If this blog post had intro music, it would probably be a song by MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. It was 1989, and my family had just moved into a carbon-copy tri-level house in the Mar Lee neighborhood in Lebanon, Indiana. You would think that moving into a middle-income small town neighborhood in Indiana from a middle-income suburban neighborhood in Minnesota would be a fairly easy transition, but at 14 years old, it seemed like my entire world had been upended. I tried to look on the bright side, I really did. I took it as an opportunity to reinvent myself. I abandoned my childhood nickname “Benji” in favor of the more adult sounding “Ben”. I was able to have my own room in the basement of new house, though it was barely larger than a closet. I hadn’t had a room to myself since my brother was born in 1981, so this seemed like upward movement. I grew my hair into a glorious 1989 mullet. I had left all of the bullies of my junior high days behind, never to be seen again. I would even be attending high school where my uncle Bob was employed as an English teacher.
But despite trying to remain positive, there was always this nagging feeling that everything was different. People talked differently. My first high school class was taught my Mrs. Zickmund, who had one of the thickest Kentucky drawls you could imagine. The landscape was different. Instead of ten thousand lakes, we lived in the midst of ten million rows of corn. The music was different. Whereas the twin cities radio stations seemed focused on glam/pop/heavy metal rock, the stations in Indiana played more classic rock. I was convinced that all you needed to do to be a successful radio station in my new locale was to play “Jack and Diane” on repeat, twenty-four hours a day. The sports were different. When I was in seventh grade, the Minnesota Twins won the World Series for the first time in their history, and I had become an instant fan. In Lebanon, you were lucky to get a box score for an American League game, let alone a story on my beloved Twins. Keep in mind, this was 1989. I couldn’t just hop into a browser or onto a smartphone and read the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Your view of the world was limited to what was presented to you on the local news. But, perhaps the worst part about moving was that, outside of my uncle and my immediate family, I didn’t know anybody. And I’ve never been good at making friends.
Somehow I made it through my first autumn in Lebanon. Despite my lack of physical prowess (a necessity for male acceptance) and despite (or maybe because of) being wrongly placed in several classes that provided no academic challenge to me, I found myself thinking about swimming again. I’m sure there was a call out meeting for the Lebanon Tiger Shark swim team, but I don’t remember attending it. It would have been there that I met the swim coach, who was also new to Lebanon. Matt Lohsl was an ex-Marine and onetime state qualifying swimmer from nearby Frankfort, IN. He had the tall order of replacing a very popular coach who had recently departed for a year to teach in Spain. This was extremely encouraging to me, though, because it meant he wouldn’t be playing favorites. All swimmers, new and old, would be starting on an even playing field. Coach Lohsl had an attitude that I appreciated. He liked to win. He wanted to win. And, he was up front that we would have to work hard in order to have fun. I’m not sure what the veteran members of the team thought of Coach Lohsl initially, but the little taste of success in my final Jackson Junior High relay told me that I also wanted to win. Plus, I wanted to prove myself to my new teammates. So I dedicated myself to the team, and made sure I was at every single workout, be it weightlifting or swimming.
There were a few other freshmen who went out for the team, but only two of us stuck around for the entire season. Besides myself was a skinny little diver named Bill White. Bill was one of the few people I knew before joining the team. He lived in my neighborhood, and we rode the school bus together. Bill was somewhat of a troublemaker, but in a ‘class clown’ kind of way. In fact, I think he was voted class clown our senior year. He had a quick wit and a smart mouth, and he was fast to draw the ire of the upperclassmen on the team. When freshman hazing was announced, one of the seniors pulled me aside and privately told me that I wasn’t being hazed – only Bill, because of his big mouth. I actually liked Bill. He didn’t strike me as trouble. I think we all knew that he smoked, which is a bad habit normally, but a terrible idea when you’re trying to increase your lung capacity for swimming. But he was a diver, not a swimmer, so nobody ever called him out. A few years after I’d graduated from Purdue, I learned that Bill was gravely ill. I somehow got hold of an e-mail address for him, and was able to make contact. He was happy to hear from me, and even explained his situation. Apparently, Bill made some really bad decisions after high school and ended up in prison. He then came down with a bad sickness – I want to say it was leukemia – that went undiagnosed for a very long time by the prison medical staff. By the time they finally hospitalized him, the illness had spread beyond repair. Even typing an e-mail to me took the bulk of his energy. I tried to encourage Bill the best I could, and he assured me that his faith was strong. That’s the only consolation I had when I learned that Bill had died. He was the first classmate that the class of 1993 lost after graduation.
