When Michael Hamann got out of the pool, he knew something was wrong.
It was January earlier this year, and Penn swimming was competing at home against Delaware. For most of the Red and Blue, it was a routine meet — for Hamann, it was anything but.
“At the end of the 100 [butter]fly, my whole body was just numb,” he said.
Then a sophomore, Hamann persevered and swam in a relay later that meet — a relay that his team would win. But it was clear that something was wrong, and immediately after the meet, he was forced to consult with a doctor.
The news wasn’t good.
“They determined that I have an underdeveloped ventricle in my heart,” Hamann said. “Basically, my heart pumps 80 to 85 percent of the blood of an average human.”
For the past 15 years of his life, he had competed as a swimmer, and competed at a high level. As a senior in high school, he finished fourth in the Illinois state championships in the 200-yard individual medley.
Fast forward only two years, and he found himself staring down a totally different reality. He would never swim competitively again.
It’s a unique situation that raises an interesting question: What happens when you take the swimmer out of the pool? In Hamann’s case, the answer was obvious.
“When I found out, I was bummed,” he said. “But I knew that I would have a place to still be involved in the sport.”
“We knew that we would find a role for him,” coach Mike Schnur said. “And we knew that, no matter what, he would help the team.”
Confronted with one of the most difficult transitions of his life, Hamann turned to the program that had already been the object of his devotion throughout his collegiate career. Heading into his junior season, Hamann is now an official team manager and less-than-official assistant coach.
Of course, those titles leave quite a bit of room for interpretation as to what he actually does for the team. But to hear Hamann say it himself, it’s pretty simple.
“You’re taking down splits, yelling out times to people, helping motivate people,” he said. “I like to get the guys going. I like to get rowdy ...
“I get goosebumps when someone does something great in practice. It provides the same thrill of the competition.”
“He’s excitable,” Schnur said with a grin. “He loves this team, and he wants to get everybody fired up every day.”
And as it turns out, Hamann’s enthusiastic exploits on deck very well may be preparing him for his post-graduate future. A Wharton School student, Hamann has considered foregoing more traditional career paths in the business field to remain involved with swimming — and coaching specifically — in a professional capacity.
“Swimming has been such an important part of my life, I don’t think it’ll ever leave,” he said.
Over time, Hamann has worked to earn the respect of the current roster of swimmers, both on the men’s and women’s sides. However, despite his new position within the program, much of the dynamic between Hamann and Penn swimming has remained unchanged.
“Every once in a while, they ask why I can’t come down to the weight room and lift,” Hamann said. “I say that I’m not on the team any more, and they’re like, ‘No, you’re on the team.
“‘You’re one of us.’”
This dynamic is obvious, even from an outsider’s perspective.
After finishing his interview for this story, Hamann proceeded to exchange a couple playful verbal barbs with Schnur. Then, he walked out of Pottruck side-by-side with his friends on the men’s swimming team.
With his teammates.
So it remains to be seen how Hamann progresses within the Penn swimming program and whether or not he pursues coaching as a career after college. But even if he fails to traverse the length of a pool ever again, it doesn’t matter.
Michael Hamann’s heart ended his career as a swimmer, but he will always be a swimmer at heart.
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