As the country prepares for the Rio Olympics later this summer, an unprecedented delegation from Penn fought for places on the United States’ swimming roster.
14 Quakers flew to Omaha, Neb. last week to compete at the U.S. Swimming & Diving Olympic Trials. None of them will be in Rio, but Penn swimming head coach Mike Schnur made it clear that the trip was, on all fronts, an experience to be cherished.
“The Olympic Trials are the nastiest, hardest meet on Planet Earth,” Schnur said. “You have 2 winners and 180 losers in every event. There’s no team scoring. 3rd place is no different than 200th. So it’s really a hardcore experience. And what was so cool was the experience our guys had of walking out of the tunnel onto the blocks and seeing 15,000 people in the stands. That’s something that swimmers don’t really have the opportunity to ever experience. But once every four years they might get to be in a place that has 15,000 indoor screaming swimming fans, so it was really cool to be there.”
And while no members of the Red and Blue ultimately won an opportunity to swim for the Red, White and Blue, some of them certainly made noise in the pool.
One of the Quakers with the highest hopes to qualify for Rio was 2012 graduate and current assistant swimming coach Brendan McHugh. The breaststroke specialist was seeded sixth in the 100m breast, having previously won the U.S. Championship in 2014 in the stroke’s 50m variant.
McHugh had a decent race in the prelims last Monday, finishing seventh with a time of 1:00.46, good enough to take him to the semifinals. In the semis, however, McHugh finished ninth, and he needed to take eighth or better to advance to the final round and potentially qualify for Rio.
Two other Quakers raced in the prelims of the 100m breast, but they didn’t manage to fare as well as McHugh. Rising seniors Wes Thomas and Cole Hurwitz paced 90th and T-95th, respectively, while now-graduate Kyle Yu finished 115th — not good enough for a berth to the semis, but still respectable in a highly competitive national field.
McHugh did make the finals in the 200m breast, although he fell short of an Olympic berth. Also racing in the prelims for the 200 breast were Thomas and rising junior CJ Schaffer. Thomas came in 33rd — remarkably better than his 90th-place finish in the 100 breast — while Schaffer finished close behind him in 48th. Neither made the semis, but were there to watch McHugh have another shot at making the finals.
For Schnur, it wasn’t hard to keep things in perspective after McHugh came up short — if you could even call it that.
“We were disappointed for Brendan when he finished ninth (in the 100), but to come back in the 200 which is not his best event, and finish top eight, that says a lot about his character. And both of us understood, both times, he had no shot at the Olympic team. The guys who made our Olympic team in both breaststrokes, both broke American records. And that made it a whole lot easier to swallow afterwards.”
Also competing last Monday were current Penn students Alex Peterson, Grant Proctor and Mark Andrew. The rising respective junior, senior and sophomore all swam in the 400 IM alongside the greats of American swimming, including 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte. Peterson finished 72nd in the prelims, while Proctor took 82nd place, but the real highlight of the trio came from the underclassman Andrew, who finished 32nd, just six seconds outside of a semifinal berth.
Andrew also put up an impressive showing in the 200 IM with a 23rd-place finish, but the mere notion of an Olympic bid was out of the question, with the two bids in that event going to an 11-time Olympic medalist in Ryan Lochte and the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, Michael Phelps.
“A lot of the goals were to move up, and to pull up your seed mark, and move up where you were ranked,” Schnur explained when asked whether he thought his squad’s goals had been met. “This was a meet that had a pure ranking system, it was the best time you’ve done in the last two and a half years, and there is no way to fake a seed time, it’s all on a computer database. So to go to the meet and improve your seed time, that’s really cool. Taylor Uselis in the mile went from 92nd place to 50th, and that’s a monster improvement. Mark Andrew was 23rd in the 200 IM and that’s terrific, that sets him up in 4 years to be a contender.”
Star swimmer Chris Swanson (‘16), who is the current NCAA champion in the 1650-yard freestyle, sought qualification for the finals in the 1500m free when he raced in the prelims on Saturday, but finished three-and-a-half seconds shy of the mark needed to crack the top eight.
50m free powerhouses Eric Schultz (‘16) and rising senior Rochelle Dong also had a chance to qualify for Rio, but neither could get out of a strong and massive field to make the finals in the event. Coach Schnur, however, was very pleased with Dong’s performance.
“She moved up 50 places, and I think she was the highest finishing Ivy kid in the whole group.”
Also on the women’s side, rising sophomore and 200m butterfly specialist Nancy Hu raced last Wednesday in a strong field. The current Penn record holder in the event ultimately finished 77th.
Looking at the results, Schnur found one particular detail to be a great source of comfort and confidence going forward.
“We were so far ahead of the other Ivy kids who were there, and I think we really took some solace in that. Grant Proctor was ninth at Ivies, and beat nearly all of the guys who beat him at Ivies.”
Schnur and his team will remember the Trials fondly, and with pride.
“It was great fun. We really enjoyed how well our team did, we enjoyed all of our successes, we enjoyed all of our failures, we enjoyed every minute of it.”
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