The sophomore class was fairly large. Several members of this class eventually became some of my closest friends in high school. Mark Ullom and I especially had a lot in common. Mark had only lived in Lebanon a year, and before that was a missionary in Sierra Leone, Africa. As we both learned, if you weren’t born in Lebanon, you would forever be known as the ‘new kid’. Mark has this weird sense of humor that was a welcome distraction in a year when I desperately needed distractions. We would feed off each other’s jokes and wordplay. I’d scoot right up to the line of good taste, and Mark would blow past it. Then we’d both giggle like immature schoolboys. Mark swam sprint freestyle and backstroke, though he’d eventually switch to butterfly. In later years, we swam in the best freestyle relays together, qualifying for the IHSAA state meet in two different events. Mark was a very good sprinter, despite having a slow, rigid start. If Mark is reading this, he just made five jokes in his own head involving the word “rigid”. Mark and I would eventually live together for three years when we both attended Purdue. We saw the best and worst of one another. I still consider Mark one of my best friends. We’re able to pick back up where we left off, no matter how many years have passed between getting together.
My first impressions of sophomore Chris Clay were that he was angry and hyper-focused. As I got to know Chris better, I learned that he actually has a great sense of humor and is intensely loyal once you’ve earned his respect. But as a wide-eyed freshman, Chris seemed to be all about the details. He read swimming magazines. He studied nutrition. He debated on the ideal fingernail length for pull efficiency. He informed us of (US Olympic swimmer) Matt Biondi’s daily habits. He second-guessed the coach’s workout plans. Chris is highly intelligent, and his approach to swimming was both analytical and relentless. During my freshman year, I began to drop time in my races. Jeff Udrasols, a junior and constant positive force in the locker room, once stated encouragingly “Someday Ben’s going to be kicking all of our asses!” Chris, from the other side of the locker room, piped up: “He’s not going to be kicking MY ass!” This is exactly what I love about Chris. He’s not going to BS you. Chris is also the best swimmer I’ve ever competed alongside. He had the Michael Phelps body type before Michael Phelps. He was pure power in the water. He set several school, conference, and even sectional records throughout his career. I swam in front of Chris in many a freestyle relay, and I loved knowing that if I could keep it close, we were going to come away with the win. But as a freshman, Chris and my paths didn’t cross very often. He was a sprinter and I swam distance. I was not yet fast enough to be included in the relays. So I observed his quirkiness from afar.
Sophomore JP King was a backstroker all the way. I barely even remember him swimming anything else. JP, or John, as he’s known now, had an easy-going demeanor and was quick with a smile. He didn’t take things too seriously, and always knew the perfect time to crack a joke to ease the tension. JP drove the smallest car I’d ever seen, a Ford Fiesta. One time, it died in the middle of the road at the downtown square in Lebanon. He and I had to push it out of traffic, and it was no more difficult than pushing your bicycle up a moderate hill.
Dan Walters overcame a distinct lack of size to be one of our hardest working sophomores. When I say lack of size, that was only in stature, since he had the build of a swimmer or wrestler. Dan was a perfectionist in all aspects of his life. He was the opposite of JP – always stressing out about something. While most of us played upbeat or heavy music in our Walkmans (yeah – Walkmans) to get ourselves “up” for a race, Dan would listen to Barry Manilow in order to calm himself down. Dan is an extremely intelligent guy, and finished 2nd in his class academically. I’m probably giving too much weight to Dan’s serious side. He could goof around with the best of us. But when it came to competition and big meets, he was a bundle of nerves.
