Kelly (O'Donnell) Warren's home in Gold Canyon, Ariz. is a long way from the Maxcy Hall pool, where she created so many exciting moments as four-year swimmer for SUNY Potsdam. This Saturday, Warren will make the trek across the country to be inducted into the Bears Hall of Fame.
Warren was born in Arizona and started swimming in grade school. Her family moved to Hauppauge, N.Y. when she was 12 and she attended high school there. That's where Potsdam Swimming Coach Ken McLaughlin noticed her.
“Kelly was a very hard worker and an aggressive racer,” said McLaughlin. “She was especially gifted in the breaststroke.”
On McLaughlin's invitation, Warren drove up to Potsdam to investigate the school.
“He (McLaughlin) gave us an orientation and I liked it,” Warren said. “It was a smaller college in a small town atmosphere and I was kind of shy. The swimming program sounded good and I wasn't really up for Division I or II so I decided that I wanted to do Division III.”
Warren started her Potsdam career strong and consistently got better. As a freshman at the SUNYAC championships in 1989, she was a member of the winning 200 freestyle relay team with a then school record time of 1:43.6. The following season, she won her first solo SUNYAC Championship in the 500 freestyle.
Warren enjoyed her time at Potsdam and had a lot of fun with her teammates.
“What I enjoyed most about swimming at Potsdam was our winter trips to Florida,” said Warren. “We trained in Sarasota and Boca Raton and the whole team took the van down. That was a lot of fun and a really good team building experience.”
She also had the chance to room with some of her teammates and cement friendships that are still strong today.
“We had a suite. A bunch of us swimmers lived together,” Warren said. “There are two really good friends that I still keep in touch with even though they live in New York and I'm in Arizona.”
Her final two seasons with the Bears were even more successful, but remained very challenging. During her junior season, Warren broke her hand in a freak mishap, but continued to swim through it.
“I was coming up to the wall and my middle finger hit it and cracked the middle bone in my hand,” said Warren. “My coach (former coach Sean McNamee) taped it up pretty good and I swam on it a little bit more. I didn't go to the hospital until the next day. It was pretty painful.”
Warren believes the injury may have prevented her from qualifying for nationals, but she recovered well enough to excel at the conference championships. At SUNYAC's she captured the 200 and 1650 freestyle titles. The following season, Warren closed out her Potsdam career in style at the SUNYAC Championships, which were held in Maxcy Hall. As a senior, she won the 200 breaststroke with a then school, pool and conference record time of 2:33.24. Warren still holds the Bears records in the 1,000 (11:04.7) and 500 (5:19.2) freestyle events.
After graduating from Potsdam in 1993 with an English degree and an elementary teacher's certificate, Warren earned a master's degree in special education from Dowling College on Long Island. She spent the next eight years teaching at schools in New York, Oklahoma, and Texas. While in Moore, Okla., Warren coached high school and club swimming teams.
She married her husband Jerry 11 years ago and moved back to Arizona in 2003.
“All my family has relocated back to Arizona, so that's where I wanted to be,” said Warren who appreciates the southwestern weather. “It's warm and dry. It's beautiful and the sun is always out. Even when it's not hot, it's always bright.”
Currently, Warren and Jerry own and operate four Waffle House franchises in East Phoenix. She manages one of the restaurants herself and handles most of the hiring and training of employees as well as the business's marketing.
Warren doesn't get in the pool as much as she used to, but she's still a serious athlete.
“In February I ran my first full marathon,” Warren said. “I finished it and I ran the whole way. I'm pretty proud of that. I also play a lot tennis in adult leagues.”
She does swim when she can fit it into her busy schedule and hopes to return to coaching.
“I would love to coach swimming again,” said Warren. “I really enjoyed that. I'm hoping at some point to be freed up to do something like that again, but right now it's work, work, work.”
Warren was pleased to learn of her selection to the Hall of Fame, but wasn't expecting the honor.
“I'm pretty excited. I was very surprised, because I know there were a lot of good swimmers that came out of Potsdam,” Warren said. “There were a lot of good swimmers when I was there. I was really honored by it.”
Warren admits her achievements were due to her drive to succeed as much as her ability and that's what makes her a Hall of Famer.
“My coaches over the years would say that it didn't really come natural to me, but I think I always worked really hard. I work hard and stay at it. I'm very consistent.”