Lessons learned at the pool carry over into medical career

In college, Ashley Rowatt Karpinos, M.D., was an elite athlete, one of the best NCAA swimmers in the country.

She says the dedication and work ethic she brought to the pool continues to serve her as she seeks an unorthodox combination of specialties in her medical career.

Sure, the uniforms are different—a swimsuit, cap and goggles versus a sterile white coat, blue scrubs and a stethoscope. The environments distinct—an Olympic-sized swimming pool compared to patient clinics and hospital rooms.

But Karpinos has always approached swimming and medicine with the same attitude, ideals and philosophies.

“Successful swimmers and successful physicians both require an ability to be in constant pursuit of self-improvement and in a process of self-renewal,” she said. “I am continually figuring out what I need or want to be better at, and devising a plan to get there.”

Karpinos made history as the first Division III athlete to win the NCAA Woman of the Year award in 2003 for her swimming and academic career at Kenyon College in Ohio. She graduated summa cum laude with a 3.96 grade point average in molecular biology with highest honors.

At Kenyon, she met her husband, Justin Karpinos, also a swimmer. At first, Justin and Ashley were just friends, but over time were drawn to one another.

“I was impressed with how confident she was and how outgoing socially she was,” said Justin, a teacher at University School of Nashville.

While at Kenyon, she won the Robert Bowen Brown Jr. Prize, which recognizes best original research in biology. She was honored with the 2003 Jess Falkenstine Award for outstanding Kenyon scholar-athlete for leadership and integrity.

She moved on to medical school at Vanderbilt University, and recently finished a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics, and currently is doing a VA Quality Scholars Fellowship. She is also enrolled in courses for the Vanderbilt Master of Public Health class of 2013. She wants to be triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Sports Medicine with her MPH.

“You read all these accomplishments, and yet she’s just the girl next door,” said Sandra Moutsios, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Pe­­diatrics and director of Med-Peds Residency Program. “Excellence for her is just a habit. It’s just what she does. She’s a very humble person.”

“I always wanted to refine my stroke technique in the pool, to refine my race strategy, to improve my strength and fitness level, and to really develop my critical thinking skills through science and humanities classes,” she said. “Now, as a doctor at Vanderbilt, I’m in constant pursuit of improving my professional skills.”

Growing up in Louisville, Ky., Karpinos, began swimming competitively at age 7, after she begged her mom to let her swim. Her drive existed from a young age.

When she was 16 and in the 10th grade, that meant participating in the state championships swim meet, then rushing to another part of Kentucky two hours away, to partake in the state science fair—and then heading back again to the swim meet hours later to compete in finals. She won the science fair.

She never stopped swimming, becoming a 13-time NCAA All-American swimmer, and five-time NCAA Division III national champion in college. She gave up competitive swimming upon entering medical school to focus on her career, though she still swims when she has the chance.

“I’ve always liked having a competitive outlet,” she said. “In the water, it’s time alone. It’s just me and swimming. I can recharge for everything else.”

“Everything else” can be quite a lot: she tutored troubled youth, participated in Kenyon Bible studies and played flute in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble. That was on top of her work load and 20-plus hours devoted to the swim team. Always eager to learn and aid people, Karpinos also traveled abroad to Ghana, New Zealand and Peru. She was familiar with travel overseas, having accompanied her father, who was a professor of religion, on several mission trips when she was younger.

From her first days at Vanderbilt, she encouraged her peers to excel as well. One of her best friends, Dorsey Rickard, M.D., who was also a resident in Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, found a sense of ease and inspiration in Karpinos, particularly in the early days of medical school. Karpinos always motivated her to keep going, push on when she thought she couldn’t study any longer.

“She is always willing to do what the moment asks of her,” Rickard said. “She taught me life can be more fun if you’re just willing to go along with things.”

Through it all, she strives to do better, be a better person as well as a life-long learner.

Karpinos participating in the program to perform high school athletic physicals, with Hunters Lane High 11th grader Silvia Waller.

“My coach, Jim Steen, always said ‘learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.’ When I was swimming competitively, that meant something very physical. Pushing my body to its limit is going to be painful in a very real way; learn to embrace that place because it represents an ultimate challenge of myself,” Karpinos said.

“But today, it also means something more figurative. Soon, I’ll be trained in Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, Sports Medicine, Public Health, and Quality Improvement; my challenge now is taking all of these disciplines that I love and using my tools to tie them together in my future career. Now, I’m learning to be comfortable on a career path that is not well-beaten.”



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