By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Sean Ryan barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team in both the pool and open water. He will be doing the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 at World Championship Trials this month. But after the narrow misses for 2012, Ryan has already punched his ticket to Spain in the open water 10K. Last year, however, was far from a total loss, and he explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. When did you begin swimming?
Sean: I started swimming when I was 5. It was a family thing. My family liked it because we all had practice at the same time. I had played soccer as a little kid, but it was at that age (laughs) where it’s a herd of kids around the ball, and after the ball pops out, the herd runs to where it goes next. But swimming worked for us logistically, and then it turned out to be something that we really liked and was good for us.
2. So swimming was a good fit immediately?
Sean: It was, for a lot of reasons; I am asthmatic and my doctor said it was good for me to be in a controlled environment, and out of all the pollen. That's another reason I stayed in swimming at first. Then, in middle school and high school I started getting better, and I liked it even more.
3. You are from Tennessee – when is that state going to get some credit for producing great swimmers?
Sean: Tennessee has had some great swimmers over the years. Davis Tarwater is from Knoxville. Annemieke McReynolds was an outstanding breaststroker and was on the 1999 Pan American Games team. Chas Morton has a lot of national age-group records. From the University of Texas, Tennessee produced Jackson Wilcox and Hayes Johnson, and Madison (Wenzler). And Tracy Caulkins of course went to high school in Tennessee and trained in Nashville. There are so many more, I could try to list them all but I’d leave a few out.
4. Why did you pick Michigan for college?
Sean: I was very fortunate to have some good options. I took my five visits, and enjoyed them all. But Michigan, once I stepped on campus and saw the team for a weekend, I knew this was the closest team I had ever seen – like a brotherhood. The guys were united, and they were friends. That’s something I really like.
5. What about the coaching staff?
Sean: The coaches here are just incredible, Mike Bottom and Josh White. In fact, Josh White is one of the smartest people I have met in my life; he has a Ph.D. (in human performance), and can really understand the numerical side of swimming and how it fits in with the student athletes. You need to include the best trainer in swimming and one of the best in the world, Keenan Robinson, because what he knows about sports medicine and training is just incredible; I don’t see how you could design a program better than this one.
6. You didn’t want the sun and (warm) beaches of an SEC or PAC 12 program?
Sean: The only thing about Michigan that worried me was the stories about the weather, but that’s not even that bad. You are only outside for a few minutes here and there in winter, and all the buildings are well heated. So you get a good jacket (laughs), and you are set.
7. You were close to making the Olympic team, did not making it set you back at all?
Sean: Obviously, I was really close to making the Olympic team in the open water at the 2011 Trials. I felt blessed that I had a chance to go to China to qualify, but then it was pretty heartbreaking to not make it when I was so close to reaching the Olympic Dream. But that trip wasn’t too bad; I teamed up with Ashley Twichell and Andrew Gemmell to win the 5k Pursuit Gold medal. So my first international medal was gold, and that meant a lot. So I focused on the positive coming out of that, and the experience was great. I came back and got out-touched in California (at Nationals) by Andrew Gemmell in the 1500, and then didn’t do my best time at Trials last year (finished eighth in the final). But I learned a lot, and that experience has made me better.
8. What happened at Trials?
Sean: I was pretty sick in June last year, and battled a shoulder injury that had popped up, and it turned out to be an AC joint. But those things happen to all of us, and you just deal with it. I swam through it until U.S. Open, and I made the 2013 WUGs team at U.S. Open (he also went to WUGs in 2011) in the 1500. So I went home, took six weeks off, got better, and even though it was disappointing not to make (the Olympic team), I had to be happy with my effort, and I was thrilled for Connor (Jaeger) and my Michigan teammates who did make it.
9. Okay, I get that, so what was it like to come back and win an NCAA Championship for the school you love?
Sean: Coming into the year, we knew we had a good shot and a good team. Honestly, we were just shooting for a top three, or even top four finish – to bring home a trophy. Going into NCAAs, we got closer and looked at it, and realized we should aim higher – at least a top three finish. Some of us were really optimistic, and thought if we swam the best we could, we’d have a shot at winning an NCAA title.
10. This didn’t happen overnight though, did it?
Sean: The last few years, we have had an amazing climb at NCAAs. We were ninth my freshman year, and I could see how far behind we were, but we were able to see what NCAA swimming is all about, and what a tough meet it is. It takes the right guys, and the right team atmosphere to get through it all. I don't swim all the races the mid-D (middle distance) guys had to – some were swimming three times in the same session. It’s a tough meet, with everything in three days.
11. Then last year?
Sean: So the next year, my sophomore year, we got fifth and we were so happy. It was a great improvement and we were in a battle with Auburn going into the last day – we were able to beat them and get to fifth, which was a great team accomplishment.
12. Didn’t that team have great leadership?
Sean: Michigan Men. You could see the leadership every day. My sophomore year, I was also able to watch Dan Madwed, a senior on that team who is one of the best leaders I have ever been around, and follow him and see how he led and carried himself, which was really inspiring.
