Undimmed fire fuels Team USA kickboxer
Chasing her Olympic goal, KU alumna Meryl Swidler gets a kick out of proving doubters wrong.
Not long after she qualified for the U.S. national kickboxing team, thanks to taking gold in her division at the 2023 national tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, Meryl Swidler found herself thinking back to the origin of her martial arts career: a classmate’s snotty snub when she was only 5 years old.
“I was already in ballet and tap, and I was super into learning how to dance and do gymnastics, things like that,” Swidler, d’19, recalls from her home in the Chicago suburb of Gilberts, Illinois. “Even then, I loved being in the athletic world.”
When she happened to give voice to the stray thought that she might like to try karate, a boy pushed exactly the right button to motivate Swidler to take the first steps toward becoming a national champion.
“That boy told me I couldn’t do karate because I’m a girl,” Swidler says with equal parts glee and pride. “So I came home and told my parents about it, and they’re like, ‘Do you even know what karate is?’ I said, ‘It’s when you punch and kick bad people,’ and they were like, ‘All right, that’s a good enough response for a 5-year-old.’”
Swidler discovered in martial arts a hierarchical, goal-oriented combat sport that provided appealing rewards to keep sweating and striving for improvement.
“Karate, at such a young age, builds a strong-minded person,” she says. “It builds confidence, it teaches so much self-discipline, and you have to learn how to really focus. With the belt testing, where you work your way up the system, it gives you something to work toward every couple of months, and I learned from the time that I was 5, all the way through my childhood and into my adult years, that I have a very high goal-oriented drive.”
Swidler has trained in the same gym since she began in karate, studying what she describes as a street-fighting variation on the Shotokan style of karate. The aggressive training led her toward kickboxing, which Swidler took up when she was 14.
Although she continued to work her way through karate, earning her third-degree black belt at 21, Swidler grew tired of the performative side of martial arts. She preferred kickboxing’s clear rules for scoring and winning: “I didn’t want any more participation trophies for showing up. I wanted to be a dominant winner.”
The Chicagoland native made her way to KU thanks to her father, Scott, f’91. While away from her home gym, she trained with Lawrence coach Daniel Barajas at Animal Kingdom Boxing; Swidler says her kickboxing coach, Rob Zbilski, president of the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations’ Team USA, was continually impressed with her improved boxing skills when she returned during breaks in the school year.
Swidler taught self-defense classes at her sorority—“I’m a big supporter of making sure that women know how to protect themselves, even if it’s just a little bit of knowledge that hopefully they never have to use”—and graduated from the School of Education & Human Sciences with a degree in athletic training.
She now works with a St. Charles, Illinois, chiropractor who specializes in orthopedic and sports medicine injuries, and this fall found herself rehabilitating her own injury: She tore a knee ligament while training with Team USA, which kept her off the U.S. squad for the late-November world championships in Portugal.
Swidler reported in mid-October that knee surgery was a success and that she was eager to get back into training, with an eye toward the 2024 Pan American Games and, should kickboxing gain admittance, perhaps even the 2028 Olympics.
“My coach believes in me, my parents believe in me, and I believe in myself that I’m able to hang at this level,” Swidler says, “and, hopefully, who knows, maybe I am a potential Olympic athlete.”
Swidler concedes that no matter when her kickboxing career comes to a close, she will be grateful for the work ethic and self-confidence she has gained, along with the joy of overcoming doubters.
“This all started because a boy told me I couldn’t do karate, so I had to prove him wrong,” Swidler says with a laugh. “And here we are, 21 years later, and it’s kind of cool. It all came full circle, and now I get to be a badass woman representing our country and traveling around the world.”
Chris Lazzarino, j’86, is associate editor of Kansas Alumni magazine.
Photos courtesy of Meryl Swidler