More than a stroke of luck

Underneath freshman Justina Kozan’s friendly and genuine attitude is a voracious swimmer with an appetite for breaking records. Bursting onto Walnut High School’s hall of fame at her first meet, Kozan has already broken five long-standing school records since the start of the swim season.

Kozan started swimming for fun at the age of 6 with the YMCA organization in West Covina. After being encouraged to swim competitively by her parents and coaches, she attended her first official meet a year later for the 200 meter freestyle for Brea Aquatics.

“It was raining on my first meet, and I didn’t want to be there. I got last in my event, and my parents said that they never wanted to go to another swim meet again,” Kozan said. “I told them I wanted to swim because it was really fun.”

After a few more years of pursuing competitive swimming, Kozan set her first record with Brea Aquatics in 2014 for the 100 meter butterfly at the East Blue Red White meet. With a new time of 1:06.68, she swam almost less than a second faster than the 1:06.98 record set in 2012. From there, Kozan held the fastest 11-year-old girl 400 meter individual medley time in the entire nation for the 2014-2015 year. She was also selected to represent Southern California Swimming at the North American Challenge Cup and set multiple team and relay records for Brea Aquatics.

“Many people think I’m going to burn out or something because I got fast at a young age, so I’m probably not going to be fast later. Mentally, it’s really hard on me sometimes,” Kozan said. “I just talk to my parents or really close friends and sometimes coaches; they tell me to stay motivated and ignore those people.”

Kozan attended her first Junior Nationals in the summer of her eighth grade year.

“I was really nervous and felt like I had a lot of pressure on me, so I didn’t do as well. I did really bad in [Junior Nationals] the first time because I was really intimidated by all the fast people around me. I didn’t sleep that much,” Kozan said. “[The second time,] I was a lot more focused.”

Since then, she has attended two more Junior Olympics and the 2018 United States Open in New York. At the 2016 Southern California Junior Olympics in Riverside, Kozan broke a 40-year-old swimming record in the 200 meter freestyle, and in the 2018 Speedo Junior National, Kozan moved up to number five in the all-time rankings for her age group.

“I always thought that I needed to be really confident in myself if I wanted to go fast. I couldn’t doubt myself,” Kozan said. “My coach always tells me that 80 percent [of swimming] is mental and 20 percent is actually physical.”

In the current swim season, Kozan has broken the 2010 100 meter butterfly record, the 1991 100 meter backstroke record and the 2007 200 meter individual medley record in solo races. In free relays, she was part of two record-breaking teams: the 200 meter free relay with junior Alexis Grant, junior Kelly Poon and freshman Sabrina Bennani and the 400 meter free relay with Grant, senior Katelyn Young and Bennani.    

“It was my first high school meet, and I was really surprised when I found out,” Kozan said. “I’ve been at practice and worked hard. I think now, when I go to smaller meets, I’m more confident in myself because I already raced a lot of fast people.”

Kozan practices Monday through Saturday, each day for two and a half hours with an occasional 5 a.m. morning swim.

“I usually envision my race before I actually swim it. I think about my underwaters, turns, dives and what I’m going to go each 50,” Kozan said. “Usually, a week before any of my big meets, I eat healthy, get a lot of sleep and drink lots of water. The night before, I usually stretch a lot and work out, and I make sure that I eat lots of pasta so I have a lot of energy.”

In addition to her parents’ and coaches’ encouragement, Kozan also has the support of her sister, eighth grader Asia Kozan, who practices with her every day.

“We both love each other a lot. She makes me work harder, and she helps me make good decisions — like if I should text someone back,” Kozan said. “I’m looking forward to swimming with her in high school. It’ll be really fun because she’s also a butterfly swimmer like me, so we’re going to be doing the same events. I think we’re going to be a lot closer, and we’ll have more things to talk about because we’re doing stuff together.”

By Haixin Guo, Staff writer
Photo by Tristan Gonzalez