Junior Jeff Udrasols is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Seriously. He’s the kind of guy who, if you were to insult him, his family, and the horse he rode in on, he’d smile at you and reply “I’m sorry you feel that way!”. As a freshman, I was fortunate to eventually end up in the distance lane with “Udy” as a quasi-mentor. He was a hard worker, an encourager, a sympathizer, and a friend. Jeff took me aside and cheered me up during one of my lowest points on the team, but that’s a story for another post.
Senior Rudy Fischmann was a breaststroker and designated swim party host. I don’t know that I ever met Rudy’s parents, but maybe they were always working because he had the biggest house on the team located in the nicest neighborhood in Lebanon. He had an indoor pool and seemingly an entire wing of the house to himself. He once told me that his parents had paid money for him to take lessons to lose his “stupid hoosier accent”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I could still hear it.
Matt Hutton was a senior captain, and one of the best swimmers on the team. As most of the ‘best swimmers’ I’d been exposed to at Jackson Junior High, he was a freestyle distance specialist. Matt had a lackadaisical demeanor which sometimes made you wonder if he really wanted to be there. But his solid and consistent performances in the 500 freestyle were inspiring to a brand new freshman. Years later, I would pattern my leadership style partially from Matt, who’s quiet, calm “let my race do the talking” attitude was worth emulating.
These guys, and several others, would be instrumental in helping me gain self-confidence and acceptance in my new surroundings. I’ll forever be grateful to them for their friendship at such a critical point of my life.
My first few practices went pretty much as expected. I knew they were going to be harder than Junior High, so I plugged through them as well as I could. At the beginning of the season, we started the afternoon with mandatory weightlifting and then moved to the pool. In swimming, practices are arranged with swimmers separated into lanes grouped with other swimmers of similar speed. This helps the flow of “circle swimming”, ensuring as little passing as possible and allowing the faster swimmers to continue at their best pace. As expected, I was placed in the slowest practice lane with a few other freshmen. Slowly but surely, the number of freshmen in my lane began to diminish as the level of practice difficulty increased. Swimming is hard work, and as the saying goes, it’s not for everybody. My personal goal was to start moving into the faster practice lanes.
One day, I was walking down the school hallway and I happened to be passing by coach Lohsl’s classroom. He pulled me aside and told me that he hoped I’d continue on the team. “I think you can be a real contributor for us this year”, he said. I had a couple of reactions to this question. First, the thought of quitting hadn’t crossed my mind, so I was confused as to where the concern was coming from. Secondly, I was excited that the coach of the high school swim team was specifically seeking me out to make sure I was going to stay on the team. With so many other experienced swimmers and upperclassmen on the roster, he’d actually noticed my efforts! “Yeah, of course!” I told him. I got another shock when the local newspaper, The Lebanon Reporter, released its winter sports preview issue. In the section that covered our team, coach had named me as “an inspiration” to him as a new swimmer who had been to every single practice and workout. Those two things really made an impression on me. I wasn’t a star swimmer by any stretch, but knowing that Coach Lohsl believed in me made me want to succeed, if only to show him that his faith was well placed. Never underestimate the power of believing in someone.
At some point in time, my dad had a conversation with Coach Lohsl. As he’d done in junior high, dad pointed out that I should probably try to swim the longest races possible. He even noted that I swam the 400 freestyle in Junior High. I didn’t mind the suggestion this time around, as I did seem to have a knack for pacing the longer events. Plus, all of the best swimmers I’d seen to that point had been distance swimmers, so it was natural for me to want to emulate them. The distance events in high school were the 200 and 500 yard freestyle. Once we moved into the part of the season where we were in the pool full time, we were segmented into roles as well as speeds. This was because coach was preparing specialized workouts for each group of swimmers. So, I was shuffled into the lane with other distance swimmers, including Jeff Udrasols. I would spend a better part of the next two years swimming in the same lane as Jeff, as we both swam the 500 freestyle.
