Photo Courtesy: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
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By David Rieder.
The American team needed an answer in the men’s 1500 free. Connor Jaeger was retired and Jordan Wilimovsky focusing on open water, and in their stead, no one entered in the event at this year’s U.S. Nationals had ever previously broken the 15:00 in the event.
That meant trouble, since it will almost certainly take a sub-15:00 performance to make the 1500 free final at the World Championships next month. And it got no better when the Nationals field set a sluggish pace from the start, almost taking the prospect of a sub-15-minute swim out of the question.
Robert Finke was the leader through much of the middle portion of the race, while top seed True Sweetser was holding steady about three seconds behind. But for Sweetser, all was going according to plan.
“I knew that going into the final, a lot of guys get excited, and they like to go out fast. I wanted to make sure I went out as controlled as I could and make sure that I had a really strong back half, which is my strength,” Sweetser said. “I had a lot of confidence in the training that I put in to make sure that I was going to close the race really strong.”
Robert Finke — Photo Courtesy: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
At the 1200 mark, Sweetser was in fourth place and four seconds behind the leader, Finke. But then, Sweetser started throwing down splits under 30 seconds per 50.
By the 1300, he had moved into second place. On the 27th of 30 laps, he went by Finke, and then he was off to the races.
“I’ve had a couple miles where I closed really hard at the end, and I came up a little short. I wanted to make sure that I was making my move completely and not looking back,” Sweetser said. “My whole body was ringing. My ears were ringing.”
A 28.65 split on the next lap put Sweetser in position where maybe, if he could nail the last 100, he could get under 15:00.
The 15-minute mark was one he had been shooting for since he was 16 years old. He was so anxious to get down that low that after he swam the event at the Short Course World Championships in December, he plugged his time of 14:34.05 (short course meters) into several time converters. He was thrilled to find out that it translated (roughly) to a sub-15-minute performance.
Finally, Tuesday night in Indianapolis, Sweetser went under for real, finishing in 14:59.73. Oh, and he won his first national championship in the process.
“I think it’s probably one of the hardest barriers in the sport to race,” Sweetser said. “My coach, Jeff Kostoff—a Stanford distance swimming legend—he said to me afterwards, ‘My biggest goal in the sport was to be able to sneak under 15 minutes, and you did it right there.’”
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick
Sweetser had been the third-fastest American in the mile in 2016, and he swam in the final of the event at Short Course Worlds, but it hadn’t been a smooth 2017 so far as he wrapped up his freshman year at Stanford. He arrived at the NCAA championships seeded fifth in the 1650 free, but he added five seconds to his entry time and ended up 12th.
The bounce-back was stunning and dramatic—just as Sweetser had intended.
“I made up my mind after the NCAA meet that I wanted to have the best turnaround from NCAAs to this meet of anyone,” he said. “I wanted to go from a pretty low point, one of my worst meets, to have one of my best ones.”
Sweetser wanted to know that going into his mile at Nationals that he had done absolutely everything he could to prepare for that swim.
“There’s a great quote from (three-time Olympic gold medalist) Grant Hackett. He wanted to make sure that when he went behind the blocks for a race, he knew that he had put in more work than anyone else in that heat,” Sweetser said. “I was confident that—I don’t know exactly what other people do—but that I had put in as much work as I could going into that race, and I was ready to rock out.”
In the aftermath, Sweetser was giddy about the opportunity he had earned—a ticket to Budapest and the World Championships—and he couldn’t help but reflect on the people he considered paramount to his success. As he listed them, it was clear his affection and appreciation was genuine.
“I can’t thank my teammates enough, even the ones I trained with at Gator Swim Club, guys I trained with since I was 15 like Ben Lawless and Blake Manganiello and now at Stanford, Liam Egan and James Murphy,” Sweetser said. “Those guys, some of them weren’t here tonight, but being with them every day is just as rewarding as swimming tonight.
After a moment, Sweetser added a word of thanks for the man he considered most responsible for his winning the national title.
“I have to thank Jordan Wilimovsky for not showing up—really appreciate that, very grateful for that,” he said.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here—Sweetser won’t be contenting for any medals of Budapest, and he’ll probably have to drop another chunk of time to even make the final in the 1500 free.
But remember, he’s only 19 years old. With the trajectory he’s on—not to mention his workhorse mentality and an ability to not take himself too seriously—it’s not unreasonable to project Sweetser as the long-term answer for the American men in the longest event in the pool.
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