By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, August 29, 2017
What a week for the 2017 FINA World Junior Championships presented by Sigma Gamma Rho in Indianapolis. National Junior Team Program Director Mitch Dalton was amazed by the world’s best young athletes, and the volunteers who made the meet something incredible, as he explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. What a meet, how’s it feel to have it complete now?
Mitch: I just can’t say enough about what everyone has done here. I’d like to thank so many people including Dean Ekeren, Annie White, Arlene McDonald, and so many others. Mike Unger worked so hard to get this thing going. Our men’s and women’s coaching staffs and all the USA Swimming club coaches were awesome. You have to have a unique blend of expertise, experience and energy in a coaching staff, and our men’s and women’s team had it right. And the meet volunteers just rocked it. Our meet officials were incredible.
2. A lot of young men and women stepped up on the blocks and gave the performance of a young lifetime, didn’t they?
Mitch: Oh, absolutely. Someone asked me what the coaching staff does to prepare them at the meet, and I tell them 98 percent of the work is done by people before they get here; by people who don’t get the credit they have earned. So then they get here and they get to experience something that will lead to even more goals after they have realized this one. So to be able to experience that with them, and be with these coaches and athletes, is just awesome. I’m so thankful.
3. How do you rate the U.S. performance?
Mitch: I remember people asking me in Singapore (in 2015) about the medal count and if it was a successful trip. I tell them to ask me in a few years when we look back -- that’s when we will know. The important thing I know -- one of the many things I learned from Jack Roach and that I followed his lead on -- is that the important thing is the relationships you build, because that’s where the work is done moving forward and you need to support that. Relationships with coaches and athletes is the most important thing to build that performance and allow these amazing performances to happen, and to create even better performances. We’ll continue to assess where we are, where we are headed, and look after each other, including a lot of new people who are making huge strides.
4. Michael Andrew had a full slate and was incredible, wasn’t he?
Mitch: Michael Andrew is someone who from a really young age had to experience all his challenges and successes on a public stage, and that’s not easy. I admire the fact that he went into this with an open heart and open mind and gave it everything he had. He was great here and one can already see where he can improve even more. I admire his fearless attitude.
5. The last night (Monday) there was a buzz, wasn’t there, about the deck?
Mitch: Tony Ervin had come and talked to the team, and told them “Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn, and if you are lucky you get to do both.” We had him and Aaron Peirsol this time -- we had speakers all week -- and they had such good perspectives to share and inspire our teams and coaches.
6. How about Grace Ariola stepping up even more in her incredible evolution?
Mitch: Grace’s event schedule alone could have made people nervous or scared -- just to take on that kind of challenge. Not only did she do it well, but she did it with grace -- (laughs) ironically -- and class. Just her approach to it was infectious. And she got even better as the meet went along. Her first trip in 2015 to Singapore was also my first trip, so it’s pretty cool to see her continue to shine. She’s never had an easy meet as far as the schedule, but she’s tough as nails.
7. Who is a young man who impressed you?
Mitch: Cody Bybee made the team as a relay swimmer. Sometimes when that happens you do maybe one swim and it is over. But Cody kept stepping up on different relays and proving he belonged there. He kept giving us special swims and lowering his best times to put us in position to win, or place higher than we would have otherwise. He’s about 5-foot-8 but his heart is way bigger.
8. What else impressed you?
Mitch: I think Reece Whitley is one of those who people are looking at. There’s a fine line between recognizing talent and anointing the next one, which I’m never a fan of at all. They need time. Let them train and go to work and go through the process. Reece lost the luxury of that, yet he comes in here and steps up to every challenge and proves he is on track. I’m proud of him for being a captain and how he performed here.
9. What about Regan Smith, especially after Hungary to have the strength and tenacity to be all-in at Indy?
Mitch: To come off of worlds and come back here, you could be like, “OK, this has been a lot,” but she wasn’t that way at all. She got up and raced every step of the way. She went from a 59.1 down to a 58 -- 20 minutes after that 59.1 I asked her how she did it and she said (the second swim” was “on a relay so of course I’m going to go faster.” What toughness. Seeing her morph into another role here and how very poised this young woman is, is so impressive. Her first international (swim) was the (Tokyo) World Cup, and I saw there that quiet fearlessness she has.
10. You had some new people step up too, didn’t you?
Mitch: The rookies really brought it. You get them for their first time at a meet like that and with that factor you don’t know what to expect, then you see Matthew Willenbring bring a 48-mid (in the 100), and what an incredible split. He, like the others, also brought this great personality of not being intimidated by the task in front of him and learning what it was like to be part of the team culture.
11. You have both women and men sweep gold and silver -- Zoe Bartel and Ella Nelson for the U.S. women, and Daniel Roy and Reece Whitley for the U.S. men -- in the 200 breaststroke, was that a little unexpected?
