By Inyoung Choi
Historically, Stanford men’s swimming has been a successful program, winning 64 conference titles and eight national championships since its inception in 1915. The team has consistently finished among the top 10 teams in the country, falling short in only 10 seasons. Last season marked the 10th exception.
The Cardinal failed to secure the Pac-12 Championship, with rival Cal claiming the trophy for the second consecutive year. And when Stanford headed to NCAAs, they settled for 15th place.
Though it was a less-than-ideal season for the entire team, for the six freshmen on last year’s roster, it was an especially profound year. Thrown into collegiate athletics, rigorous academics and a new social scene, the now sophomores learned what it takes to compete.
Under first-year head coach Dan Schemmel, the six sophomores seek to apply what they learned in last year’s difficult season to the 2019-20 year.
“Last year was a whirlwind,” said sophomore Mason Gonzalez, an aspiring physician and four-time USA Swimming Scholastic All-American in high school. As a freshman, Gonzalez competed in the 200, 400 and 800 free relays at the NCAA Championships in March. The team took home 22nd, 15th and 15th, respectively, in these events.
Diving in head first
Sophomore Jack LeVant was no stranger to the high athletic standards that Stanford swimming would expect him to meet. LeVant is a two-time Junior National Champion and a Silver Medalist at the World Junior Championships who qualified for the Olympic Trials as a sophomore in high school.
The summer before his freshman year, he raced spectacularly at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, making it to the finals in both the 200 freestyle and 200 butterfly. LeVant, who was 18 at the time, recorded a striking time of 1:46.39 in the preliminary race of the 200 freestyle, which put him in less than half a second from Michael Phelps’ national 17-18 age group record of 1:45.99 set in 2003. His stellar performance that summer secured him a spot on Team USA for the 2019 FINA World Championships in South Korea.
Despite his pre-collegiate success, LeVant’s first year on the Farm brought unprecedented challenges. Less than a week before NCAAs, LeVant publicly announced that he would be pulling out of the meet due to medical complications. LeVant later revealed in a candid Instagram post that he was struggling with depression and anxiety.
“It sucked,” he said. “That week [before the NCAAs] was one of the hardest weeks of my life. Going from March to July those four months — I could not have gotten through that if it were not for my team.”
The World University Games came around in July, but LeVant decided to forgo the chance to join teammate Daniel Roy to represent Stanford in Italy. Rather, LeVant focused on recovering in preparation for the FINA World Championships later that month.
Held in Gwangju, South Korea this past summer, the World Championships is the largest international swimming event before heading into the Olympic year. LeVant represented the United States in the 800 freestyle relay team, which took home the bronze medal.
“I just tried to soak everything in,” LeVant said. “I got to travel around the world with literally some of the best swimmers in the world, so I just tried to make the most out of my experience — even if I wasn’t in my most prime form.”
LeVant noted that last year’s challenges altered his outlook on the sport and life in general.
“It’s kind of cliché, but it’s okay not to be okay,” LeVant said. “I think that there’s a lot of expectations put on student athletes and it’s really hard sometimes … I think talking about that [pressure] and not trying to act like everything’s perfect all the time [is important]. That’s a big thing that I learned.”
Grace under pressure
Roy, who attended the World University Games over the summer, learned lessons of his own last season. Before arriving on the Farm, Roy was a Junior World Champion and broke his own age group record in the 200 breaststroke. In the spring of his senior year of high school, Roy became the first 18-and-under American male to break the 2:10 barrier in his event with a time of 2:09.73. Chase Kalisz, the 2016 Olympic Silver Medalist, followed him at 2:09.90.
“If you’re not happy, then you’re not going to perform to the best of your ability in the pool and in the classroom,” Roy said.
In his first year on the Farm, he came in fourth in the 200 breaststroke at the Pac-12 Championships and 12th at the NCAA championships last season. To him, the result was disappointing.
