There’s no other way of putting it — it’s the end of an era.
Penn men’s swimming legend Chris Swanson has one meet left to bear the colors Red and Blue. Before an expected top-10 finish in the NCAA championship mile swim, though, it’s only fitting to take a look at his entire career for the Quakers.
Nine Ivy League individual titles, three Penn and Ivy League records and two All-American honorable mentions — all for one swimmer.
“He’s not just the best swimmer we’ve ever had,” swim coach Mike Schnur — an alum of the program himself — said. “He’s in the top four or five in the history of the Ivy League. He’s certainly the best swimmer in Penn history — no one is even close.”
Swanson has excelled beyond just the Ivy League level, though. He currently stands as the 20th-fastest mile swimmer in American history.
With all the accolades he has earned, it would be easy to assume that Swanson marched into Penn as a freshman five-star recruit with everyone singing his praise.
In reality, though, his story had a much different beginning.
Swanson used swimming in an attempt to get into the best academic institutions in the country, rather than the biggest swimming powerhouses. His top priorities — be recruited by Princeton and Harvard.
Things, however, did not go the way Swanson planned.
“Being the geniuses they are, they said he wasn’t good enough. We disagreed,” Schnur said.
After initial rejection, Swanson decided to turn his attention to the possibility of becoming a member of the Quakers.
“I really liked the kids on Penn’s team,” Swanson said, “and I really liked coach Schnur, so I chose Penn — it was a great fit.”
The soon-to-be star arrived on campus as a mid-level recruit with a ton of potential. Before his arrival, Schnur’s team was slowly developing, but somewhat lacking in real star power. It was the B.C. era — Before Chris. Soon after Swanson’s arrival, though, the development of a star began.
“We immediately recognized that he went out fast in his races, but he couldn’t finish,” Schnur said. “After learning how he trained in high school, I knew why. I swear, it was maybe a month into freshman year — no more than that — we watched him train every day, and we knew he was going to be pretty good.”
Pretty good he was — the freshman broke the Penn records for the 500-, 1000- and 1650-yard freestyle in his rookie season, winning the Ivy League Championship in the mile. The following year, the Floridian proceeded to break all three of his own records, winning two Ivy League Championship races and finishing ninth in the mile at the NCAA Division I Championship meet in the process.
By the time Alex Peterson entered the swim program as a freshman, the then-junior Swanson had already built up somewhat of a hero status among the team’s younger swimmers.
“It’s somewhat dehumanizing to say he’s an icon, but honestly that’s what he’s become in some sense,” Peterson said. “People look at Penn swimming and they know him.”
The now-sophomore distance swimmer sees Swanson not only as an icon, but also as the benchmark for what he should try to reach.
“I can’t express how much he means to the team,” Peterson said. “Being a distance guy like him, he makes practice so easy, because you no longer have to focus on yourself or your performance. All you really need to do is see how close you are to him, and if you’re close, then you’re doing pretty damn well!”
A franchise swimmer of sorts, Swanson now had to deal with the burden of expectation. As his coach explained, though, Swanson’s head was always in the right place and his brain is his greatest asset as an athlete.
“He has great confidence in himself, and he likes to train,” Schnur said. “He has no fear, and he has no off switch. He’s a dream.”
“My job for the last four years has been to figure out how to continually challenge him,” he continued. “I swear, most of what I do is sit at home at night and think about how to torture the boy, how insane we can make a workout. And every time I think he can’t do something, he does it. Then I have to come up with something even more insane, and then he does it again.”
Swanson continued to work tirelessly through his junior and senior years. Now, after winning the 500, 1000 and the 1650 free in his final Ivy League Championships, he finds himself with one final weekend in a Red and Blue cap: NCAAs. After being named an honorable mention All-American for two consecutive years in the 1650, Swanson is looking to seal the real deal and finish in the top-eight.
Despite being in the limelight, Swanson has gladly deflected any attention towards his fellow teammates.
“It’s really cool to see six guys make it to NCAAs this year,” Swanson said. “That’s the most that Penn has ever had by far, and the most of any Ivy, which is great because we haven’t been historically seen as a powerhouse swim program.”
He couldn’t be blamed for taking a moment to speak about his own career. After all, the championship season this year could be more emotional than ever — not just because it is his final championship for Penn, but possibly forever.
“I don’t think I will [keep swimming post-graduation]. It’ll probably take a couple years to get back in the pool and train again, if I’m even going to. I might get in every once in awhile and have some fun, remember the good times I’ve had,” Swanson said.
For now, Swanson has the NCAA championship for Penn and the Olympic Trials as an individual to worry about before retiring from competition altogether. No matter what happens at Nationals, he will certainly be remembered as Penn’s greatest-ever swimmer who has impacted the program for years to come.
“It’s not the points he’s scored,” Schnur said. “It’s not the races he wins. His impact has been to raise the level of practice every single day, and also to raise the expectation level of the other guys.
“It’s not okay to give a medium effort when Chris is in the pool,” Schnur continued. “That’s the legacy that Chris leaves. He’s someone who does his whole life 100 percent. Whether it’s school, or swimming, or his loyalty to his teammates and his friends, everything is 100 percent. And that’s the legacy that he leaves, that he shows everyone else that it’s possible to be a great student, to give everything academically which he always does, and to also be the greatest distance swimmer in the league’s history.
“You can do it all here, and Chris is living proof of that.”
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