Mitch: I haven’t paused so I (laughs) didn’t connect the dots until you asked that! The men’s 200 breast seems like a week ago! I tell you what, all four of our swimmers in those two events were incredible, what clutch performances and they made each other better.
12. Pretty incredible to sweep isn’t it?
Mitch: Yes, and I also want to credit our coaching staff and Crystal Coleman because she showed, like she did at Pan Pacs, that she can take care of our breaststrokers. I think the women coaches in our sport are finally getting the credit and opportunities they deserve, and like Crystal and Kate (Lundsten), did amazing jobs. Like I said earlier, most of the work is done before we get here, but you need that critical last part to make sure the performance realizes the potential. I am so impressed with Crystal’s and Kate’s ability to relate to our athletes.
13. You had some young men who had great swims, personal bests, who didn’t get a lot of ink but nonetheless look great for the future, right?
Mitch: Patrick Callan and Trey Freeman both went mid 147s (in the 200 free) and just missed the podium and when they came back -- I always want to be there for them and see how they’re doing -- I asked them how they were doing. They said, “That was so fun! We are good to go!” I had such a big smile on my face. The relay was also close so that was bittersweet but the incredible experience all of those guys got will help them moving forward.
14. You had others -- and I know you can’t mention them all because we just don’t have the space and I apologize for that -- that like the others were ready to step up again and again, didn’t you?
Mitch: We did, and I could list them one by one and hit the whole roster if I had the opportunity. As far as picking out one for this question, I’ll mention Carson Foster because he is a very, very fun kid and I think he was our youngest male. To do what he did tonight on that relay is so impressive. I think Mike Unger came up with his nickname and calling Carson “The Kid” and that spread fast. Not only was he great in the water, but he had this great optimism and brought a lot of energy to fire up the veterans.
15. Man, for all the concern about U.S. men’s distance swimming, you all just brought it, was that a surprise?
Mitch: I wasn’t surprised by our distance performance. I knew what we had to beat coming in and I knew what we had. Andrew Abruzzo (gold in 400, 800, 1500) just continues to get better, and why wouldn’t he? He’s swimming for Coach Shoulberg. And why wouldn’t Michael Brinegar (silver in the 1500, bronze in 800) be incredible? He’s swimming for Mark Schubert. Two of the greatest coaches of all time. And they have incredible talent and work ethics in these two swimmers.
16. You keep pulling names up from memory -- how cool is it to have that many memorable performances up and down the rosters?
Mitch: It just shows what they did, and how impressive it was in the way they went about it. Madison Homovich’s fly just continues to get better and so does her IM. Ashlyn Fiorilli in that 200 fly was on her first trip and was great. Christin Rockway was tough in the 400 IM. They all have great club coaches.
17. Your women’s relay swimmers also had some big swims, didn’t they?
Mitch: We ended up with great depth in our women’s relay and that’s good because it’s always kind of a guess at a meet like this. We put Kelly Pash on a bunch of relays on her first trip and she really responded well -- again, a swimmer who comes from a great club program.
18. How about the swim you got from Lucie Nordmann (Monday) night?
Mitch: Lucie was a stud on the medley relay night. I knew when Penny Oleksiak, who won gold at the Olympics, hadn’t caught her by the 50 that it was a special swim -- that poise and control led to an out-of-body swim where she gave it all for her team. That’s a moment Lucie will always remember, a defining one where she knows she can accomplish anything.
19. The world is getting better, which is great for swimming. Whether it’s the Phelps effect from ‘08 -- and before and after -- Missy Franklin from 2012, or what we will see from Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel’s effect on the sport, it’s exciting isn’t it?
Mitch: Anytime our sport is getting more coverage you hope we get more of the best athletes into it. That’s amazing. At the end of the day, it’s about the relationships though. These young people will remember all these moments, all their teammates and their coaches. They will see these swimmers they met from around the world at more meets in the future. Eating in the dining hall or just sitting around and learning from these incredible over-achievers is just a wonderful experience and will shape them into better people and adults.
20. Having the 2017 FINA World Junior Championships presented by Sigma Gamma Rho showed a lot of great diversity in U.S. swimming, and that also means not just for the Olympics, but some great swimmers we will see at U.S. colleges for the next 4 to 8 years or so, doesn’t it?
Mitch: It does. We have worked on inclusion and diversity, and you see that everywhere you look. The coolest part for the kids now is that they don’t know any difference -- this is normal, as it should be, to them, having Hispanic and African American and people of all races and cultures from around the world. We had great women coaches, and coaches representing rich cultural backgrounds. That will only continue to grow. I also think all of us who were involved in college swimming need to continue to work as alumni and make sure university presidents and athletic directors know what these young people are doing and how important swimming is and how well it fits in with the mission of U.S. colleges.