Swimming the 500 turned out to be a great move for me. Distance swimmers practiced the most yards of any group, and while we pretended to be irritated by that, there was also a certain amount of pride that went along with it. Swimming the 500 as a freshman meant dropping large chunks time as you developed into a high school swimmer, which was encouraging to someone who wouldn’t be winning a lot of races. Also, very few people actually wanted to swim the 500, so I was able to fill in a slot right away. Swimming in the same lane with Udy, who was always welcoming and never acted threatened by a steadily improving underclassman, was just a bonus.
Since this was Coach Lohsl’s first year, I have a feeling that many of the juniors and seniors were taking a cautious approach to the 1989/90 season. Coach Coudret, the previous swim coach, was immensely popular among the rank and file. Coudret’s coaching style was drastically different from Coach Lohsl’s, but since I was new, I simply accepted the current approach without question. But it wasn’t until we were split into specialized lanes that it felt like everyone else was finally buying in to the system. We did have some swimmers wash out, but those who remained were beginning to form a brotherhood through mutual hardship. Some hellacious moments that still stand out in my memory: the practice where we swam a mile butterfly for time, the infamous new year’s practice, where we swam as many 100 yard freestyle sets as the new year indicated – 90 100’s (9,000 yards total) for 1990, 91 100’s (9,100 yards total) for 1991, etc. and the few exhausting weeks when we practiced both before and after school. Not to mention the week when we depleted ourselves of carbohydrates in order load up on them just prior to a huge meet. Sharing these tough experiences alongside our fellow swimmers brought us closer as a team.
Some of the most famous and anticipated team-building exercises of the season were the team parties. Throughout the years, the party changed locations, from Rudy’s house, to JP’s house, to Matt Chambers’ house, to Eric Forresters’ house and eventually to my house. These parties were completely clean (no alcohol or other illegal substances), usually chaperoned, and full of the stuff that teenage boys love: action movies and loads of food. Our swim parents really took care of us in the food department. There was always lasagna, fried chicken, pizza or some other kind of high energy food source. A normal sixteen-year-old boy can eat pretty darn well whatever he wants without consequence. A sixteen-year-old boy who’s also averaging 7,000 yards per day in the pool can do the same, and go back for more. We loved it.
The first swim party I attended was at Rudy Fischmann’s house. Being too young to drive, I’d somehow arranged to ride to the party with senior Jason Deater. Jason would eventually become my brother-in-law. Let me first say that Jason and his wife Carol are both very kind and generous people. They always go above and beyond when sending Christmas gifts to my kids, even though they live far away and we don’t see them often. Let me next say that in 1990, senior Jason was not nearly as kind and generous to freshman me as he is now! He wasn’t outwardly hostile or anything, but he’d just as soon scoff at me in the hallway as return my greeting. So, I thought it was nice of him to agree to pick me up for the party. Once we got there, I milled around a bit and had a good time with my teammates, even though I was a little shy and awkward. It wasn’t until the party started to dwindle that I looked around and realized that Jason was nowhere to be found. He’d left without me! I guess I hadn’t been specific enough that I would need a ride home, as well. Embarrassingly, I had to request the use of Rudy’s phone to call my parents and sheepishly ask if they would pick me up. Things got even more uncomfortable when it took dad long enough to find the house that the only guests remaining were Rudy’s girlfriend and me. I think Rudy was wanting me to leave as badly as I was wanting to leave!
The dual meet season started, and then continued to plod along. Eventually, I became firmly cemented into the 3rd slot of both the 200 and 500 freestyle events. I was ecstatic with this. As someone who was never really accepted among the junior high ‘elite’ swimmers, it just felt good to have a spot. I didn’t care if it was the third spot, as long as I wasn’t shifting around to different events or even riding the bench. Plus, in the third slot, there isn’t a lot of pressure to beat people. You’re mostly competing with your own previous times. But I did want to beat people. In fact, I think I went through most of my swimming career with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t just want to swim fast times, I wanted to show people that I could beat them. I wanted to channel all of the anger I felt when kids knocked the books out of my hands or called me names in the hallways of Jackson. I wanted to focus all of the angst of being the perpetual “new kid” into every race. I wanted to show those in the pool, and those cheering from the bleachers that I belonged there. In my later years, when it was clear that I had been fully accepted, and even respected in the pool, I was able to convince myself that those cheers I was hearing from the crowd were directed at my competitors and not at me. Me against the world. It was a mental trick that helped to get the adrenaline flowing.
