German-born, Tuscaloosa-forged: Freshman swimmer returns to AlabamaBy Ben Boynton | 09/14/2017 11:07am
Alabama freshman Leonie Kullmann was born in Dresden, Germany in August of 1999. She grew up like any other German girl would, attending a German elementary school, speaking German, and using the metric system. However, that all changed when her father got a job at the Mercedes-Benz plant located in Vance, Alabama, just outside of Tuscaloosa.
Kullmann would return to Germany after a few years, but her experience in Alabama would prove instrumental in shaping her life and paved the way for her eventual return.
“It was really kind of a culture shock, because I was used to a German elementary school and then I came here and went to Holy Spirit Catholic School which was a private Catholic school and was very different,” Kullmann said. “I made so many friends and had so many great experiences. It’s part of my life now and I don’t regret anything.”
In 2009, a 10-year old Leonie began swimming for the Crimson Tide Aquatics club. She knew how to swim, but had never done so competitively. She developed into a strong swimmer during her three years with the club, at the same time learning English and getting accustomed to the United States.
Just when Kullmann was really starting to feel settled in, her family moved back to Germany in 2011.
“Three years is not that long, but for a small child it was like almost half my life. I got used to life here, I was part of life here, and then I got back and it was different. I was back in the German system.”
In Germany, Kullmann continued her newfound love of the pool and continued swimming for Alexander Römisch at SG Neukölln in Berlin. She started to represent her country at an international level, earning a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle and a bronze in the 200-meter freestyle at the 2015 European Games.
The next year was Kullmann’s biggest accomplishment, yet, she found herself representing her country on the world’s biggest stage. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Kullmann was part of the German team in the 800-meter freestyle relay. Kullmann and her countrywomen did not advance past the heat stage, but it was the highlight of the young swimmer’s career.
“Competing at the Olympics is just something every athlete is looking to do or dreams about, so it was an amazing experience,” Kullmann said.
After finishing high school, Kullmann decided to come back to the United States for college. She was torn between returning to Tuscaloosa, where she’d already lived and was thus more familiar with, and wanting to go somewhere new. Ultimately, she decided upon The University of Alabama. She practices in the same Alabama Aquatic Center and Don Gambril Olympic Pool that she trained in during her first stint in Tuscaloosa.
Kullmann is one of five international freshmen on the women’s team, and coach Dennis Pursley said she has an advantage with her familiarity to the area.
“At some point during the course of their freshman year, [international freshmen] adjust and adapt and get comfortable in the new environment and culture," Pursley said. "In Leonie’s case, the process is really a lot less challenging for her because she is in a sense returning home. She lived here for a number of years; it’s not as much of an unknown to her. She knows the culture and what to expect. That is a plus for her.”
Kullman’s first meet with Alabama is this Friday at Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi. It won’t just be her first dual meet , but it will also be the first of its kind she’s even seen. For a freshman new to not only the team but to the style of competition, having that Olympic experience can go a long way towards helping them find a comfort level.
“It can be a very intimidating experience for freshmen coming on board. In the case of the international swimmers, they’re not only away from home but they’re in a different culture with a different language,” Pursley said. “If you’re an Olympian, you’ve been in the world spotlight, and a lot of these other things that may be somewhat intimidating to someone that’s never competed at that level before are not going to impact a competitor that has had that experience.”
Kullmann is listed on the official roster as medley and freestyle swimmer, but said she’s likely going to be more focused on freestyle events. She said the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 500-meter freestyle are all events she could be competing in.
She’s not trying to do anything crazier than fit in during her first year. Kullman is dedicated to getting comfortable with her new team and getting used to living in Tuscaloosa for a second time.
“I just kind of want to get to know everything. I want to be a part of it, which I already am,” Kullman said. “The team is amazing, and I’m really looking forward to all the meets.”