By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Last week, we met Eric Knight, a SwimMAC Carolina Elite Team swimmer now training for the Olympic Trials. Eric has had one of the most phenomenal journeys in competitive swimming. He’s gone from someone who swam two or three races in high school to a walk-on at George Mason University to an Olympic Trials qualifier – all in a few years.
Here is Part Two of our interview with Knight. It’s an inspiring story for anyone with a dream (and the physical attributes to do it.) And if YOU have a story to share with Trials & Tribulations, please email me at Trials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org.
You had a relatively “late start” to the sport of swimming – do you think of that as an advantage or a disadvantage?
Well, there are parts of both. At first I thought of it as a disadvantage. But when I got here [to SwimMAC], it is a serious advantage. It was kind of an advantage in college, because I wasn’t burned out. I was just starting to get warmed up and excited and really into competitive swimming. I went into workouts with a positive attitude. And here, it definitely is an advantage. David Marsh [head coach at SwimMAC Carolina] is a guy who makes you faster, but you have to abandon all you know to get faster. It’s easy to change my stroke when I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not partial to it. I don’t have a “stroke” so anything he tells me to do, I don’t have a problem doing. It makes me coachable. I’m not burned out. I look forward to workouts, even though I know I’m going to get smoked. Even if I get my butt handed to me, which happens, I know that these guys have been swimming since they were little (other than Josh Schneider, but he started in high school.) They’ve got years and years of experience that I don’t have. But I can look at them and say “Hey, I’m hanging with these guys with a 10 years disadvantage.” And that’s a huge confidence booster.
Do you get inspiration from these world-class sprinters who train with you?
Sure. If you’ve ever seen our training environment, it’s not conventional. It’s very different than anything I’ve assumed or seen in my life. It’s a lot of fun. You go to workout and you’re with your buddies. You get the work done, but you’re laughing. Enjoying your company. It’s business time and people put your heads down and get it done, but something about mutual pain makes it hurt less. It’s just a positive environment. Everyone is there to be great. That’s something I didn’t have in college. Inspired—yes. I get inspired when I see my teammates throw down 19s in practice.
19s? Does that happen?
Yeah. Whenever, wherever. Get us in the right racing mindset, incredible things can happen. I’m not kidding. Two weeks ago, Josh Schneider gets up on the blocks and goes a 22.11 long course. He didn’t even replicate that time in a suit at [a recent swim meet]. He just hit everything perfect that day in practice. We had two watches on it. It was a legitimate time. And that sets the tempo. Suddenly everyone is throwing down times you would not believe. Suddenly I was performing at a level I couldn’t believe -- I was going 29s low in breaststroke. I’ve never seen speed like that. Then you’ve got guys going 22s in 50s, and I go 23 for the first time without a shave in practice. It sets the tone when you see greatness. “I can do that, he just did it.” I couldn’t do that time in-season in a suit, until I was fully tapered and shaved. And now I’m doing that in the middle of practice.
What is your daily life like?
I have a part-time job. But I’m primarily supported by my family. They are behind this 100 percent. They are the same way – they don’t want me to regret not pursuing this. I blew out my shoulder at the 2008 Olympic Trials. I never got to swim at Trials. But I got to go to Omaha and swim in the Invitational in ‘08. But I didn’t get to go to Trials. That was crushing. Whether I make the team or not, it’s the ride that counts. I’m enjoying the journey.
What happened with your shoulder?
It dislocated when I swam freestyle, and popped in and out of the socket every stroke. I had to get it surgically fixed. I was 21. It’s OK now, but the flexibility is different. I still have shoulder pains. It’s not crippling.
What are your physical stats today?
205lbs and 6’7’’. I’m the tallest on this team. In college I was the tallest, easily. I am not geared like a sprinter – I can’t really move. I have to train speed work, then taper a lot to go fast. I’m more a 100/200 guy. I cannot get the gears going for the 50. To get my tempo up like Josh can -- he’s a beast. But he’s also got 20 pounds of muscle on me to fight through the water. I can’t do that.
What are you going to swim at Trials?
I’m qualified in the 50 & 100 free, and the 100 & 200 breast. But the problem is, the 100 free is right before the 200 breast. My best shot is the breaststroke.