As the season went along, I dropped time in the 500. From the high 6:00’s into the low 6:00’s. Nearly every race was a personal best. In the dark, humid, 1960’s era pool that was our home hung a large wood-trimmed board that held the names of each Tiger Shark record holder, both varsity and freshmen. In the freshman slot for the 500 freestyle was a time that was last achieved in 1975, the year I was born. The record was 5:50. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t eyeballed that particular record at least a few times as my race continued to get faster. By the time we were to participate in our first big multi-team competition in January, the Sagamore Conference meet, I was seeded just above six minutes at 6:01.13.
Sagamore Conference was unlike any meet I’d swam in before. It was held at the Frankfort pool, which at that time was one of the larger and nicer facilities in the area. Back then, the six conference schools were Crawfordsville, Lebanon, South Montgomery (Southmont), Frankfort, North Montgomery (Northmont) and our rival, Western Boone (Webo). The pool wasn’t incredibly large, but it did have an upper deck for spectator viewing. This is where my parents were sitting as I participated in my first conference meet.
The conference meet is run in two sections. The morning races are the qualifying heats, where every swimmer tries to qualify in the top twelve. In the afternoon, they run the final (places 1-6) and consolation final (places 7-12) races. I was in the 3rd heat of the 200 freestyle, which was the 4th overall race of the day. A speedy sophomore from Webo named Toby Linton – more on him later – won my morning heat and eventually took second overall in the finals. As for me, I dropped three and a half seconds off my best time and qualified for the afternoon consolation heat, where I dropped another half second, good for a ninth place finish. But I wasn’t really focused on the 200. My race was the 500. The crazy distance race that was so long it required someone else to count laps for you.
The 500 freestyle was run slightly differently than the other events due to its distance. There were no qualifying heats. One heat was run in the morning, and two in the afternoon, and then the final placements were determined using times instead of running additional races. They called it a “timed final”. I was in the first afternoon heat, seeded to finish 3rd out of four. In the lane next to me was the top seed in my heat, a freshman from Webo named Jason Wells. Also in the heat was another freshman from Frankfort, Craig Dahmen, who was less than a second faster than my best time. I wanted to beat him. Wells was seeded about five seconds faster than me, so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stay with him, but at least he was right beside me so I could keep tabs. It wasn’t lost on me that everybody in my heat was a freshman. In my mind, that meant two things: 1) I had no excuses for being severely outclassed, since none of the other swimmers were much older/bigger than I was and 2) These were probably the guys I would spend the next four years competing against in various inter-conference meets. So, it was important to me to have a good showing.
I don’t remember much about actually swimming this race, but I know it felt great. This was my first experience swimming after a week of “taper”. A taper is when you’ve backed off your workouts previous to a big meet in order to let your body recover and store up as much energy as possible for a big race. Coach Lohsl always had a great taper figured out for the Sagamore Conference meet. It’s funny, but as loud as the crowd can be during a swim meet, I never really heard it while I was in the middle of a race. This was especially true of the 500. It’s a long enough race that your mind can really wander around while your body kicks into auto-pilot. You look around, you think about some random things, five minutes go by and then all of a sudden your “counter” (the person counting laps for you) is pushing that little orange square in and out of the water indicating you’re on the final lap. The next thing you know, you’re pushing through that last lap with everything that’s left of your strength, realizing that you’re still ahead of everybody else in the pool. I hit the wall in 1st place. Everybody in my heat dropped time that day, but I dropped the most – almost 14 seconds from my previous best. That was good enough for a 5:47 finish and a new Lebanon freshman 500 freestyle record. That time put me in the top 6 in the conference, just behind my teammate Jeff Udrasols’ fifth place finish. Overall, Lebanon finished 3rd in the conference out of six teams.
