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From nearly being cut to Coast Guard Academy, Kolonko finds happiness

Photo provided by Macauley Kolonko

With his New Jersey Institute of Technology red baseball cap and tie, Macauley Kolonko had a blank letter of intent with the Div. I NJIT Highlanders watermark on it. Surrounded by friends, his parents and varsity coach Dan Walter, he was set to swim collegiately.

Kolonko had worked over 10 years for that Div. I swimming scholarship and all it took was a pen to the solid black line to signify his intent to swim at NJIT.

The pen hit the paper, signing his name, and while photographs showed excitement, Kolonko still was a little disappointed.

His did not receive an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.

“That week was a whirlwind. I got denied by the Army, Navy and the Air Force in the same week,” Kolonko said. “I was just happy to be done with the damn process. I started my application for the military academies in March of my junior year.”

Macauley Kolonko swam at four state meets while at Weedsport high school. Now, he has to fight for a place on the conference roster (photo provided by Macauley Kolonko).

Former NJIT head coach Michael Lawson knew that Kolonko was still waiting to hear back from the other military academies. Kolonko had gotten waitlisted for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Being waitlisted at a military academy is not like being waitlisted at a normal college – most of the time, an applicant never gets off the waitlist.

But, the odds were defied on June 1, 2018, when Kolonko got home from school. He was going to take a nap before attending an awards banquet, and then he received an email saying he got into the academy.

“It was like an, ‘Oh s**t’ feeling,” Kolonko said.

The next part would be telling Lawson, who eventually left the program that summer, anyways, that he had to decommit from NJIT. Kolonko said that Lawson was completely understanding of the entire process.

“He understood my situation and he was more than willing to work with me throughout the whole thing knowing that. That was one of the reasons I picked them,” Kolonko said. “You can’t hate a guy like that.”

Once Kolonko was accepted, head coach John Westkott from the Coast Guard Academy went after Kolonko to try to recruit him from the swim team. Westkott said Kolonko “was a guy we just got lucky with.”

“He kind of fell into our laps, which doesn’t say much about me as a recruiter, but he made me a lucky guy,” Westkott said.

Kolonko was going to be a walk-on swimmer to a nationally-ranked Div. III program, something that he was not used to. While swimming at Weedsport high school, Kolonko was the No. 1 swimmer for five years, and one of the best in central New York, winning numerous sectional titles and attending four state meets.

Once a record-breaking 500-yard freestyle swimmer at Weedsport, he was now the seventh-fastest 500 swimmer at the Coast Guard Academy.

Kolonko now wears a uniform everyday, something that is not a “normal college experience.” (photo provided by Macauley Kolonko).

“He had to go from receiving all this attention and recognition to just being an average joe,” Walter said.

But the entire transition process has reminded Kolonko that his swimming ability is not natural. Since the age of 6, Kolonko has had to work hard to earn his keep. When he was 6, Kolonko was almost cut from the Auburn Stingrays – a competitive YMCA swim team in Auburn, New York.

“It made me realize from a young age that I didn’t have that natural knack in me to be good at a sport and be good at swimming,” Kolonko said.

When Kolonko was younger, Walter was also the head coach of the YMCA program at the time. He had seen Kolonko grow from a “small, skinny kid” to now a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy.

Walter said the biggest change in Kolonko was his maturity. Walter was deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army when Kolonko was 11 years old. He returned to the states a year later and the now-12-year-old Kolonko had gained nearly 20 pounds in muscle.

“Often times, adults, make mistakes in that they see the ability of that child play into the sport, whatever it is, and they kind of rule them out at being good at that sport at too young of an age,” Walter said. “Mac stuck with it … It was really remarkable to watch [his confidence grow].”

Kolonko also had to work his way onto the conference swim team roster while at the Coast Guard Academy during his first season. While Westkott knew that Kolonko would be swimming at the conference meet in November, Kolonko said it was one of the best feelings when he was given the notice he would be attending the championship meet.

“I remember the day, very distinctly, that he pulled off all the kids that weren’t going to NEWMACs to do a separate practice,” Kolonko said. “I was almost dumbfounded by it. I was so happy.”

While Kolonko has set his own goals for successful while at the academy, Walter has his own hopes and dreams for Kolonko as does Westkott. The latter’s goals do not even involve the athletic ability of Kolonko.

“The big thing for us is making sure they graduate. We feel like we fail the kid if they don’t walk in four years,” Westkott said. “I think Mac’s got a pretty bright future.”

Even though he could have gone to a “normal school,” Kolonko said he has no regrets attending a military academy. While there are moments that he can still be a normal student – such as weekend trips to New York City or going out to dinner with friends – there are other moments that only a military academy cadet experience.

“Waking up at 6:20 every morning to get in formation?” Kolonko said. “Not a regular college experience.”

“Every time I think about it, I’m happy I went here.”

-Macauley Kolonko, U.S. Coast Guard Academy

After four years at the Coast Guard Academy, Kolonko will have a guaranteed job in the United States Coast Guard for at least five years, but he is taking every moment with a grain of salt. All the opportunities he is going to receive – which include sailing around the Caribbean this summer as a part of his training – he considers a blessing.

“It’s a really cool thing to be doing and I’m going to view it as such,” Kolonko said.  “Every time I think about it, I’m happy I went here.”

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