When Eric Schultz was a senior at La Salle College High School and considering Penn as the place he would spend the next four years swimming, he never dreamed of becoming an Ivy League champion.
“I never thought about personal goals like Ivy League champion,” the senior co-captain of Penn men’s swim team said. “I maybe thought it was something I couldn’t do.”
Even the coaches that recruited him, head coach Mike Schnur and assistant coach Marc Christian, didn’t expect Schultz to become the bona fide star and NCAA qualifier that he is today.
“I knew he would be a good swimmer — we knew how big he was, how strong he was, what kind of technique he has and what kind of limited background he had,” Schnur said. “But I don’t think any of us dreamed he would be a 1:34 200 freestyler coming in.”
In high school, Schultz was a pure sprinter who excelled in the 50-yard freestyle and reached the limits of his endurance in the next shortest college race, the 100 free. Fast forward nearly four years under the watchful eyes (and stopwatches) of Schnur and Christian, and Schultz has become one of the best sprint freestylers in the Ivy League. In addition, Schultz has become a two-time Ivy League Champion with titles in the 50 free in 2014 and the 200 free in 2015, making his dreams a reality.
The path to the top of the Ancient Eight in the mid-distance freestyle events for Schultz was not immediately apparent — both for the coaches and for the North Wales, Pa., native himself.
During his freshman season, Schultz’s training focused more on the shorter events due to his sprint-based background. Although he excelled throughout the regular season training in Christian’s sprint group, he came down with tonsillitis on the eve of the 2013 Ivy League Championships and never got to make the most of the season-ending taper meet.
Due to the changing roster on the team the following season, Christian’s training group became more focused on the mid-distance freestyle events, including the 200 and 500.
“As Marc’s group evolved away from so much sprinting, Eric evolved with that group,” Schnur said. “We realized that in order for Eric to achieve his potential, he couldn’t concentrate on the 50 free.”
The transition for Schultz was gradual though, as races requiring raw speed came more naturally to the then-sophomore. At the 2014 League championships, Schultz won the 50 free — the first time a Penn swimmer would stand atop the podium in that event since World War II. Schultz took second in the 100, but just missed qualifying for the A-final in the 200, finishing ninth.
Schultz’s junior season was one of emergence, as he finally became what Schnur describes as a “complete swimmer.” With two years of Christian’s mid-distance training under his belt, Schultz finally developed the strategic endurance to match his sheer speed – a combination necessary to dominate all eight laps of the 200 free.
“He had the willingness to put in extra work to train more towards the 200,” Christian explained. “And that’s really why he’s developed into a great 200 freestyler.”
Indeed, in 2015, Schultz won his second Ivy title in the 200 free with a time of 1:34.80 and qualified for NCAA Championships with a B-cut time of 43.09 in the 100 free.
Heading into his senior season, it seemed like Schultz had already accomplished almost all he could individually in the sport. He held team records in all three of his individual events and all five relays, had qualified for nationals and won two Ivy titles. All that was left was winning the 100 free at the conference championship meet in February.
Despite his accolades, Schultz would not cease to dream. For his ultimate season swimming for the Red and Blue, he turned his focus away from himself and towards his team. When asked what his personal goal for the Ivy League Championships this weekend was, he responded, “to get the team to come together and accomplish a goal that we set out at the beginning of the year.”
That goal? Finishing higher as a team than Penn has ever before — or at least in recent memory. This year the Quakers are definitely in the mix with perennial powerhouses Princeton and Harvard, and a top-three finish seems inevitable. Taking second would be the team’s highest finish since the 1970-71 season when Penn won the first — and only — team Ivy League title in the program’s 110-year history. While unlikely, a first-place finish for Penn this year would be even more historic.
“Last year was definitely all about NCAAs. He wanted to make it for the first time,” Christian said. “But this year it’s been about getting the team to a place it’s never been. It’s not really even about him.”
Perhaps that is a sign of the kind of leader Schultz is. In practices, he is the swimmer that leans over to the guy swimming behind him on the wall during quick five-second breaks in the set and whispers, “C’mon you’ve got this.” He is the swimmer that gets in his teammates faces and yells at them to “get rowdy,” in sets where Christian asks his training group to test their endurance by sprinting multiple times from the blocks. And he is the swimmer that can give every other kind of encouragement in between those two extremes.
“He always pumps guys up in a set,” Schnur said. “I think that sprint to middle distance group needs that. They do a little more racing, they do a little more quality work. I think they need someone in there to get them a little crazy every day.”
But leaders don’t become great from motivating their teammates through words alone — leaders become great when their actions and their words serve the same end.
“He is more of an actions rather than words guy,” Schnur explained. “He always trains hard, he always gives his best.”
Schultz’s immense work ethic is not lost on Christian either.
“He’s definitely been the key leader in the group in terms of consistency and practice habits and opening up peoples’ mind of what you can do in workout and translating that to competition,” Christian said. “I think when you have a guy that’s really excelled over his four years he can help people connect the dots.”
The dots have certainly connected for Schultz so far this year. In the men’s team’s home season opener against Columbia, the senior broke the longest-standing Sheerr Pool record in the 100 with a time of 44.29. Then, at the Total Performance Invitational at Kenyon College in December, Schultz lowered his own team record in the 100 to a blazing 42.83 seconds — a mark that currently stands as the 12th-fastest in the nation this year.
As Schultz heads into his final Ivy League Championship meet this Thursday, he seems primed not only to match his success from past years, but to build on it. And while the pressure of living up to such high performance expectations may seem daunting, Schultz doesn’t seem to fazed by it. In fact, on race day he won’t even be thinking about it.
“I’ve found in the past that kind of going into a championships and having a time goal or really specific personal goal makes you think a lot makes you get in your head and sometimes that doesn’t bode well for good swimming,” Schultz said. “I kind of let the coaches think for me.”
So when prelims begin on Thursday, when Schultz walks behind the blocks for what will be the beginning of his swan song as a Penn swimmer, there will be no thoughts or expectations. It will just come down to him and the pool and the shot at making what once was an impossible dream a reality.
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