By Michael Gustafson//Correspondent
Eric Knight is perhaps one of the most talented swimmers I’ve ever covered in the sport of swimming. You’ve probably never heard of him. This coming Olympic Trials, you just might.
The SwimMAC Elite swimmer’s time drops have been phenomenal over his short career, and standing at 6 feet, seven inches, he definitely has the body frame to reach (at least) Olympic Trials semi-finals. For someone who started off “real swimming” for the first time in college as a walk-on for George Mason, just qualifying for the Olympic Trials is quite an accomplishment.
Here is Part 1 of our interview with the Virginia native. It’s an underdog story about a swimmer who is navigating a remarkable ascent to the Olympic Trials. And if YOU have a story to share with Trials & Tribulations, please email me at Trials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org.
So tell me about your journey thus far. When did you first start swimming?
Well, I started learning how to swim as a little kid. I was 4. I did the summer league thing. Never did club. Never swam competitively. It was just a fun activity. I didn’t start swimming until college.
Did you swim high school?
Not really. My high school coach would like to tell you yes. I tried out. He said I should go out for the high school team. Then he wouldn’t take me. He said, “Uh, you could dive.” It was that, or get a job. So I dove. I was the worst diver. I was the worst diver the district ever saw. I was terrible. Suddenly, I was a senior, and through some unforeseen circumstances (a few kids left the team) I was able to (swim). So the coach puts me in the 50. I left the diving platform and said, “I’ll be back” ran over to the blocks, raced the 50, in :24 seconds, won the 50, and went back and finished diving. My coach said, “Oh, you can swim.” That was the last dual meet of the season.
So for states, I got put on the relay, and I ended up splitting a 22.1 after zero practices. 22.1 – that got us 4th at states. Not that bad. The summer league coach whom I swam with since I was 15, just for fun, talked to the coach at George Mason where I was going for academic reasons.
You were a walk-on at George Mason, correct?
Well, when I walked into college and met Peter Ward (head coach at George Mason), I was 6-6 and 150 pounds. I was a stick. Zero muscle. Big hands. Big feet. I told him I would work and it’d be fun to see how fast I could be. “I’d like to start lifting weights,” I said. If I had [practice] structure, I would work hard. That was the tipping point to allow him to give me a chance. He gave me that chance. I became the slowest member of the girl’s team immediately. [Laughs] Worked my way up. Took a while to adjust. See, I had never trained. Never went over a 1000 in a day. So the first day at George Mason, the warm up was 7x200s. I was so dead. It was embarrassing.
In the beginning of the year, I went 1:06 in the 100 breaststroke. By the end of freshman year, I was 59.8. My 50 free went from 23-high to 21.6. My 100 free went down to a :48. My 200 breaststroke, I swam for the first time at conferences and that was a 2:12.
So, when you graduated college, what were your times?
Before I do that, I have to explain how I lucked out and made the conference team. Two of our guys were kicked off the team. They got in trouble. That was the only way I made that conference team. That was the catalyst for me to see that type of competition. Then I started training over the summer. By the time I graduated, I ended up 19.84 in the 50. 43.9 in the 100 free. 1:35 in the 200 free. 54.05 in the 100 breast. And 1:59 in the 200 breast.
Wow. I mean – wow. Was this phenomenal time drop a result of just training for the first time?
I am a very competitive person. I don’t like to lose. I was motivated to beat everybody. I don’t know how to describe my motivation. Winning is a great feeling. It’s worth sacrificing a lot. I started lifting weights. I put on 50 pounds of muscle in my time at Mason. I’ve already put on another 10 here [at SwimMAC Carolina]. I’m only getting bigger and faster.
How are your times now?
I’m still dropping a lot of time. I went my best time last weekend in the 50 free, which is a 23.40 (meters). That was without a LZR. I was not rested. I was shaved, but not rested. My 100 free, I went a 51.22 (meters). I haven’t really been training freestyle. I’ve been training breast. The rate of improvement at Mason is matched, if not better, here.
What are your breaststroke times?
1:03.0 and 2:17.0 in the 100 & 200 breaststrokes, respectively. I came to SwimMAC with a 2:21 long course 200 breast and a 1:04 in the 100 breast.
How long have you been at SwimMAC Carolina?
Last May – 2011. I moved the day before Charlotte UltraSwim.
There are more reasons than I would like to be documented, but in short, I wanted to be surrounded by great swimmers. I turned down a lucrative job opportunity that I figure will be there later in life. I’m only going to be this young once. I didn’t want to hang up the goggles without seeing how fast I could be. I haven’t hit a plateau. This was an opportunity, the pieces fit. It was a blessing. I didn’t have the times to make this team, but at that moment, there was a spot. I was happy that David Marsh, head coach of SwimMAC Carolina, gave me a spot on the Elite Team. I think he’d now be happy he gave me a spot, too. I was the right place at the right time.
What is it like going from walk-on to Olympic Trials qualifier?
Well in college, it was from zero to superstar. Our college conference is not a powerhouse whatsoever. There’s no football in our conference. We’ve had three NCAA qualifiers ever on the men’s side. I missed the NCAAs by one spot my senior yearBut here at SwimMAC, I’m at the bottom of the barrel.
I wasn’t good at anything before I found swimming. I was good at video games. [Laughs.] Swimming gives me something to focus on, a barometer and an accurate gauge of success. This is a quantifiable thing I can see how good I can be.
(Photos by Sarah Waple//SwimMAC Carolina)