“I put a lot of pressure on [myself] before getting in the pool, and that just took the fun out of it,” Roy said. “Knowing that you’re not always going to be the best and that not everything is going to go your way is something that everyone learns once in a while … Making sure to stay humble and just working hard everyday is something I put my mind to this year.”
Since the conclusion of the 2018-2019 Stanford season, Roy has focused on maintaining balance and cultivating a healthy mindset for practice by delving into academic interests like practicing Japanese, his mother’s native language. So far, the results seem positive, as Roy ended the summer with a bronze medal at the World University Games and a second place finish at the 2019 Phillips 66 National Championships Nationals, both in the men’s 200 breaststroke.
The transition to college
Sophomore David Madej believes that while he may technically spend less time in the pool now than he did over the long blocks of training in high school, he’s had to adjust to the practices that are more focused on quality of training. “It’s way more intense,” he said. A son of Polish immigrants, Madej competed at both U.S. and Polish Nationals as a Polish and American dual-citizen. He now hopes to take part in the Polish Olympic Trials in 2020.
A USA Swimming Academic All American from Pennsylvania, Alex Boratto emphasized that in his freshman year he learned the need to balance the freedom college offers.
“In high school you get your homework each night, and you spend 30 minutes or so doing your homework,” Boratto said. “But [in college] you get something Monday, and [there’s] a due date. It’s up to you on how you’re going to do it. I really learned how to space out my work pretty evenly, and because of that, I’m able to fit in social time with friends and just take a mental break from school and swimming.”
We, us and ours
In addition to individual takeaways, the sophomores also discussed their team goals. One of the biggest changes this year is the addition of Schemmel, following the departure of former head coach Ted Knapp ‘81. Schemmel joins the Cardinal after three seasons as head coach at the University of Hawaii.
“I’ve heard coaches say that championships are won in the locker room, and I discounted that,” sophomore Jon Cook said. “The one thing that last season taught me was that team bonding has tangible effects.”
A six-time state champion from Washington, Cook is a dual citizen of the U.S. and the Philippines and has qualified for the Philippines’ national team, which is heading to the South East Asian Games at the end of November.
Some things never change: these six swimmers’ reflections resonate with a legacy of swimmers who were once in their shoes. Despite being separated by a decade, alumni swimmers from Stanford’s Class of 2012 echoed many of the same ideas around the importance of teamwork and team culture.
Geoffrey Chea ‘13, who swam for Stanford from 2008-12, came to the Farm having lived in Hong Kong for all his life leading up to that point. “I was part of a team that was trying to accomplish something,” he said. “It made me feel like I immediately fit in somewhere.” After college, he went on to represent Hong Kong at the 2014 Asian Games and 2016 Rio Olympics.
Bobby Bollier ‘12 also swam for an entire Olympic cycle post-graduation and placed third in the 200 butterfly at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials. Currently, he is a second-year law student, and believes his experience working with a team has helped him at each step of the way.
“What swimming taught me was how to work with other people in a positive fashion,” he said. “As a swimmer on a team you have a common goal, and at most times you have [about] 30 people on the team with you. We have our own way to our objective, — to win a title — but everybody has a different part, and everybody knows how they operate best and how they contribute best to the team.”
Michael Zoldos ‘12 also felt that Stanford’s competitive swimming team pushed him to reach new standards.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations going into Stanford,” Zoldos said. “[As I grew] physically and mentally, it opened the possibility for making international teams and representing countries on the world stage.”
While a student, Zoldos competed for Canada at the 2011 World University Games.
Back at it, again
The six sophomore swimmers will embark on the next chapter of their collegiate careers this season, the same chapter that Chea, Bollier and Zoldos had the chance to write just ten years ago. The season officially kicks off in January with a dual meet against Pacific at Avery Aquatics Center.
“I 100% believe this team is going to be miles better than last year,” Gonzalez said. “I’m excited to see what we’ll do in the Pac-12 and NCAAs.”