Are you worried about selecting the right event?
I put 100 percent of my trust into David Marsh. He’s looking into that. He knows. He wants us to make that Olympic Team. He’s going to be realistic. He doesn’t sugar coat anything. If he wants me to swim the 100 free, I’ll swim it. I got into a program that’s really based onto developing a base then tapering at the end. There’s never fast in-season swimming with me, ever. I was one of the worst in-season. I am a taper junkie. Me being able to swim like how I’ve been swimming in-season is exciting because I know how much faster I can be at the end. It gives me confidence. I’ll give you an example, I could not break 1:42 in the 200 free. I could hit it on a really good day. At college conference, I go a 1:35. I simply couldn’t do it in-season. I could barely get under a minute in the 100 breaststroke and then when I taper I go a 54.
Are you anticipating a similar type of taper and drop?
I’m anticipating a better taper and drop. I’m training harder than I ever have. I push to failure. I’m in this 100 percent. I’ve got a long way to go to catch the guys on that team. I just want to make it back. I want a semi-final. The Olympic team is a top 2, which would be wonderful. But I have to be realistic. My goal is to make it back. That alone is a huge resume booster. “Semifinal at Olympic Trials” to someone who doesn’t understand swimming, anyone would understand that’s an accomplishment.
You turned down a lucrative job to do this. Do you have regrets?
No. I did at first. I’ll be honest with you, I came down here and I got my butt kicked. How a workout will work here, getting your stroke lined up, getting your body lined up. Before that, you have the most excruciating dryland. Then you play around and say, “Oh this isn’t that bad. Then Coach Marsh hits you with a set where your heart rate is 300 for 25 minutes. Then you put your stroke together. That’s a typical workout. It’s very effective. That’s a typical, quality day. I was like, “I’m outmatched. I should have taken that job.” Now, I’m hanging with the other guys and beating them. I can train on their level. I’m doing it now. To see the drops I’m making, no one else is dropping like that because they’re always just fighting for a tenth. I’m fighting for 5 seconds.
What are your plans after 2012? Are you going to continue to swim?
It’s not dependent on what happens at Trials unless I make the Olympic team. After Trials, I’m already engaging in the job hunt in Charlotte. I really like this town. I’m going to go into the business world. Probably swim recreationally to stay in shape. Maybe Masters.
Let’s say you get 3rd or 4th at Trials. Would you consider continuing?
I’d consider it, but that’s not the plan. To do that, I’d have to really, really drop. I’d have to drop 7 seconds instead of the 4 seconds that I expect. It sounds absurd to you, I know, but realistically, I’d drop 4. My dream would be to drop 7. It’s a lot of work. I’m working my butt off for every tenth. That’s possible, but I have to look at other things. I’m only here because of my family’s support. I was living at home my last year of graduate school. I got my education. But I was living at home. I was commuting at grad school and training for free. My expenditures were null. But here I have rent, insurance, cell phone, food, all this stuff. I have to go my own away. I have to support myself. I can’t expect my family to support me for four more years, for something that’s so hard to do. If I drop a lot of time, I’d talk to David about it and figure out where we go from here. But realistically, David was the only guy who thought I should go for Trials.
Three months to go. What is your approach for the Trials?
I’m excited for Trials. But I’m not dwelling what it’s going to be like, because you don’t know. But back when I was in college and made my first nationals, I swam like crap. I was so nervous to be around these well-known swimmers. I was star struck. But now that I’m with them every day, and I get to beat all these professionals from other teams, I’m comfortable around them. I have no pressure. Yes, I have to race, and I’m going to do that. But there’s no external factors stressing me out. Like getting my butt kicked. That doesn’t happen anymore. I can race at a big meet and do OK. That was a huge mental barrier to cross that didn’t happen until I got here. When you’re in the top 10 in the country, you’re in the same finals with the same 8 guys. Now, I’m breaking into that. And that’s what’s really exciting about being on this team. Nothing wrong with George Mason. But I didn’t have anyone faster than me. I didn’t have anyone who was so good at what they do. The guys on this team are so good – we also coach ourselves. We watch our strokes underwater and give tips to each other all the time. We’re always helping each other. The whole group as one is going into trials. It’s not 16 individuals. It’s 16 individuals competing as one group.