Faith Knelson: A head above water

From her beginnings in British Columbia to her dominance in Nashville, Faith Knelson has become a staple of swimming prowess.
Faith Knelson has become a star in the water for the Vanderbilt Commodores. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Faith Knelson has become a star in the water for the Vanderbilt Commodores. (Hustler Multimedia/Lexie Perez)
Lexie Perez

“Everyday is a gift, and anytime you wake up, it’s another opportunity to do something amazing,” Faith Knelson told The Hustler.

Graciously humble words from an individual that radiates self-efficacy. That individual is none other than Vanderbilt senior Faith Knelson, a Canadian breaststroker who comes off much more grounded than her resume would show. From setting records to winning medals, every time Knelson touches the water, her sights are set on somehow upstaging her fantastic prior performances. 

Although born in Nanaimo, Knelson’s journey started about twenty minutes south in Ladysmith, British Columbia, a small town that currently has a population of 9,334 people. In a country like Canada, where other sports like soccer, lacrosse or basketball may take center stage, Knelson discovered an intense love for swimming around the age of seven. 

“My brother was actually a very talented hockey and baseball player. He won a million medals and trophies, and I’m his younger sister by two years, so I wanted to do the same,” Knelson said. “So, I tried every sport under the sun. I danced competitively for about eight years and I played softball.”

But, the final decision came down to one fateful moment after a softball game in the freezing rain. Coming home, Knelson’s mother put her in the bathtub and the two discussed if Knelson truly wanted to play softball. Knelson stated how much she hated it, her mother then introducing another alternative sport for her daughter – swimming. Knelson agreed, and the rest was history. 

“After the first couple days I was like, ‘I really like this,’ but the coach didn’t like me because I spent all my time underwater and I never came up. I thoroughly enjoyed being in the water,” Knelson explained with a laugh.

However, when she decided to bring her head above water, a simple passion for being in the pool began to blossom into showings of untapped potential. As Knelson got older, training mostly under coach Dusan Toth-Szabo, she dominated within her age group, winning events in freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley. With her victories for the Ladysmith Chemainus Swim Club piling up, Knelson began to draw the attention of coaches from the Canadian junior national team.

At just the age of fourteen, Knelson earned a spot on the junior national team, becoming one of the youngest members of a unit littered with the cream of the crop. Going from a small pool in Ladysmith to a giant pond on the national and international stage was a massive leap, but Knelson remained unfazed.

By the end of 2017, Knelson had performed well in all competitions. In the Canadian Championships, Knelson won the 50m breast, placed second in the 100m and third in the 200m. At the World Junior Swimming Championships in Indianapolis, Ind., she earned a gold medal by being a part of the 4×100 medley team that set the junior world and championship records. In that same competition, Knelson also picked up a pair of silver medals in the 50 and 100 breast. In 2019, she advanced to an even bigger global stage, being a member of the Canadian squad at the Pan American Games in Peru. There Knelson took home the bronze medal in the 100 breast and a silver medal in the 4×100 medley relay. Before even stepping foot in a collegiate pool, Knelson had already faced some of the best future swimmers in the world. 

Yet, any promising young career can have its bumps. Initially, Knelson was training for the 2020 Olympics. That was until the Canadian Olympic Committee paused its operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, relieving Knelson of her duties but devastating her Olympic ambitions.

“I think everyone who trained at the National Training Center in Victoria was heartbroken,” Knelson said. “We all had a good shot at making it and some people were already pre-nominated to the team. So, it was pushed back an entire year. I had to go to college and do my freshman year after already deferring the entire year to focus on the Olympics.”

To make matters worse, her college career didn’t get off to a great start at the University of Arizona in the fall of 2020. Although she posted the Wildcats’ top times in both the 100 and 200 breast in a meet against Grand Canyon, it would be her only collegiate action of her freshman season as she announced in January of 2021 that she had suffered a spinal injury. The injury caused her to take a medical redshirt for the rest of the year, while also causing her to miss the 2021 Canadian Olympic Trials. 

“I struggled a lot mentally. I couldn’t necessarily find a perfect schedule for academics and swimming,” Knelson said in reflection on her first year in college. “My L4 and L5 were herniated. My L5 continued to get worse and I don’t think that benefited my mental capacity by any means.”

Still, through sinking mental struggles, a spinal injury and diminished Olympic aspirations, Knelson would utilize her withdrawal from training and her medical redshirt to recover and emerge brand new. The first step on this newly developed path was to transfer. Knelson decided to take her talents to West End, arriving at Vanderbilt in the spring of 2022. 

A fresh start was just what Knelson needed, and she instantly made an impact as she participated in the final two meets of Vanderbilt’s spring season. She recorded the teams’ best time of the season in the 100 breast against Arkansas-Little Rock while simultaneously setting the school record in the 50 breast with a mark of 28.75. At the SEC Championships, Knelson delivered Vanderbilt its best 200 IM relay time of the season and aided Vanderbilt in posting its second best time of the year in the 200 medley relay. 

Since then, Knelson has been a force in the water for the Commodores. On top of her current standing record in the 50 breast, she also possesses the record for the 100 breast and the program’s best time in the 100 IM. Her name can also be found among the best results for plenty of other events. She participated in the relay team that set Vanderbilt’s record in the 400 medley. She also ranks second all-time in the 200 breast and fourth in the 200 IM.

In this season alone, Knelson has the program’s best performances in the 50 breast, 100 breast and the 100 IM. At the Gamecock Invitational in November, Knelson won the A Final of the 100 breast and the B Final of the 200 IM, continuing a string of impressive showings. Even then, Knelson views herself to be apart of something much bigger than just records and signature times. 

“I think anything is a contribution. A best time, a record, or just showing up and getting off the blocks is a contribution for me or for anyone on the team. As long as you’re doing your part and putting the team above yourself, you’re doing everything in your possible capacity to make a change and progress the program forward,” Knelson said.

Whether it be in the pool or outside of it, Knelson has established herself as a hallmark of the Vanderbilt swimming program. She is more than just a name in the record book or a time in a meet’s results list. In reality, Knelson is a story of glory and resilience at only twenty-two years old. With the SEC Championships around the corner and the 2024 Olympic Trials in May in Montreal, there will be countless chances for her to showcase her talents at the collegiate and international level. 

Nevertheless, as Knelson said, everyday is an opportunity to do something amazing. Be that as it may, she never fails to take advantage of those daily opportunities. From Ladysmith to Victoria, from Tucson, Az. to Nashville, Tenn. and beyond, Knelson embodies the ideal mind, soul and spirit of an exceptional competitor.

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About the Contributors
David Hernandez
David Hernandez, Lead Sports Analyst
David Hernandez (‘26) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in political science and law, history and society with a minor in communication studies. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can find him playing basketball, catching up on his favorite shows and mourning the tragedy that is New York sports. He can be reached at [email protected].
Lexie Perez
Lexie Perez, Graphics Editor
Lexie Perez (‘26) is from Northern Virginia and is majoring in climate studies and human and organizational development and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She enjoys listening to 70s and 80s pop music, doing the daily Wordle and rooting for the Nashville Predators and Cincinnati Bengals. She can be reached at [email protected].
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