By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Zane Grothe wondered only once if his time would ever come. He was a near miss at Olympic Trials, World Team Trials, and didn’t go to WUGs, either. After the Auburn graduate narrowly missed making the Rio team, he realized something special: He was still improving. Whether than get on with his life, he got back to work, and that was rewarded, making the 2017 U.S. Worlds team in three events. He explains his unique journey, and how much his Worlds’ team medal means to him, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What was worlds like in relation to what you expected
Zane: The pool facility was enormous! It was amazing to swim in that environment. I’ve been to World Cups before and seen the biggest names in swimming, so I had swam against the best. But the environment for Worlds is different because you’re representing your country and the best in the world in there.
2. How impressive is Budapest and did you learn about the history of Hungary?
Zane: I love traveling abroad and learning the history of cities and countries. Even my own hometown (Boulder City) is “new” by comparison. Last year, I took a vacation to Vienna, Austria, and like Budapest, it has this incredible history. So in Budapest, they had this absolutely gorgeous water taxi on the Danube that took you up and back to the facilities. It was slower than the buses but I took it every time.
3. How amazing was that?
Zane: Incredible. I was able to see and learn about the castle, the palace, parliament. I didn’t know Buda and Pest had been two different cities, taken over at different points in history. So it was phenomenal to learn about that incredible city in the moment I was there. And it is so beautiful.
4. I always think of you as being on other international teams, but this was the first big one, right?
Zane: I never made that many teams. My first Worlds was short-course Worlds in December (2016). I never made the junior team or WUGs or Pan Pacs, then I go from that to number 1 in the 400 and make the World Championship team.
5. Did that make it more or less pressure on you for Budapest?
Zane: I didn’t feel too much pressure. I put pressure on myself. I knew where my best times would put me. Overall, it was definitely a learning experience, and I think important for me to get it at this point in my career.
6. I thought the 4x200 free relay did a great swim for bronze -- five or six countries could have medaled, and you had to hold off two hard-charging countries anchoring it -- what was that like?
Zane: There was a lot of pressure on that relay. I was the third swimmer, but then Coach (Ray) Looze switched it. He told me, “I’m putting you last, we know that you can handle the pressure.” I thought, “You’re right, I can handle it. I promise you I can.” And I matched my best time. It definitely takes some experience to be in that situation. And I have, in the past, had plenty of experiences where I have had high-pressure situations and I failed. So I was able to learn from that pressure and it made me improve.
7. Someone said that bronze is an important medal -- not medaling in that event might’ve been a memorable moment for the U.S. from an otherwise incredible meet, is that accurate?
Zane: It was big. I was really proud of those guys. All four of us guys came through. They had put Jack Conger on that relay and he didn’t even qualify for it but he was ready to step up when the coaches said they needed him to put him in there. Blake Pieroni came up big like he always does. And swimming out of lane 1 was another challenge and another opportunity for us to step up.
8. So you all knew you were capable of keeping the U.S. men’s medal run in relays alive?
Zane: It was hard for us to admit that ours was the weakest of any U.S. relay. We have all these superstars breaking world records. And then you have this conglomerate of guys on this relay fighting to get the job done. We had three fresh guys jumping in at night, and two of us who were Hoosiers (Zane is an Auburn alum who trains at Indiana now) and two Longhorns on that relay, so it was two worlds coming together. We had our work cut out for us because of the other swimmers in that relay from other countries. So we did what we could, and were proud to medal.
9. So you win the medal and is it pride, relief -- what’s the emotion?
Zane: It’s all of the above, a huge swirl of emotions. The first reaction was I under-performed because we didn’t get gold or silver. So I felt a slight disappointment, then I looked around and realized where we were. Since I was a little kid I wanted to represent the United States at the Olympics or World Championships. So to win a medal made me a little emotional. But I am so humbled to have had that opportunity to get up on the blocks and just thinking about it now, I have goosebumps.
10. Having Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian as captains, what was the leadership like?
Zane: The leadership was great. Nathan and Matt told us a few weeks out, “This is special. This is one of the fastest teams we have ever been a part of. When you get out there, be ready to do amazing.” So we are all prepared to do that. It gave me confidence, too, knowing I did what it takes and have what it takes to be part of that team. And I’m responsible for my role in representing the U.S.
11. Was there a moment you remember?
Zane: Nathan asked, “How many of you went to Rio?” And less than half the guys had. Nathan said, “Look how fast we are with all these news guys. This is exciting, knowing it’s in such capable hands.” What a great experience.
