By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, September 26, 2019
As a basketball and swimming star in high school, Dax Hill had his pick of colleges and sports.
Because swimming always came first, he signed with the University of Texas before learning that UC Santa Barbra in California was interested in him for basketball.
And while he’s pretty sure he would have still chosen swimming over basketball, he wishes he would have known he could have taken a few visits for round ball just in case.
“I thought I was bound to Texas because I had signed a letter of intent to swim, but I later found out (in 2011) that the LOI is binding only within the sport, and I could have taken 10 official visits for basketball,” he said. “I totally dropped the ball. I don’t know if I would have picked basketball, but I most definitely would have taken an extra five official visits.”
Hill’s introduction to swimming arrived in a less-than-usual way. His neighbor, Nick, had a sign in his yard from the local summer swim league team – the Round Rock (Tex.) Dolphins – and he wanted a sign for himself.
His parents told him he had to go get his own, and it gave him his “defining moment” that sent him down his swimming path.
“When I was 7 – my first year – I (wasn’t good), and my brother was pretty much breaking records at age 6 with the ‘upright streamline feet-first-lunge’ dive,” he said. “One Saturday at a meet, he and I were on this hill, and these two moms came and took him away (to the pool) because he was so good, leaving me there.
“It was soul crushing, just getting left there like no one wanted me. I told myself at that moment I would do whatever it takes to never feel like that again.”
While he excelled in the pool, he more than held his own on the hardcourt. Some evenings when both sports were happening, he would swim at Regionals the same night he played a basketball game – which involved a lot of driving and even more energy.
He would swim prelims in Houston, drive back to Round Rock for the basketball game, and then drive back to Houston for event finals.
As someone who has always loved – thrived upon – competition, it was just what he wanted and needed.
And then there was the intense film study.
“My basketball background allowed me to see my swimming development in a way that’s foreign to most swimmers,” Hill said. “Not to toot my own horn, but my approach to the game was something I noticed was different as an athlete and as a coach.
“My first week at UT, I asked for swimming film on every stroke, and I would be up until 3 a.m. taking notes and breaking it down. I taught myself how to underwater dolphin kick by watching (Ian) Crocker in slow motion.”
In both sports (as well as track during junior high), Hill said he found his motivation in competition.
As someone who hates to lose, there was nothing like being in a battle of will power with another athlete and bending them to his will.
He went into practice and competition with a chip on his shoulder – eager to prove people wrong about him.
“I don’t know if that’s how swimmers approach their competition, but that’s what I learned in basketball,” he said. “When I practiced, I used to talk trash because I wanted my teammates to be (angry with) me. I didn’t win every set, but you want someone to race.
“I think if you want to be a great at anything, you’ve got to have that edge, that chip on your shoulder, that competitive arrogance – that irrational belief that you can do it before anyone else believes in you.”
He channeled that competitive motivation into a strong career at Texas – earning multiple All-America honors and winning three NCAA titles in the 200 freestyle and 400 and 800 freestyle relays his junior year.
Hill also made the 2011 World University Games team and left Shenzhen, China, with two relay gold medals (400 and 800 free relays).
A year later at 2012 Olympic Trials, he missed the finals in his events, but had every intention of being back four years later for 2016 Trials – until life and his health interfered.
In 2007, Hill was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a condition he managed throughout his career, including two major relapses his freshman year at Texas (2010) and the summer of 2015.
“That was the month before we began our taper, and the doctor advised me to take at least 3 weeks off—my summer season was basically over,” he said. “After that, I decided to stop competing and focus on my health and post-swimming career.”
Hill said it was actually during WUGs that he really started thinking about coaching as a potential future.
He spent a good bit of time talking to the coaches and picking their brains – particularly Brett Hawke – about sprinting and freestyle swimming.
Hill also gleaned information from the coaching brain trust at Texas – Eddie Reese, in particular.
He started doing some research on the developmental structures of top-end club teams – spending time studying web pages from swimming powerhouses SwimMAC, Nitro and Nation’s Capital. He also talked with Austin Surhoff and Eric Friedland about their development routine that they went underwent as 14-and-under.
“I reverse-engineered the process from where my knowledge was now to my first days learning competitive strokes within the structure of my research,” he said. “I realized that was my angle as a coach.
“Our club team didn’t have a huge talent pool, so we couldn’t win with numbers. We didn’t have space, so we couldn’t win with high quality sets. If we were going to be successful, we had to be smarter and more skilled than everyone else. And we went out and did it every year.”
Today, he’s channeling his competitive fire as a swimmer into his coaching. He recently founded Reykli -- a personalized service to help swimmers perfect their technique -- in the Austin, Texas, area.
“Reykli is a Turkish phrase that when spelled backwards – ‘ilk yer’ – translates to “first place,” he said. “However, in typical ‘butcher-another-culture’s-language’ American fashion, I grabbed the wrong translation. ‘ilk yer’ actually means ‘first place’ as in first location. But it’s a dope name, so I kept it.
“Some friends have knocked it. They say ‘people won’t know what it means,’ but most people don’t know that Nike is the Goddess of Victory or the Swoosh is an upside-down wing, so I’m not too worried.”
Hill said the concept of Reykli centers on personalized development plans for the athlete based on skill acquisition.
So, in a way, it’s still private, one-on-one lessons that focus on developing the psychological side, racing and how/why you train and how to maximize it.
“Teaching kids how to have that killer instinct is my favorite part of coaching,” said Hill, who coached at Lone Star in Round Rock for 5 years before starting Reykli. “Second is toughness. The biggest gift I’ve gotten from swimming is mental toughness. The amount of mental weakness I see every day is uncomfortable.
“Swimming is a vehicle for life. Swimming makes you aware of the patterns in your own life – the good and the bad. Once you know that you can choose to evolve or regress because nothing ever stays the same.”