By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
It is the finals of the 100 yard butterfly. Hundreds of spectators, fans, coaches, officials, and swimmers are packed like sardines into New Trier High School at the Illinois High School State Championships. They are seated all around the pool, 360-degree Coliseum-style, to await two local gladiators to battle. It is a showdown that was anticipated all high school season: Mundelein’s Connor Black versus Loyola’s Andrew Jovanovic.
The crowd hushes before the start. Then, like an eruption of screams and cheers, the swimmers dive in, churn, and race. All eyes are in the middle of the pool. One day earlier in prelims, Black erased one of the most legendary Illinois records ever -- Matt Grevers’ 50 freestyle -- splashing home in an incredible 19.80. On the other hand, Jovanovic would later take down Grevers’ 100 backstroke record, hitting the wall in a lightning-fast 48.25. These two swimmers were two of the fastest high school swimmers in Illinois history, facing off for four lengths of sprint butterfly.
As the race progresses, Black takes the lead. Then, he commands the race. He’s going to win. He’s going to break the state record. He surges ahead. His parents, friends, aunts, uncle, teammates, and almost everyone he knows is cheering him home. When Connor hits the wall, hundreds of eyes immediately look to the scoreboard. There is a second-long pause. The electronic timing takes one second to get the time on the board, as if it, too, couldn’t believe Connor’s performance:
46.71. A new public high school national record.
“I just threw both arms in the air,” Black said about that performance last February. “I hit the wall. There’s that delay before the time is shown on the board. It’s not instantaneous. You touch the wall, everyone looks, everyone sees it a split second before you, then you hear all the screaming, I looked at my parents, then Sethna [Connor’s coach], and people were screaming and pointing at me, smiling, cheering.”
It was a moment that was a long time coming. Long days bussing to neighboring pools because their own high school pool was under renovation. Weeks of preparation leading up to the race meticulously breaking down every stroke of every length of that 100 fly. Reaction drills. Timed turn exercises. All of it culminated in one of the fastest high school 100 fly performances in history.
“That morning, I went a 50 off the wall, I split faster than what I brought it home the day before,” Connor said. “I was feeling it that day.”
Unique Training Philosophies
Fourteen weeks of the year, Connor Black trains high school. It’s an intense, sometimes grueling, oftentimes rewarding experience. He practices under head coach Rahul Sethna, who pushes Connor. Together they are like mad scientists, talking mechanics, counting strokes, analyzing each and every aspect of the 100 fly. When I asked Connor what would be one word to describe him, he said that his high school coach always tells him he’s one thing:
“The week leading up to sectionals and the week leading up to states, we got out the touch pad and the relay start pad, and we worked on reaction time on the start. Sethna got the buzzer out. And we worked on how fast I could do fly off the turn, from the time I touch with my hands to push off with my feet, trying to get that under one second. Every day we got out the electronics.”
He and his high school coach broke down every aspect of the 100 fly, down to the last details. It was a strategy that ultimately paid off:
“My coach is saying, ‘You gotta be under 10.4 for the first 25.’ We broke down the entire race the week before state just to get in my head, and muscle memory, what that should feel like and how fast that should feel like.”
But the real difficulty this season was that Connor and the rest of Mundelein had no pool. Their pool was under construction the majority of the season. Which meant for morning practices and every afternoon, the entire team had to be bussed to other training facilities and YMCAs. They would meet at 5:30am, buss to another pool, train, change, then bus back to their own high school. Then they would repeat the process again that afternoon. Sometimes they wouldn’t get home until 8pm. Connor was routinely doing 15-hour days.
“We got on the bus at 5:30am, we’d have practice. Then we’d get back for school around 7:30am, school starting at 7:45,” Connor said. “Then we’d bus to a local YMCA, it’s just a summertime pool. The pool deck and locker rooms were cold. [Then we'd bus back] and have dryland back at the school."
Interestingly, Connor doesn’t swim tons of butterfly in practice. Especially this year, with such pool time limitations. He’s always loved swimming butterfly at bigger meets, ever since he was a kid. As a 10-year-old, Connor won multiple events at Zones. Since then, it’s been a steady progression getting faster and faster.
By the time Connor first attended the Illinois High School state meet, he was a promising swimmer, but the meet itself was overwhelming. Screaming swimmers. Packed stands. At the Illinois High School state meet, you have to scramble just to get a bleacher seat. Teams are assigned positions to acquire seating. It’s limited. People are running into the stands, saving seats for friends and family. By the beginning of the meet, it’s a packed-house atmosphere. People are practically sitting on top of other people, standing around the pool’s perimeter. It can be intimidating. But four years later, with the veteran experience and being used to that 360-degree screaming audience, Connor was ready.
“Earlier years you definitely get nervous from the intensity of the meet,” Connor said. “It’s completely packed. During the meet, there are so many people in there, when something big happens, any time someone wins, there is so much screaming.”
Connor’s journey was also not possible without the help of his club team, CATS Aquatics. When Connor isn’t training high school or playing water polo (which he’s doing now), he’s training with his age group team. Interestingly, Connor’s coach at CATS is a Russian Olympic gold medalist from the 1990s, Vlad Pyshnenko. Under coach Vlad, it’s a slightly different approach: a little bit more laid-back, a little bit more focused on technique and drills.
Pyshnenko keeps the sport relaxed for Connor while his high school coach keeps it intense. Together, it’s a yin-and-yang balance that has culminated in a national record.
“[With club swimming,] we don’t get there and pump out a ton of yards. It’s definitely laid-back,” Connor said. “It’s up to yourself to really push yourself to get better just from practice because of the way it’s all set up. I like that.”
Next week, Connor and his father, Scott, are heading to the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships. It will be a fun weekend of a slightly different perspective watching from the stands. They aim to cheer for the Stanford Cardinal, where Connor is attending school next year, and perhaps get even more motivated and inspired for Connor’s next chapter. While perusing Pac-12 times, Connor was analyzing where he would place.
“I’ve never been the kind of person to go online and look around and see times. Or even know my own times. To look at college swimming results this year was new to me. Especially with Stanford and going there next year. Looking at Pac 12 results.”
These days, after those phenomenal high school performances, Connor can slightly relax. After a hectic year of Olympic Trials training, then chasing state and national records, Connor will play water polo, another sport in which he excels. Then next autumn he will go to Stanford. There will be more races. There will be more showdowns. He will have the luxury of not bussing to other pools to train. While at Stanford, who knows? At the NCAA level, he may bump into his old rival Jovanovic again (who will attend Grevers’ alma mater Northwestern). He may race the man whose state record he took down, Grevers himself. He may make new rivals to push him along the journey.
But for now, Connor will just enjoy water polo season, and then resuming swimming with his club. While he may be analytical with his own race strategies, Connor enjoys the between-race times as much as the races themselves.
“Swimming is a lot more social than other sports. Baseball, you’re heads out of the water and you’re not wearing a swimming cap, but you don’t talk to people because your coach is watching you. It’s more get down to business in other sports. But in swimming, you’re on intervals and you get rest. I’ve told so many stories over the course of a set. You get little snippets. Talking in swimming is more fun. And you have time in between sets. I love swimming just for coaches I’ve had and people I’ve swam with.”
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.