By Mike Watkins//Contributor
As Blake Pieroni looks ahead to next week’s men’s NCAA Division I Championships in Indianapolis, he can’t help but think back to last summer.
The 2017 Big Ten Champion in the 100 and 200 freestyle events, Pieroni enjoyed a life-changing 2016 when he finished sixth in the 100 free at Olympic Trials and made the Olympic Team.
He took his dream summer to an even higher level a few weeks later in Rio when he won a gold medal as a member of the 400 freestyle relay.
When he returned for his junior year at Indiana University last fall, he wasn’t the same swimmer.
He was more focused, more confident and more determined, and he knew he wanted more from himself and swimming.
“I have definitely been more motivated coming off the Olympics because I fulfilled my lifelong dream; who wouldn’t be more confident after that?” said Pieroni, who set two new Big Ten records in winning the 100 and 200 free events. “I came back to Indiana wanting to implement all that I learned over the summer, and I feel like I did.”
In addition to his individual victories in Columbus, Ohio, a few weeks ago, Pieroni contributed a leg on three conference-champion relays – helping his Hoosier teammates to their 25th Big Ten team title, their first since 2006.
Growing up in Valparaiso, Indiana, Pieroni said he always knew he wanted to stay in-state to swim and attend college if possible.
But having a father who swam for another school in the state – Purdue – it would be understandable for him to follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a Boilermaker.
Once Pieroni visited the campus in Bloomington, however, he said he knew he was meant to be a Hoosier.
“My dad (Christopher) never pressured or expected me to go to Purdue, although I’m sure he would have loved to see me follow him there,” said Pieroni, who interrupted his collegiate season in December to compete at the FINA Short Course (25m) World Championships, winning silver in the 200 free relay and bronze as a member of the 400 free relay. He also finished fourth in the 100 freestyle.
“When I visited Indiana, I knew pretty quickly it was the place for me. It wasn’t anything specific; I just knew it was a place where I could live, go to school and swim. It was the best fit for me all around.”
His decision has paid off. During his three seasons in Bloomington, Pieroni has enjoyed significant improvement in his meet results and times.
Part of that change for the better can be traced back to the coaching he received from Ray Looze and his Hoosier assistants – who have worked together to create a winning team culture that harkens back to the James “Doc” Counsilman days.
Pieroni said individually, he has paid closer attention to his nutrition and diet – eating better - -and focused on getting more quality sleep for rest and recovery.
All in all, he said he’s seen steady improvement in his training year-to-year.
“It’s not like I made a huge change in my technique or anything like that and started seeing tremendous time drops; it’s just been a lot of cumulative steps over time and a commitment to wanting to improve,’ he said.
These changes contributed to pushing Pieroni to several individual and relay All-America honors his first two years at Indiana, and after winning gold in Rio last summer, he now knows what he’s capable of and wants much more.
He’ll get a taste – and sense – of just how far he’s come next week when he goes to Indy for NCAAs, where he’ll compete in three freestyle sprints – 50, 100 and 200 – as well as four relays for the Hoosiers.
He’ll be reunited with several Olympic team members – including fellow sprinter and defending NCAA champion Caeleb Dressell of Florida and Ryan Held of North Carolina State – both of whom he roomed with in Rio. The trio also shared Olympic gold in the 400 freestyle relay.
But as far as he’s concerned, Pieroni, said each meet provides him another opportunity to improve and get faster as he chases making a second Olympic team in 2020.
“I want to get better every time I race; I want to learn something new about myself, the sport, my competitors, etc., so that I’m faster, smarter and better the next time we race,” said Pieroni, who considers himself a stronger 200 freestyle swimmer despite having made the Olympic team in the 100 free.
“It was a great honor and a dream come true for me to swim in the Olympics, but I can’t let that be the last great thing that I do in swimming. If anything, it’s made me want to continue to prove that I was meant to be on that team.”
After NCAAs, Pieroni said he will change his focus to more long course training to get in peak racing condition for Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this summer.
Knowing the 2017 U.S. World Championship team will be selected from this meet, he knows he needs to be better than he was last summer in Omaha – and he’s ready to step up to the challenge.
He also wants to swim fast enough to be named to the next U.S. National Team, something that didn’t happen this year despite making the top 6 at Olympic Trials and earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
“I’ll do a couple of meets this spring and summer to prepare to make sure I’m right there in contention for Worlds,” said Pieroni, who started swimming seriously at age 8, and like most other Olympians, got his Olympic Rings tattoo after returning from Rio.
“I know every race isn’t going to be perfect in any way, but at a meet like Trials or Nationals, you only get one race to swim fast enough to keep moving forward toward making the team. So, I need to be ready, and I need to be on when I swim.”