By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
With the build of an outside linebacker, at first glance Josh Schneider looks much more like a football player than freestyle sprinter.
But as we all know, looks can be deceiving, and while he may compete with the rough-and-tumble mentality of a gridiron gladiator (he did play linebacker and wide receiver in high school), Schneider is every bit the consummate swimmer.
And he makes no apologies for it.
“I’m a very physical swimmer, but I haven’t always been,” he said. “When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, I was still 6-4 but I weighed around 190 pounds. Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard in the weight room to get stronger, and that’s resulted in faster times.
“When you swim at the highest levels, you have to give yourself as many advantages as possible, and for me, being very fit and strong are part of that edge.”
But that’s not where it begins and ends for Schneider, one of the top freestyle swimmers in the world over the past few years despite missing making several of the top teams.
Since he finished fourth in the 50 freestyle and missed making the 2012 Olympic Team – a harsh disappointment that stuck with him for quite a while – the University of Cincinnati All-American and NCAA Champion has recommitted himself to the sport.
That dedication includes paying strict attention to his nutrition, giving up drinking alcohol, sleeping and resting his body more and just taking the requirements and responsibilities of being a professional athlete more seriously. He even stopped playing in a volleyball league he’s been a part of for years so that he doesn’t take the chance of injuring himself so close to Trials.
In many ways and for the first time in many years – possibly in his career – Schneider is fully invested in doing everything he can to swim his best and make his first Olympic team this summer.
“I honestly thought I was doing enough to make the Olympic team in 2012, but I didn’t and that was an eye-opening experience for me,” he said. “It truly showed me that I didn’t give enough last time, but that’s not the case this time around.
“After that race, I spent a lot of time analyzing what I could have done differently – technique, body position, stroke pacing, breathing, even facial tension – and I made changes that have made a positive impact. I’m more focused, and I’m really seeing how special it can be when you see how far you can go when you fully invest in something. It gives you a different perspective.”
While some swimmers may have relocated and/or switched coaches after experiencing what Schneider calls the “worst day of his life,” he dug even deeper roots and stayed with his Bearcat coaches.
Prior to 2012 Trials, he had moved to Charlotte to train with the post-grads at SwimMAC but following that meet, he decided his best opportunities to improve and find stability was back with his Cincinnati peeps.
He has since continued to train with the members of the team as there is no established post-graduate-centered program made up of professional-grade athletes.
To him, going home was exactly what he needed.
“Cincy will always be home to me. I have many friends here – some in the sport, some not in the sport – and that keeps me balanced,” Schneider said. “In Charlotte, I was surrounded by other swimmers, so when I needed to get away from the sport for whatever reason, it was difficult.
“Now, I have my friends who aren’t in swimming, and having that break has really been great for me mentally. If I have people around me all the time who are swimmers, I obsess about it, become consumed by it. This has been a good way to recharge my batteries.”
Testament to this came last summer when Schneider swam to gold – his first international medal – in the 50 freestyle at the Pan American Games.
In his view, that race confirmed his decision to return home and made it clear to him that he is on the right path toward achieving his Olympic dream.
“I always felt like I was being immature by continuing to swim and train full-time instead of getting a ‘real’ job, and after 2012 Trials, that question was very prominent in my mind,” he said. “But now that I’m fully invested, I know that this was the right decision – to keep pursuing my dream. Deep in my heart, I always knew this is what I wanted and needed to do.”
And what if he comes up short again this summer in Omaha at the “old age” of 28? Will he give it another four years and come back in 2020 for another – and most likely – last opportunity?
At this point in his training and life, the idea that he might not make the team isn’t something he’s willing to entertain.
Can’t or won’t aren’t part of his mindset.
“After 2012, I put life and swimming into perspective and really thought about what’s important to me; that led me to make the changes that have made my life better,” said Schneider, who believes this year his best shot to make the U.S. Olympic team will be in the 100 freestyle rather than the 50. “Right now, I don’t even want to think about it (the possibility of not making the team). You can’t leave things up to chance – you have to take the necessary steps and preparations to make sure you’re ready to make it happen.
“I live and train these days by the quote from (former Alabama coach) Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant. ‘It’s not the will to win but it’s the will to prepare that matters.’ That’s become my motto for training, and I am confident that will make a difference this year.”