By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
At the conclusion of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Eric Wunderlich knew he was done.
Regardless of the outcomes of his events in his hometown pool, Wunderlich knew the Games would mark the end of his illustrious swimming career. It was time for him to move on, get a job and become what he calls “an upstanding member of society.”
And while somewhat bittersweet – especially after finishing seventh in the 200 breaststroke in Atlanta – when he took his final stroke, he exited the pool with a sense of accomplishment and a trunk full of great memories
“Swimming gave me so much for so many years: great friends, opportunities to see the world, the chance to meet some very interesting people,” Wunderlich said. “I wouldn’t trade a moment of it, but when I decided to step away from the pool, I knew I was ready and it was the right time.”
Now, approaching 20 years since his last swim, Wunderlich, a Michigan alum living in Ohio State Buckeye territory, spends his days driving sons Fletch and Ty to school, practice and sporting events and building a life with wife and former professional tennis player Ann (Grossman).
In between drop offs and pickups, he works as the managing director of sales for Paradigm Management Services in Columbus, Ohio. Because he travels often for his job, those ventures frequently bring back memories of his many trips with teammates in college and as a member of past U.S. National and international swim teams.
And even though he knows he’s not living vicariously through his children and their sports, his younger son has taken after his dad – although his continuation in swimming remains in question at this point.
“Ty is doing swimming right now, but I’m not sure he’ll stick with it,” said Wunderlich, who had just picked up his son from the pool. “He tells me it’s harder than he thought it would be, but it’s nice to see him try it. Swimming meant a great deal to me growing up.” \
In his role at Paradigm, he handles thousands of catastrophic cases – largely brain and/or spinal cord injuries suffered on the job – on behalf of businesses throughout the United States.
His background in sales and event management – previously as the director of rider recruitment for an organization affiliated with Ohio State University that holds an annual cycling event which raises money for cancer research – set him up for success at Paradigm.
“We’re focused on providing the best clinical outcomes for injured workers on behalf of their clients,” Wunderlich said. “We wrap a clinical team around the injured worker, and while it’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen, we provide a wealth of knowledge and experience for our clients to have the best outcome for them and for their injured employees.”
Wunderlich’s first post-collegiate job was with USA Swimming as the coordinator for national events, including working with alumni. From there, he worked in sales for an aluminum manufacturer and distributor in Colorado Springs before relocating with Ann and the boys to Ohio several years ago for her job.
During his swim career, in addition to the 1996 Olympics, he won relay gold medals as a member of two World Championship teams (1991, 1994) – the latter of which revived his career at a time when he wasn’t sure he had the desire to continue training. Motivation eventually came from memories of how he came very close to making the 1992 Olympic team – finishing third in the 200 breast.
He had extra incentive at the 1996 Olympic Trials due to the Games taking place in his own backyard, and once he made the team, new opportunities for local media and appearances to promote the Games and USA Swimming arose.
“I had the chance to do a lot of fun things, like taking Katie Couric (then with The Today Show) on a five-hour tour of the Olympic Village and appear on several local and national shows and in the print media,” said Wunderlich, a communications major at Michigan. “While the entire lead-up to the Games was a great time, the day I swam in the finals, my mind wasn’t in the right place. It just confirmed my decision to retire at the end of the Games.”
While juggling family and work, Wunderlich remains active in the sport with Swim Across America, and despite not having competed in years, he seriously considered working toward making Olympic Trials cuts last year leading up to 2012 Trials.
If he had made the cuts, he would have been the oldest guy to compete at Trials (but not the oldest overall) after resuming training two years prior, but the dream of returning just never materialized.
“I started the process, but the end result just never happened,” said Wunderlich, who says he never regretted his decision to retire at 26 years old – in what some might call the prime of his career – despite having corporate support from a variety of sponsors, including Arena.
“I was bringing in about $37,000 in support and thought I was the richest guy on the planet, but I was really never in it for the money. There were decent enough pay days at World Championships and World Cup events, and things were changing, but it wasn’t enough to keep me in it. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently if I’d had the same support today. It always felt like the right time to step away, and when I did, I knew it was the right decision.”