Oct. 17, 2012
By Courtney Ratkowiak
During the 1,500-meter freestyle at this summer's Olympic Trials, Michigan junior men's swimmer Connor Jaeger focused on his usual strategy: purposely lose count of his laps, get in a rhythm and gradually increase the intensity.
That strategy worked too well.
Jaeger was near the front of the pack during the July 1 preliminaries in Omaha, Neb., with the chance to swim in the Olympic Trials finals at stake. But he was in such a rhythm, Jaeger didn't hear the official ring the bell to signal the final lap. He did a flip turn at the wall, kept swimming, and nearly swam an extra 100 meters before noticing former Michigan swimmer Peter Vanderkaay, who had trailed Jaeger the whole race, was already resting on the wall.
It didn't matter. Even with the extra effort, Jaeger won his heat and recorded the second-fastest seed time to reach the finals. And with a second-place finish the next day, Jaeger sealed his spot on the London Olympic team.
Jaeger had swum the 1,500-meter race just four times prior to racing in Omaha. He had never made a USA Swimming national team, an experience commonplace for most U.S. Olympic swimmers. Until just a week before the Trials, he still wasn't convinced he had a chance to be one of the two fastest Americans in the event.
Along each step of the way, Jaeger continued to set new expectations for his swimming. His performance in London, where he finished sixth overall, cemented his part in the powerhouse Michigan Olympics swimming tradition and has set him up to lead the Wolverine distance swimming contingent this season.
Jaeger started swimming the 1,650-yard freestyle, the short-course equivalent of the mile swim, after his freshman year. He trained with distance teammates Ryan Feeley and Sean Ryan and, in November, qualified for the Olympic Trials in his first-ever swim the 1,500-meter race during competition. As Jaeger's sophomore season wound down and the Trials approached, Jaeger, Feeley and Ryan prepared to compete against each other in Omaha.
"It was constantly on our minds," Ryan said. "Connor and I were doing (engineering) research together with one of our professors on North Campus this summer, and on the bus ride up there, we'd talk about how we were feeling about Trials. Obviously, it was a big part of our life, and we had a lot of discussions about how nervous we were in the month or two heading up to it."
After an encouraging race at the Charlotte Grand Prix meet in May and altitude training in Colorado Springs, Jaeger seemed primed to make an impact at the Olympic Trials.
He just didn't seem to know it yet.
As part of the team's summer meet schedule, Michigan head coach Mike Bottom planned to take the Wolverine swimmers who didn't make the Olympics to a meet in Montreal so they could gain international competition experience. A week before the Trials, Jaeger approached Bottom with a dilemma.
"Connor comes up to me and says, 'I don't think I can go to Montreal because I have to take my car back home for the summer,' and I just looked at him and said, 'Connor, you're not going to Montreal -- you're going to the Olympics.' He stopped for a second and was kind of like, 'Oh,'" Bottom said. "It was so funny that that's where he was. It's like (he needed) a slap upside the head -- 'You're one of the best guys in the world right now, you can do this.'"
Jaeger's Trials performance left little doubt of his status among the top distance swimmers in the world. He outswam pre-event favorites Peter Vanderkaay and Chad LaTourette for a spot on the Olympic team. In a strong showing for the Michigan distance contingent, teammates Feeley (sixth) and Ryan (eighth) also finished in the top eight.
During his first time on a national team, it didn't take long for Jaeger to be impressed by the amenities. The team held its pre-London training camp in Vichy, France, where it practiced in a state-of-the-art, reflective outdoor 50-meter pool set in the hills of the French countryside. While at the Olympics, Jaeger explored the Tower of London with his new teammates and met the U.S. basketball team while in the Olympic Village -- though he maintains his favorite non-swimming experience was eating homemade bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches each morning in an apartment he shared with fellow Olympians Vanderkaay and former Wolverine Davis Tarwater.
Even with all of the new experiences, the strong Wolverine presence at the Olympics meant Ann Arbor was never far from Jaeger's mind. Seven swimmers and two coaches with former Michigan ties competed in London, in addition to current coaches Bottom, Dr. Josh White and Mark Hill.
"All three of my coaches were there with me. I was standing on the pool deck at the Olympics and I'm talking to my head coach, assistant coach and volunteer assistant coach," Jaeger said. "It was almost like I was back at practice at Canham, and that helped me stay calm through the whole thing."
Calmness proved to be the theme of Jaeger's Olympic experience. On a team with stars like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, Jaeger expected more talk among the team and coaches about how each swimmer's job was to win medals but was relieved to find himself wrong.
"We didn't have pressure as coaches -- it was just fun," Bottom said. "There was no pressure that Connor would get a medal. It was all about, 'Let's see how (well) he can do.' There's always hope, but there's no pressure. That's the nicest place to be as the coach."
Jaeger finished third in his preliminary heat at the Olympics with a time of 14:57.56, good enough for seventh overall and a spot in the Olympic finals. The next day, Jaeger swam five seconds faster to finish sixth in the event, in which China's Sun Yang set a world record (14:31.02).
Between returning home from London and the start of the collegiate season, Jaeger was able to enjoy the traditional post-Olympic perks. His hometown of Fair Haven, N.J., threw a celebratory parade when he returned stateside. And on Sept. 14, Jaeger was invited to the White House with the rest of the U.S. Olympic team. During a whirlwind 24 hours, the Olympians met President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and vice president Joe Biden in a ceremony on the lawn of the White House. When it came time for small talk, Jaeger found himself uncharacteristically starstruck.
"I lost my words when (Obama) asked me a question," Jaeger said. "It was probably something simple like, 'What sport do you do?' or, 'What event do you do?' and I couldn't think. And Biden asked me where I lived and I didn't know. I really surprised myself, but it was really cool."
With this year's collegiate season now in full swing, Jaeger has fully transitioned from Olympian to college junior. In late September, he turned down an invitation to join the Team USA roster for the 2012 FINA Short Course World Championships, to be held from Dec. 12-16 in Istanbul, Turkey, because the dates of the meet conflict with the last week of classes in Ann Arbor and he needed to be able to study for finals.
His decision was a reminder that even though he enjoyed success in London, his priorities moving forward are school and helping the team succeed in Indianapolis in March.
"The World Championship short course is a pretty high honor, but he wanted to focus on what he's doing this season," Bottom said. "His focus is clear -- he wants to get good grades and he wants to lead this team to a top-five finish at NCAAs."