13. So you come out fifth last year and aim higher, right?
Sean: This year, we knew we had the chance to do even more. Coming out of Big 10s, we looked good on paper, but everyone knows there were a lot of schools, especially from the Pac 12, that hadn’t rested. We had 17 guys make the meet. We took a full squad with the relay alternate, and after the first day we were doing well. We were in the lead. We knew it was a strong day for us. We were waiting for the other teams to start really kicking it into gear. We originally looked at the last two days as just holding on, but then our guys in the hundreds came up really big on the second day, and our relays were really good throughout. This was a team effort with no real superstars – except maybe Connor Jaeger, because he did win two events, but when you watched Connor on the deck, you saw just another great team player and leader keeping us going. There was so much shock on the last day when we got through the final events and we knew we were going to win. It was like a dream come true. That's one of the reasons I came to this program.
14 Did you think coming to Michigan you’d have a chance to compete for a title?
Sean: Absolutely, yes. When I was being recruited, I was looking for a dynamic program, but also a program that was getting better. Ryan Feeley, one of our captains this past year (senior on NCAA championship team), was a freshman when I was being recruited. He said, “We all came here to win a national title at Michigan.” That was the plan. He said it with such conviction, that this group knew they could will themselves to make it happen. Man, I was so inspired. I thought, “I am coming to a university that has a shot to win the NCAA title.” And then it turns out my junior year, we win the whole thing. That leadership and character, what this program and university are built on, can’t be understated as a reason for the success.
15. So NCAA title, and then at open water nationals you work your way onto the World Championship team, how’d that feel?
Sean: Well, as was the case in 2011, I wasn’t really looking for much except to get back on the National Team. I had some ideas about race strategies this time – the experience is something you must use to make yourself better. But we took a week off after NCAAs, so I didn’t know what kind of shape I would be in. When the race started to get going, I went out front, made a break and lead for a good part of the race. I just swam my race, and it turned out I was one of the fitter guys there. We have now had four weeks of hard training, and I am ready to represent the U.S. and the University of Michigan at Worlds in Barcelona.
16. What has this past year taught you about yourself?
Sean: I think it has taught me a lot about valuing the people around you. Also, that you can't be disappointed for too long when something doesn’t go well; you have to give up your frustrations quickly, and let the people around you help move you past that. Obviously, I got a lot of help dealing with this from my family, my parents, and the coaches being helpful the whole way. But mostly, it was the Michigan team around me, and all the other people at the University of Michigan. In their eyes, I had been doing great the whole time. Countless times I was congratulated for making the final at Olympic Trials. “That’s really impressive,” I’d hear again and again, and I’d go from being bummed out to being happy – you can’t tell someone “I stunk” when they are smiling and proud of you, you have to be happy with them. When it’s over and you’ve given it all you can, even if it didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you can’t get caught up and dragged down by your own expectations. The team at Michigan kept picking me up – the support was literally endless, the best support network I could ever hope for. I have family I love, but they are far away, so it is this group I am with day in and day out who make me better. It’s a great atmosphere, just like a family.
17. Will you keep swimming after next year?
Sean: I think I am just going to go with it and see what happens. I will compete in the pool and open water, and with another year of NCAA swimming left, I don’t have to decide anything just yet. I do want to give back to this university as much as it has given to me – though I’ve gotten so much, that would never be possible. But in terms of swimming, I will still pursue open water. I will be about halfway through my master’s degree if all goes well when the 2016 open water trials are held. The good part of that is the trials are a year in advance, so I can focus on the 1500 and maybe some pool training after that for (pool) U.S. Olympic Trials in 2016.
18. You are engineering major, does that help technically with the swimming or is it just the incredible rigor of the classes that requires the same sort of focus that swimming does?
Sean: I think it is the latter. Just being here at the University of Michigan is really tough academically, and you have to embrace that challenge. My freshman year I had a hard time academically, and I was swimming well but I was struggling in school, but that won’t cut it here. School has to come first. The past two years I have buckled down in school and worked harder, giving it my all. It’s great that two of my teammates, David Moore and Connor Jaeger, are also engineering majors, because they helped me develop the academic work ethic I needed for these classes. I feel like swimming though, actually helps you academically; Swimming barely gives you enough time to do anything else, but at the same time it doesn’t give you time to procrastinate or do things that you shouldn’t be doing that get in the way of academic work. Swimming has helped eliminate all the distractions so you can focus on what’s important, and it keeps you healthy. I am a college student and I enjoy fun once in a while, but this is something you do to prepare you for the rest of your life, so academics come first, and swimming fits into that perfectly if you do it right.
19. Did it blow your mind how challenging college coursework is, especially in a challenging major?
Sean: It does, but that’s the program, especially at Michigan; we are held to the same standards as everyone else in the university. Here we are with part-time, maybe even at times, full-time jobs as swimmers, but it’s a culture of hard work they develop in you here, and the coaches stress academics as much as anyone. Swimming teaches you hard work. And that’s what doing well, and getting the most of the academic work, in college is all about.
20. Do you feel pride when you finish a tough class?
Sean: Of course, and that’s why you do your best. I remember how hard Calculus III was during my second semester here, and I was still figuring out how it all fit together. Even though the classes only get tougher, you get better at how to allot time for each class, how to study more efficiently, and you improve more than you can ever imagine. It really is just like swimming, because most classes are graded on a curve, so you are competing against your classmates. The exams are like meets, and that’s where you show what you have learned. It’s really just about, in school and swimming, learning how to work hard and work smart, and then doing your best when it is time to compete.