There he was in lane 5: Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers. At 6’8” and 230 pounds, he was seeded atop the heat as one of the fastest qualifiers in the 200 yard backstroke event. Over in lane 1 was my own flesh and blood – a tall, lean 18 year old with the heart of a champion and a developing body his coach at NC State University once described as a steak kabob without the steak. Justin was the fastest 16-year-old in the USA in this event 2 years ago, but this is the Olympic trials with the top qualifiers of substantial maturity and experience. Just getting here was an accomplishment, with less than 1% of all USA Swimming registered swimmers making it to this stage. This is his best event but to advance to the semifinals at least 8 higher seeded opponents need to be defeated and don’t forget to watch out for the 90 or so guys behind. How will he respond to the pressure, the crowd, the atmosphere? 100 meters into the event and he’s looking good sitting about mid-pack. He finds another gear passing Grevers in the last 50 finishing well above seed at 4th in the heat. This was good for an 11th place overall qualification and onto the semifinals on NBC in prime time. Grevers, now married and with a child on the way, announced his retirement thereafter graciously opening the door for the 17th place finisher to fulfil a dream in the semifinals.
A semifinal at the USA Olympic trials! This was an accomplishment my wife, Maya, and I had no expectations of seeing as we left Justin’s younger siblings Nathan and Amanda behind in Cary to mind the fort. Big brother Brandon, a rising senior and swimmer at Towson University, however had no doubt and didn’t mind dropping an ‘I told you so’ on us. The excitement and thrill of this is really difficult to convey, but Justin’s accomplishment was getting noticed in many corners of the country. Back at Bandwidth, CEO David Morken passed the exciting news on to the entire Bandwidth team. The notes of support were emotionally overwhelming. Even now I get teary eyed thinking about it. Facebook lit up with notes of viewing parties by friends and past teammates. Friends in Orlando and Durango told me they had “the whole bar” rooting for Ress in the semifinal.
The evening sessions in Omaha’s CenturyLink center are a grand event. Lasers, colors, burning water, music, videos and celebrities. This is the stage for the day’s semifinals and finals. To say that all the best swimmers in the country are here to compete this night is an understatement. These are the best swimmers in the world. Justin handled the pressure exceptionally well, but we had to endure a tense moment. As the race came to its conclusion Justin swam even faster than his preliminaries time with a 6th place finish in the semifinal heat (11th overall), however the scoreboard immediately registered “DQ”: Disqualified! While it certainly wasn’t going to send him to Rio, to have the result not count was crushing. To our surprise our text message to him was immediately returned (parents don’t typically get priority text response treatment) and he was taking this especially well. We soon learned that the DQ had been appealed and, in a very rare case, overturned!
All swimming events are started by a strobe flash and buzzer. Consequently, flash photography is forbidden. Guess what? Yep, some bozo was taking pictures and Justin flinched on the start. I hadn’t noticed. It was very subtle. Several friends reported to us that they had noticed the flash. The meet officials confirmed the erroneous signal via video replay and concluded no advantage was gained (quite the contrary – he got a very slow start). Imagine if this flash had tripped Ryan Murphy, the best the US has to send to Rio.
The evening was not yet complete for us however as Justin’s NC State teammate, Ryan Held, still had the finals of the 100 meter freestyle ahead. We’ve come to enjoy the company of Cheryl and Randy Held at a number of the big swim meets as well as that of several of the other Wolfpack swim parents, many of whom were in Omaha. Ryan had performed amazingly well in the preliminaries and semifinals coming into the evening as the second seed behind NCAA champion Caleb Dressel. The Held’s were clearly anxious going into the big event. I can only imagine how much so. In a magnificent race, Ryan touched the wall for third place, .06 seconds behind second, securing a spot on the USA 4×100 Freestyle relay team. He will join Wolfpack teammates Simonas (Simi) Bilis (Lithuania), Soren Dahl and Anton Ipsen (both of Denmark) there.
Sacrifices. All the athletes going to Rio have made them. So too have their parents, but it doesn’t take a lot of parenting to nurture a top athlete. I think the most important lesson I received as a parent of an athlete came when Justin was 8 years old and entering year round swimming with the Marlins of Raleigh (MOR). MOR brought in a sport psychologist to talk with parents new to the team. I will never forget the key message: the kid has to own the sport. As parents we support the athlete. This involves a lot of driving, time and money, but it requires absolutely no pushing or coaching. Justin became a success in swimming because he chose it. He wanted that life and only he could decide to own it. This is the only advice I offer to the parents of aspiring young athletes out there: cheer, drive, pay, enjoy; let the coaches coach and the athlete compete.
So, where do we go from here? For Justin, it was a return trip to Raleigh with all the NC State swimmers on July 4th. There was a party to attend that evening, but 6:00am July 5th the engineering student was back to the pool and the gym. The next few months the Wolfpack coaches will be working diligently to put more steak on the kabob, and goals will shift to ACC and NCAA competition for the 2016 ACC freshman of the year. And in 2020? Who knows, but I’m starting to look into hotel rooms in Tokyo. In the meanwhile, I will be catching as much Rio Olympic coverage as I can and will be rooting especially hard for team USA swimming.