12. That men’s team was so strong, but how about the U.S. women?
Zane: Our women are incredible. They are so confident, so smart. Simone gets up there, after Mallory had broken her record, and goes right back after it -- two amazing young women. Seeing Katie Ledecky do what she was doing, and how she went about it, just so inspiring. Watching Lilly go after the record, just so impressive. That kind of thing is contagious. And they are all really nice people. You can talk to them about anything, but once it’s time to compete, they all flip this switch, and it’s like, watch out.
13. How did you stick it out when you had months, even years where your times didn’t come down?
Zane: I hold myself to a very high standard no matter what. I raised my goals every year whether I reached them or not. I had a goal to make the Junior Team, and I had the times, but I didn’t get it done at the specific meet where I had to. I fumbled a few times at NCAAs, and to make the World University Games team. But that’s what I tell kids at camps and clinics, that if you don’t get that time at a particular meet, it doesn’t mean you aren’t getting faster. Two years in a row in college I didn’t have my times improve, but I knew that I was doing the right things in my workouts in college and that the times would come whenever they did.
14. What a relief when they did come, though?
Zane: The third year (of college) I dropped almost six seconds in the 400 (3:51 to 3:45 at 2015 Nationals). There had been a lot of opportunities I had missed (to make international teams or at NCAAs), but I had known that I would get better, and I did. And the best part is I have yet to plateau since then.
15. You stick it out in the U.S. when you have dual citizenship because of your parents -- why stay on the harder path especially given that you are 25?
Zane: I have Canadian citizenship, and during those two years where I wasn’t getting the times I was thinking about it, but then 2015 Nationals rolled around and I took that big step. I still had a choice even at that point, but I decided to stay with the United States and go for broke on this path.
16. Whether it’s the Phelps effect or Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky effect, swimming is getting younger and faster, isn’t it -- more now than ever, as Garth Brooks sings, the competition is getting younger, isn’t it?
Zane: When they were finishing up Junior Nationals I see another record in an event I swim broken. It’s just amazing, and so good for the sport, and so good for swimming’s future. I always look at who’s is coming up and how I am swimming -- it motivates you. I’ve been competing at this level for seven years. And it still hasn’t sunken in that I won Nationals, and now I am the one defending the title. There is always someone better coming along, that’s what makes the sport so great. Now that I have won Trials, I also look around the world, and Italians are lighting it up right now. Ukraine has amazing swimmers. The sport is just in another incredible era.
17. Being an aerospace engineering major, how challenging was it being a student-athlete at Auburn?
Zane: Being a student athlete in aerospace engineering and trying to get that done in four years was very, very taxing. There was a good amount of time my senior year I had to practice by myself because my classes ran during the scheduled practice time. Luckily for me, my coaches were good with that. Since my scholarship was academic, so I had eight semesters to earn my degree or I would start forking money over to pay for it. Looking back, that certainly made it challenging at times, but I made that choice because I know I need that degree for the rest of my life and what it can do for me.
18. I’ve seen the degree program for that major, you were in it from Day 1 to the last day for commitment and time with the math to start out with, weren’t you?
Zane: My freshman year I had Calculus II and Calculus III, and my sophomore year I had linear differential equations and numerical analysis. So I had some of the hardest math classes offered right from the get go. And even when I had (laughs) some electives slotted, being an aerospace major, they aren’t easy classes -- they are ones you need for your major, so the commitment and rigor is the same as your major classes. But that makes you challenge yourself, and you feel such a sense of accomplishment at the end of each semester because of what you learned and had to ask of yourself and sacrifice.
19. What do you hope to do with your degree?
Zane: My senior year instead of taking aircraft design I did launch vehicle design, and vehicle breakdown is something I really enjoyed. Moving into space is the ideal direction I would like to go, especially since it’s been privatized and companies like Space X, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are doing such incredible work. A lot of swimmers have science degrees, Josh (Prenot) from Cal (physics), and I hung out on the Worlds trip with Sarah Gibson (on the U.S. women’s World team, from Texas A&M), who just finished her biomedical engineering degree and is getting ready for medical school.
20. Your family is so supportive. How important is the support your parents, and your three sisters (two of whom swim in college, Natalie at Colorado State University, and Rachael at the University of Calgary, and Alexis earned an academic scholarship at Texas A&M) provide?
Zane: It’s huge. We didn’t grow up as a well-off family -- I don’t think (laughs) my parents planned for four children! So we grew up with the emphases that at least we had each other. We weren’t poor, but we did a lot of camping for vacations. But we had each other. Whether it was soccer, baseball, dance, all our parents asked is that if we do our best they’d be proud of us. We all have strengths and weaknesses and we’re all good at different things. We have all been successful and how we are raised is such a big part of that. We’ve all excelled in different ways. One of my sisters makes a great salary in sales just a year out of college. So we all have our own strengths, and I think that individuality developing in each of us is another aspect where our parents really treated us well.