By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
A lot can happen in 15 minutes – just ask Connor Jaeger.
That’s the amount of time it usually takes him to swim his favorite and probably his best event – the 1500 freestyle. Once he’s in the water, despite the fact that he has many, many laps ahead of him, his mind is locked on the task at hand: maintaining his pace, keeping his stroke sharp and staying focused.
He knows the rest will take care of itself, and lately, that’s been the case as he’s enjoying his most successful year ever.
Earlier this season, he won the 500 and 1650 NCAA titles, and two weeks ago at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis, he not only won his strongest event to make the U.S. World Championship Team but also won the 400 and 800 freestyles (in a U.S. Open and meet record).
Those results earned him a spot to compete as his first FINA World Championships, which begin Sunday, July 28, in Barcelona, Spain.
It’s a definite step up from last summer when he qualified for the Olympic Team in the 1,500 but came up short in his other events.
He said he made a concerted effort at the beginning of the year to put himself in the best possible position to make the World team in multiple events.
Next up is gaining more experience and becoming more of a threat to medal among the world’s best swimmers.
“This is the biggest (swim) load I’ve ever had at a meet, so I’m definitely excited to see what I can do,” said Jaeger, a senior-to-be at Michigan this fall. “I’ll only have a couple of days off during the meet, but I think that will be good for me because I’ll be involved and competing throughout. I’m just excited to represent my country and represent it well.”
Jaeger’s path to last year’s Olympics – where he finished sixth but swam a strong, controlled race – and next week’s Worlds began with swim lessons as a five-year-old followed by summer swim league a year later. He went year-round at age 8 with the Central Jersey Aquatic Club and has been in the water full-time ever since.
“As a young kid, you try a lot of different sports, but I always liked racing and was good at it, so swimming was a great fit for me,” Jaeger said. “Unlike some swimmers, I also enjoy practicing and training, and when you’re swimming long events like the 1500, you need a lot of aerobic time in the water, so you have to find a way to enjoy it.”
The most interesting part of Jaeger’s success in the distance events over the past 12 months is that he’s still relatively new to them.
It was at the end of his freshman season in 2011when Michigan Head Coach Mike Bottom presented him with the idea of switching from the butterfly events and physically grueling 400 individual medley to the distance freestyles.
Trusting in his mentor, he agreed, altered his training and changed his focus to accommodate his new, longer events.
He already had a strong aerobic base from the IM, but he wondered – could he keep focused in the water for that many laps for that long of a time? The answer was a resounding yes.
“Mike thought I would be more competitive in the 1500 and other distance events, and now, it’s obvious he was right,” said Jaeger, who finished third in the mile and fifth in the 500 free at the 2012 NCAA Championships, less than a year after changing his training.
“Training for years in the 400 individual medley set me up nicely for the distance freestyles, and they are events I really enjoy, especially the 1500. It’s a very calming yet challenging race that suits me.”
Despite his success at 2012 NCAAs, Jaeger said it wasn’t until his second-place finish in the 1500 free at the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte presented by UltraSwim a couple of months later and just over a month before Olympics Trials – that he really started to envision himself as an Olympic contender.
His time in prelims in Charlotte was several seconds faster than in the evening final, so he made it a point moving forward to go as fast if not faster at night as in the morning.
He said he learned a lot of things during his Olympic experience that have already proven valuable and will continue to serve him well later this month in Barcelona.
“It’s really just been a change in focus and knowing that I can compete with the best in the world; the Olympics definitely showed me that,” said Jaeger, who helped lead Michigan to its first team NCAA Championship since 1995 this season.
“I felt so good at Nationals – no nerves, just focused and ready to swim smart and fast. I plan to take that same approach at Worlds. Swim fast in prelims so I can make it to the next round. You can’t take the morning swims for granted because you never know what might happen.”
Another factor playing into his continued success is his attitude about his training and team atmosphere at Michigan. He is incredibly comfortable and motivated to swim and train with Bottom and Josh White, who oversees the distance swimmers, in particular, and sees a very bright future ahead of him – even after he finishes out his eligibility next March and graduates the following December.
“I’m in a very good place, and I’m really excited to come to practice, be with my teammates and improve every day,” Jaeger said. “I still have a ways to go, and I’m still looking toward 2016 in Rio as my ultimate goal, but in the meantime, I’m excited for Barcelona and my final year of college swimming.”