting everything on the line for one last chance to compete at state.
“I’d love to qualify for state and so far it hasn’t happened,” Ashburn said. “There’s three more weeks before districts, and I believe I can get there. My goal is to leave this season proud. Proud of what I did, knowing that I came here working as hard as I could and working off of the blocks at practice and in meets, going as hard as I can and really just being proud and strong.”