Into the Deep End
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Last March, Kenyon swimmer Zack Turk ’12 swam the 50-yard freestyle in 19.52 seconds at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III championship meet in Indianapolis, Ind. That blisteringly fast time gave Turk a far-and-away victory, and the 19.38 he swam in the preliminary rounds shattered his own national record.
Turk was so fast, in fact, that had he swum those 50 yards in the same 19.52 seconds at the Division I championship meet, he would have placed fifth. But as of last March, that kind of thinking was nothing but speculation.
It’s a little more concrete now. As he makes the rare choice to use his last year of NCAA eligibility as a graduate student at the Division I University of Michigan, Turk has a chance to see just how he will rank against the toughest competition in college swimming.
The Division I record for the 50-yard freestyle, set in 2008, is 18.47 seconds — almost a full second faster than Turk’s swim in March.
Turk completed his Kenyon coursework and graduated with his class in May, but the freestyler is taking advantage of the year of eligibility he preserved by studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, his junior year.
While he adapts to the demands of a Division I program, Turk is earning his master’s degree in a two-year program at Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
“I was actually feeling concerned coming here, because I really thought that I was going to a harder swim program and a harder academic setting,” Turk said.
“Kenyon obviously is very rigorous, but the fact that it’s grad school made it seem like a bigger burden academically.”
But Turk believes his time at Kenyon, both in the pool and in the classroom, prepared him for Michigan.
“At first I was a little worried that I would be overwhelmed with the master’s degree and swimming at a Division I institution, but I feel like Kenyon’s prepared me so well for the academics and athletics and balancing the two,” he said.
“I think that being a swimmer at Kenyon is not appreciably different than being a swimmer at a top D-I institution, in terms of expectation, training, commitment, et cetera,” said former Lords Head Coach Jim Steen, who coached Turk at Kenyon.
The former Kenyon star had another concern: that he would miss the close-knit feel of Kenyon’s community, where he had bonded with his professors and was steps away from his best friends. But he’s hopeful that even on a campus with almost 60,000 students, he can find a similar atmosphere.
“I think Kenyon prepared me,” Turk said. “At a big school, I can make it a small school and make those connections and develop a sense of community within the enormous community of Ann Arbor.” Michigan’s team, he noted, feels similar to Kenyon’s in that the team focuses on goals they can achieve as a group, rather than individual benchmarks.
Turk’s metamorphosis from Lord to Wolverine isn’t much of a surprise given the sequence of events that has come to form a sort of “origin story” for the sprinter. The summer after his senior year of high school, Turk was committed to swim at a Division I school in Hawaii.
“I kind of got taken away by the glamour of Division I swimming,” he would later tell the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
But, sometime before the start of school, Turk decided that he wanted to go to Kenyon, and he called Steen to ask if there was a place for him on the Lords’ squad. What happened next is dutifully recorded on the record board that hangs above the pool at the Kenyon Athletic Center: he won the national title in the 50-yard freestyle three times. Including relays, he is a 14-time national champion in Division III.
“We love relay swimmers,” said Michigan Head Coach Mike Bottom, “we need a great relay swimmer.”
And while Turk’s choice to be both a Division I athlete and a graduate student is a rare one, he’s not the first swimmer to make it.
In the 2008-2009 season, a freestyler named Alex Sweet used his final year of eligibility as a medical student at the Division I University of Louisville in Kentucky after graduating from the Division III Washington and Lee University.
Sweet, a Louisville native, had met Arthur Albiero, the head coach of Louisville’s swimming and diving program, as an undergraduate. After Sweet got into Louisville’s medical school, he reached out to Albiero.
“At the end of college he called me and said, ‘Coach, I have a crazy idea,” the Louisville coach said this week.
Albiero’s response: “There’s nothing easy about that, but we can find a way.”
It wasn’t necessarily an easy start for someone aspiring to be both a doctor and a top-notch college swimmer. “He got humbled a lot in practice, early on,” Albiero said.
But Sweet stepped up, sometimes practicing alone because the team’s afternoon training conflicted with his medical school courses. While some of Louisville’s coaching staff would clock in extra hours to assist him, Albiero said Sweet had to make the peculiar situation work.
Albiero said that Turk would be at an advantage because Kenyon’s training program is one of the most intense in Division III.
“There is certainly a great difference between Division III and Division I, but I don’t think that same thing applies to Kenyon,” said Albiero. He was an assistant coach under Steen at Kenyon and says that experience prepared him to coach at the Division I level. He noted that the dual meets in Division I mattered slightly more than they do in Division III.