After I wasn’t cut from the University of Illinois swimming team, like anyone who felt like they got away with something, I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity. I trained like crazy but, between swimming plus-or-minus 15,000 yards a day and weight lifting, it was a 30-hour a week commitment. The one thing that I never got used to was the feeling of being tired and trashed all the time.
Illinois hosted the Big Ten Championship meet my freshman year in March of 1976. After all the hard work, I was curious to see what I could do. My first event was the 500 freestyle, and I dropped my previous best time by 15 seconds. My teammates were stunned and I was thrilled. The second day, I dropped two seconds from my personal best in the 100 butterfly. My event on the third day was the 200 butterfly, and I was stoked. I dropped a full six seconds from my previous best time, and broke the University of Illinois varsity record for the event. I lowered the 200 butterfly record for three more seasons, and managed to hold it for almost 10 years.
Swimming at Illinois was the experience of a lifetime, and not only because I spent most of the time feeling lucky to be there at all. The hard work paid off, though, and I became competitive. I also began swimming some distance freestyle races, including the 500, the 1,000 and the 1,650 freestyle events. Perhaps I should have been a distance freestyler instead of a butterflyer all along; Don Sammons encouraged me to try new events, and with more events I could score more points for the team. By the time I graduated, I had scored more points for U of I Swimming than anyone had since World War II.
One very funny episode happened as I was starting to swim some distance freestyle. My parents made plans to attend a dual meet at the University of Wisconsin, and as I was coordinating arrangements with my folks over the phone, I said, “Don has me trying a new event this week – the 1,000 freestyle. It is right at the beginning of the meet, and I am really excited to see what I can do.” My father was encouraging about it, I’m sure because of my eagerness. The day arrived, and we swam the 1,000. I was pleased with my time and I placed well. A short while later, my dad feigned annoyance at the whole thing, “That was horrible! Don’t ever make me sit through another swim like that again! That was so boring – I haven’t smoked for 15 years, and all I can think of is having a cigarette.” To him, distance swimming was worse than watching grass grow.
I loved being part of a team. My teammates were my closest friends, which makes sense given the amount of time we spent together. Our team always had great captains to help keep us propped up. Guys like Ed Woodbury, Dave Barnes and Rick Wich were first class guys and real role models to the younger swimmers. When I was elected team captain as a senior and, particularly knowing how Ed, Dave and Rick had handled themselves, I was humbled by the responsibility. My teammates voted me as the most valuable swimmer for both my junior and senior seasons, which was an honor that a YMCA walk-on could have never realistically imagined.
Swimmers are pretty unique people. I had teammates who graduated with perfect grade points and double majors, and a couple completed masters degrees within four years. It is no surprise that they continue to be successful, and the University of Illinois is proud to have swimming alumni who are doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and engineers. We even boast an astronaut. NASA’s Joe Tanner flew the Space Shuttle four times and took seven space walks (one time he took seven hours to repair the Hubble Telescope); four of five Tanner brothers swam at Illinois, and the fifth swam at and is now on the faculty at Indiana University. Not too shabby.
My final meet as a member of the Fighting Illini was NCAAs my senior year, 1979. The meet was held at Cleveland State University, and we had a handful of teammates who had made the time standards in individual events and relays. I had dreamed of being an All-American, which meant that you had to score in the top 16 of a given event. I didn’t swim particularly well that day and I fell short of my goal. I placed 18th by a margin that I recall was seven one-hundredths of a second. I remember standing on the pool deck watching the finals of “my” event, and was so frustrated, angry and discouraged that I told myself, “That’s it. I’m done. I worked hard, but now I am hanging it up.” In my disgust, I was fed up enough that it was easier to walk away and move on with my life.