Rising Through the Ranks: Arena Grand Prix at Orlando Preview


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Here’s a message to every high school senior who places no higher than 10th at his or her respective high school state championships: You can become an Olympian. (Don’t laugh – it’s true.) All it takes is the right environment, circumstances, and work ethic.

Just ask Conor Dwyer. The Winnetka, Illinois native and now Gainesville trained swimmer went from being a 5’7”mens 4x200 free relay (medium) unheard-of high school junior to a 6’5” NCAA Champion at the University of Florida in only four years. (Dwyer grew over five inches in college alone.) Growth spurts have something to do with Dwyer’s quick, rapid ascension up the swim hierarchy (the taller you are, the greater your wingspan, the more water you pull, the faster you become…) but it has more to do with his determination to actively position himself among the best.

What’s that old adage? If you want to be the best, surround yourself with the best?

That’s exactly what Dwyer did. While a sophomore at the University of Iowa, Dwyer was a fine swimmer. He broke a school record in the 100 free. He was among the best Big Ten swimmers in the 200 free. But something was missing. He knew he had to challenge himself even more, to place himself in an environment where the best swimmers in the world congregated and trained. So he transferred to the University of Florida to train under Olympic coach Gregg Troy and alongside freestyle phenoms Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay. The training obviously paid off: Dwyer went from SEC Champion to NCAA Champion to Olympics qualifier to Olympic gold medalist in just over two years in Gainesville.

Not bad for a kid who was barely recruited out of high school.

Dwyer was one of those late-bloomers, those diamonds in the rough that come about only every so often. His potential was limitless, since he was a multi-sport athlete who didn’t fully commit to swimming until late in high school, and who grew up in a swimming family (his mother swam at Florida State). Dwyer hit his growth spurt later in his career than most swimmers. Credit goes to the University of Iowa for giving him that one initial shot, where Dwyer spent two years of college, going from a no-name high school swimmer to a respected collegiate Big Ten swimmer.

But even more credit goes to Dwyer himself for continuously seeking more challenging circumstances. Imagine rising from 10th at your high school state meet to a Big Ten Championship finalist in only two seasons. Wouldn’t you just stay the course? Wouldn’t you feel pretty good about your performance? Wouldn’t you take a few weeks to sit back, relax, pat yourself on the back and say, “Job well done!”?

Instead of allowing himself a brief reprieve, Dwyer created for himself a new slate. Instead of glancing at his accomplishments, he focused on what the road ahead, and how he could get there. He traveled to Gainesville to train after his sophomore year, enjoyed the training, transferred to Florida, and proved that he could take his athletic performance to the elite level. It is this undeterred confidence, this passionate desire to push himself to the extreme limits of his abilities that resulted in an Olympic gold medal as part of the 4x200 freestyle relay.

In a few weeks at the 2013 Arena Grand Prix Series at Orlando, we’ll see an abundance of high schoolers just like local Florida hero Dwyer take to the blocks. They are kids with growth spurts coming, with futures as bright as they want it to be. They are the Dwyers and the Vanderkaays, the swimmers who can achieve their dreams as long as they are unafraid. Unafraid of the work, of the painful distance sets, of the countless miles in the pool, of putting themselves into unfamiliar situations in unfamiliar locations, to chase a dream.

Ironically, Peter Vanderkaay, Dwyer’s training partner at Florida, was one of those high school kids, too. PVK didn’t even qualify for his state championship meet his freshman year. But a consistent improvement over years and years eventually formulated Vanderkaay into one of the most formidable mid-distance freestylers in the world. Interestingly enough, perhaps two of the most storied late-bloomers of this past season’s Olympic roster both found themselves training in Gainsville, next to each other, pushing each other along in the same distances and events.

This summer, both Vanderkaay and Dwyer proved that relatively late bloomers, kids who may not be setting and breaking National Age Group records at 10, 12, or 14-years-old, can reach our sport’s highest pinnacle. Swimming as teammates, both in Gainesville and then in London, they both proved to the world that dreams can come true, as long as the sweat, blood, and tears are there, too.

What’s the lesson to take away from Dwyer’s story?

Don’t get discouraged if you’re not a Michael Phelps coming out of high school. Don’t get down on yourself if the Cals, the Texases, the Stanfords or the Michigans aren’t knocking on your door with full-ride scholarship offers. Don’t look at your times, see your 10th place at the high school state championships, and say to yourself, “I’ll never make the Olympics. I’ll never achieve my goals. I’ll never be the best swimmer in the world. I’ll never…”

Conor Dwyer proved that “never” sometimes happens. He proved that if you’re willing to train alongside the best, you can become the best.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ MikeLGustafson.

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