The Buzz: Peter Vanderkaay's Consistent Journey
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
He had just driven from Florida to Michigan. The 20-hour drive was enough time to reflect on a remarkable swimming career. This was a guy who had gone from not qualifying for the state meet in high school to captaining the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. So, when I asked Peter Vanderkaay if someone had told him when he was that scrawny, not-so-fast freshman that one day he’d lead the most powerful swim team in the world, PVK laughed:
“If you had told me that and saw a crystal ball,” Vanderkaay said, “I would have told you that you’re crazy.”
Crazy? Maybe not. The name “Vanderkaay” has since become synonymous with competitive swimming, and you could see hints of the Vanderkaays abilities early on, starting with oldest brother Christian, who was a nationally-ranked age group swimmer. In fact, all four Vanderkaay brothers eventually swam at the University of Michigan – an amazing accomplishment in itself. Swimming for Michigan made sense for Peter, who grew up in the eastern Michigan area, swam for the Oakland Live Yers, and dreamed of one day swimming in Canham Natatorium as a Wolverine. The sport is in the Vanderkaay blood, like tennis is in the Williams’ sisters’ blood.
Still, Peter Vanderkaay’s ascension to the top of the swimming throne – and winning an individual bronze medal this summer at the 2012 Olympics – is unlike other swim prodigies, like Michael Phelps. His success wasn’t as a record-breaking 10-year-old. Rather it has been consistent, and his time drops have been gradual.
“I think it’s just persistence, trying to get better,” Vanderkaay said about his success. “I never wanted to be complacent about my performances or where I thought I was. I just wanted to keep working hard and trying to improve.”
He adds: “Work ethic led to my success. Continuing to raise the bar kept me motivated and hungry to keep improving.”
Vanderkaay (nicknamed “PVK”) is one of the most consistent swimmers on Team USA. He leads by example. He’s the workhorse of swimming. But even workhorses need to mix it up, feel occasionally uncomfortable, and place themselves in new environments. So, when PVK moved from Michigan to Florida, some didn’t know how his journey would end up.
“I wanted to shake it up. I wanted to do something different. I wanted it to be uncomfortable,” Vanderkaay said. “That experience provided that for me. I don’t have regrets. I met a lot of amazing people down in Florida. To work with them was a great experience.”
For now Vanderkaay takes a break – his first since 2008. He just celebrated his great-aunt’s 103rd birthday. He’s once again closer to his Michigan family. He will spend the next few months deciding what to do with his remarkable, consistent, persistent career. But one thing is certain: Peter Vanderkaay has been one of the leaders of Team USA throughout the years, and his recipe for success is good old-fashioned hard work.
Putting in the Work
There is no secret to PVK’s success. No magic potion. No special trick. It involves grueling, intense, laborious practices, day in and day out. Peter Vanderkaay is one of those “swimmer’s swimmers” – the type of guy who gets elected captain of the Olympic team through work ethic and a good attitude.
“I think for me I always try to bring that intensity to every workout,” Vanderkaay said. “There’s certainly days better than others. That’s human. But I try to attack the practices no matter how I feel. That’s the work ethic I had growing up as a distance swimmer. As someone who was not the most talented swimmer, but I’ve beaten a lot of people over the years on my work in practice.”
When he moved to Florida to train under head coach Gregg Troy and alongside Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer, the relocation wasn’t a complete change of scenery. The weather was different compared to cold and blustery Michigan winters, sure, but the training itself was very similar to what PVK was used to. Lots of yardage. Pound-it-out distance sets. Intense practices.
“Being in Florida, the stuff I was doing wasn’t anything I had never done before. It was just more of what I had done at a certain point,” Vanderkaay said. “I’d compare it to growing up, but a little more intensity because you’re racing some of the best swimmers in the world. We did stuff like that in Michigan growing up. There were similarities and differences. I probably was higher volume at Florida than Michigan, but I wouldn’t say significantly higher.”
It’s hard to argue that the training location change didn’t benefit Vanderkaay’s career. PVK scored a 400m freestyle bronze, adding to his Olympic medal collection at the age of 28. Florida has a similar focus on the Olympics as Michigan’s program. It was a natural fit.
“I think it’s just one of those programs that, besides focusing on the NCAA level and doing well there, they put a lot of energy into the Olympic teams and national teams and long course season,” Vanderkaay says about Florida. “Michigan was the same way. We focused on Trials and putting our best foot forward. That’s how Florida operates. Gregg being the Olympic coach had that in mind. We do enough work down there we could compete in long course training.”
Indeed, the move to Florida made a lot of sense. But if Michigan and Florida played in a bowl game this football season, there’s no doubt where Vanderkaay’s allegiance lies. When I asked whom he’d root for, PVK responded without hesitation:
Taking a Break and Looking Ahead
For now, PVK is back in Michigan. He’s going to travel. He’s going to a few weddings. He’s going to take a break – something he hasn’t done in years.
“I haven’t had a break like this since ’08. I took a month off then and was doing the same kind of thing. I’m in that phase where I’m decompressing and reflecting on that journey. I was on the road so it was nice to reflect.”
When I asked him what he will remember from these Olympics, he acknowledged the races were great, the venue was fast, and that these Olympics were his favorite. When I asked him what specifically made it his favorite, Vanderkaay reflected:
“Just being in London, I thought the English did a great job hosting the Games. It was smooth. It was safe. I really enjoyed the swimming venue. The pool was the fastest pool I’ve swam in. Our team did so well. Some of my good friends were on the team. If you mix all that together, it made it the best for me.”
As a captain, it was PVK’s responsibility to lead by example – something he’s been doing since he was an age group swimmer. It was one of the great honors of his career. But when I asked him to talk about what his favorite moments of his long, prodigious career have been, PVK didn’t bring up medals or races.
“If I reflect back on my career, the most satisfying thing about it has been the people I’ve met,” Vanderkaay said. “Friends. Coaches. Teammates. People I’ll stay in touch with the rest of my life, regardless if I stop swimming. That’s been the best part for me.”
Going forward, Vanderkaay has earned a sabbatical from the grueling training and never-ending practices. He’s going to reassess where things are at in a few months. He might even join Twitter.
“Being on Twitter I’d be so obsessed figuring out what people were doing. I’m happy being without it,” PVK laughs.
Going forward, Peter Vanderkaay is going to spend some time relaxing. Focusing on being around family. Working some swim clinics. And reflecting on what has been a remarkably consistent journey – no matter where he went, and no matter where he may go.
Mike Gustafson (@MikeLGustafson) is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and “Splash Magazine.”