Nathaniel Cunnan's time at Penn is coming to a close, and he's planning to go out with a splash with an appearance at the Olympic Trials this summer.
The Penn men's swimming senior has been spending his time in the water since he was a toddler and started just like almost everyone else, not as a prodigy, but to learn a survival skill. He found his passion when he began club swimming, which he continued for a decade.
“I used to live in SoCal which is pretty close to the beach,” Cunnan said. “My parents wanted me to know how to swim and signed me up for lessons when I was four years old. When I was eight, I moved to Northern California, joined another team, and kept swimming.”
Cunnan’s childhood was one of discipline and sacrifice as he trained. However, he believes it served as a foundation for his success in his collegiate years.
“It’s crazy when you’re younger, you go to a swim meet every weekend,” Cunnan said. “Friends say come to my birthday party, and with no hesitation, I’d shoot back, ‘can’t because of my swim meet.’ It’s not all bad though, you get into a routine; wake up, practice, school, practice, do your work, then pass out.”
Cunnan’s talent began to show in his adolescence but he had a tough decision to make. Like other polished athletes, Cunnan found success in other sports.
“For years up until freshman year of high school, I played everything; swimming, baseball, basketball, even fencing,” Cunnan said. "I just like trying out everything, but I settled into swimming at the end of middle school. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can see myself swimming the rest of my life.’”
Throughout this journey, however, Cunnan was never pressured, only encouraged. In fact, he feels as though he owes his success to this.
“I think definitely if I wanted to quit, my parents would let me quit,” Cunnan said. “They might be the most supportive parents. They always drove him to swim meets and supported me in my efforts. It only helped that I really, really liked swimming. Something you figure out in college is that your parents aren’t there anymore. You have to do it for yourself because there’s no one stopping you from quitting because at Penn, there’s no scholarship. If you quit, oh well.”
It was in high school that Cunnan found his stride.
“High school swimming is fun because club is year-round,” Cunnan said. There’s a big meet at the end of summer, in August, and those were my biggest accomplishments. I remember I was trying to make the cut for Junior Nationals. I looked at the scoreboard and made the cut by a tenth of a second. Everyone was freaking out, my coach was jumping up and down. I’ll never forget that, those moments are why I swim.”
After all his high school accolades, it was time to make one of the toughest decisions.
“I took a recruiting trip to Penn senior year,” Cunnan said. “I really liked walking around the campus, the architecture, but especially the team culture. The best way to describe the guys here is balanced. We epitomize ‘work hard, play hard.’ I saw guys swimming at practice and I totally saw myself. I was talking to one of the coaches here a lot, he wanted me to do two things, ‘pick up the sprint group and have fun.’
From that point on, Cunnan was set to accomplish those two things, but he faced a special kind of adversity freshman year.
“Freshman year was different,” Cunnan said. “All of a sudden, you’re not at home, no one’s making you dinner, classes are a lot tougher, training seems impossible. With the help of other guys though, I feel like I adjusted pretty well.”
His records reflected this. Cunnan qualified for Ivy League Championships in the 200-yard free, 50 free, 100 free, 200 medley relay, 200 free relay, and 400 free relay.
“Going to Ivies is exhilarating, especially as a freshman,” Cunnan said. “We were lucky to have a really strong upperclassmen group, really fast, blowing other teams out of the water. It’s electrifying to be around that kind of energy.”
In his junior season, Cunnan won the 50-yard free, 100 free, and 200 free at the Miami Invitational and won the 50 free against Villanova and Harvard.
“The Miami Invitational was funny because we were by and far the fastest team there,” Cunnan said. “We couldn’t go to other invitationals since they were during our finals week, so we left it all on the water at Miami. The dual meets were special because they were rewarding wins. That’s where we learned to get gritty. They were back to back so we swam in the middle of training, we lifted the day before and practiced three hours the day of. Right after that were Olympic Trials and that grind definitely helped.”
As a junior, Cunnan qualified for the Olympic Trials. He will compete in the first week of June as a graduate.
“It was crazy,” Cunnan said. “It was a time trial at the end of Ivies, and winners had the option to stay on Sunday and try to get their cut. Olympic size pools are completely different from meters, [they’re] way harder. It was only me and three other guys from Penn swim. There were guys from other colleges but I was really hyped up to compete against my friends. The next thing I know, I swam the 50 free in 23 seconds. I looked at the scoreboard, jumped up and down, arms waving, and we all got out of the pool and gave each other bear hugs. Definitely the best moment of my life.”
Not only did the pandemic suspend the Olympic Trials but also Cunnan's senior season. Currently, Cunnan spends his time with housemates off-campus and makes daily trips to the West Philadelphia YMCA for laps.
“Goals for the rest of the season are pretty shot,” Cunnan said. “I’m excited for Olympic Trials and I’m training for that daily, but there aren’t any meets. Fortunately, they’ve allowed the swim team to train at Pottruck starting Feb. 1. It’ll feel great to train with the whole team again.”
As for Cunnan personally, because all athletes in the NCAA were granted a free year of eligibility, he plans to swim for UC San Diego as a graduate student. He still plans to talk to his Penn teammates and have a grand get-together once a year.
Wherever his talents take him, Cunnan plans to swim for the rest of his life because, in his words, it's what he knows best.