Thursday, March 18, 2021
Change in Events, Training Regimen Puts Justin Ress Among Nation's Best
Justin Ress couldn’t imagine having this much success just a few years ago.
As late as his junior year of high school, he thought he wouldn’t swim in college. But tremendous time drops as a high school senior interested college coaches, and then a complete body transformation at North Carolina State brought him from 165 pounds to about 210, which made him one of the top sprint freestylers and backstrokers in the country.
“When I was 16, I didn’t even know if I wanted to swim in college,” Ress said. “I was probably barely fast enough. It’s kind of crazy to think where I’ve gotten.”
Ress plans to swim the 100 backstroke and the 50 and 100 freestyle at June’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming and has a good chance to qualify for Team USA. His lifetime bests in those events would’ve placed him fifth, eighth, and sixth, respectively, at the 2016 Trials.
Swimming those events didn’t seem likely when he started at North Carolina State. A two-time North Carolina state champion in the 500 freestyle, Ress specialized in distance freestyle and the 400 IM but showed potential in sprint freestyle and backstroke.
He swam the 200 freestyle, 200 backstroke and 200 IM his freshman and sophomore seasons in college before moving down to his current events his last two seasons.
“We knew from the beginning in the recruiting process that was going to be our plan,” said North Carolina State Head Coach Braden Holloway, who continues to coach Ress with Wolfpack Elite. “He had the length, he had the size, and he has the background. Knowing they usually take top six in the 100 free at Trials, that was the driving force behind the plan to eventually work him to those events.
“When we started making the shift to more speed free and speed back, we knew he needed more strength to be able to compete with the next level. We were able to work with our strength coaches and nutritionists here to create a plan that matched what he was doing in the water. It was a process and we knew we had to be patient, but now he has the needed power to be able to go out fast with less effort. He just is stronger and can produce a good amount of force when swimming fast.”
Ress, 23, enjoys training for sprint freestyle and backstroke events more than for distance freestyle events but points out the tradeoff isn’t as simple as getting out of swimming long repeats in practice in an attempt to build an aerobic base. Being a sprinter is challenging.
Gone are the days when he could eat all the ice cream he wanted because he’d just burn off the calories the next day in the pool; instead, he must make sure his diet helps him recover without causing him to gain weight. He also puts more strain on his body because of the heavier weights he’s lifting and the more speed-oriented swim practices sprinting requires.
The training has paid off.
Ress won the 50 backstroke and finished third in the 100 backstroke behind five-time Olympic medalist Matt Grevers and world record–holder Ryan Murphy at the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships. His first-place finish qualified him for the FINA World Championships, though he finished sixth there with a time nearly 0.4 seconds slower.
“I really struggled with World Championships, in that environment, when I swam 50 back because I didn’t know anybody on the U.S. National Team yet,” Ress said. “It was my first international meet on that caliber. I didn’t have the experience to go into it thinking I could do amazing things.
“I think that experience helped me realize that it doesn’t matter who I’m racing, I just got to give it my all, and it’s always the same pool, it’s always 50 meters. I think that experience helped me realize what it takes to compete with those guys.”
Ress won the 100 backstroke and the 100 freestyle in January at the TYR Pro Swim Series event in Richmond, Virginia, and beat Murphy in prelims of the 100 backstroke at the TYR Pro Swim Series event in San Antonio two months later but scratched finals to focus on the 50 freestyle.
Ress doesn’t plan to travel far for competitions until Trials, at which he’ll face a daunting history. Team USA regularly features the best 100 backstrokers in the world—its swimmers have won the past six Olympic gold medals—and has many talented sprint freestylers.
He is excited to see where he ranks among those swimmers in those events in three months.
“I think my biggest advantage is I have absolutely no pressure on myself from the outside,” Ress said. “I don’t think many people are expecting me to compete with some of the top backstrokers or freestylers because I haven’t … gone any best times since 2018. So I think people are going to be shocked when I come out and I’m competing with those top guys.
“Basically, my whole goal is just to really have fun with it. If I have fun, good times are definitely going to follow, so I’m excited for it.”
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