My teammates were very gracious with their congratulations. Taking down a record that had stood for fifteen years was notable. In fact, setting any record was a big deal at Lebanon. Our best swimmer, Chris Clay, was the only one on the team who had broken a freshman record. When we returned to the school after the meet, a small group tried to drag me over to the record board to tear down the old record. Luckily, coach stopped them. Vandalizing our own pool was probably not the best idea.
Setting that record was a real turning point. Everything changed, from the way my teammates saw me to the way I saw myself. All of a sudden, I’d done something that only one other person on the team had done. Not only that, I’d done something that no freshman in the history of my school had done. I hadn’t just beaten all of my fellow conference freshman that day, I’d beaten history, and I’d only just started to improve. Don’t get me wrong, I was still happy just to contribute to the team. But suddenly, I felt like I had a chance to be really good. Like this could be my thing. That I could finally put the junior high days of the “also swams” behind me and show the ghosts of the swimming elite that I belonged. The question was, could I do it again, and would I continue to improve?
The answer, at least for this season, was not really. I never matched that 500 time again as a freshman, and personal bests in the 200 free also became more scarce. But I knew that I had been swimming the conference meet on a taper, so the slower times at subsequent dual meets didn’t come as a surprise.
In swimming, the first step towards qualifying for the state championship meet is participation in the sectional meet. Lebanon was in a tough sectional. Unlike the Sagamore Conference, where many of the teams were of comparable size and skill level as us, the North Central sectional was comprised of a few small town schools and a few schools that used to be small, but their proximity to Indianapolis had fostered growth spurts resulting in large teams of very fast swimmers. Three of the schools in our sectional, Carmel, North Central, and Noblesville, were legitimate contenders to win the state championship. Lebanon, on the other hand, was simply trying to get a few people into the sectional finals, and perhaps sneak one or two swimmers into state.
The upperclassmen knew the reality of the situation. There were whispers on the bus ride and in the locker room of how bad this meet was going to be. We even looked intimidated on the pool deck. Instead of spreading out and warming up, we all huddled into a little corner of the bleachers and watched in awe as some of the best swimmers in the state sliced through the water as if they were born to it. Coach Lohsl did his best to rally the troops, but his pep talks did little to fire us up. This was a whole different level of swimming, and we didn’t feel like we even belonged there. Sure enough, the big schools paid us little mind. The big three were battling for seed position at state against other, equally skilled swimmers. Lebanon just happened to be there, too.
To give an idea of just how good our sectional was, it was announced shortly before the start of prelims that Doc Counsilman, former Olympic and hall of fame swimming coach from Indiana University, was in attendance. Doc had coached over 60 Olympic swimmers at Indiana, including the (at the time) most decorated swimmer in the world, Mark Spitz. He coached IU to 23 Big Ten and 6 national championships. And he found the time to come and watch the best high school swimmers in Indiana at the North Central sectional. And also us.
In the 500 freestyle, I swam in the lane closest to where Mr. Counsilman was seated. Since I breathed primarily on my right side, each time I swam back towards the starting blocks I could see Doc with his white shirt and bald head. During the race, I kept wondering what he was thinking as I went by. My mind kept inventing scenarios where he would turn to a colleague and say “See that kid in lane 1? Watch out for him! He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with! Yeah, I know he’s in second-to-last place, but he’s got three more years of development ahead of him. Watch out!” In reality, he was probably just hoping I would hurry up and finish. Either that, or he might have been taking a nap.
We did about as well as expected at sectional. That is to say, not very well. Chris Clay qualified for the state finals in one or two sprint events, but I wasn’t there to see him do it. I didn’t even qualify for the consolation finals at sectional, in either the 200 or the 500. It felt like an anti-climax for me, after having such a great Sagamore Conference showing. But, on the bright side, our team was 9-6-1 in dual meet competition, and showed constant improvement under Lohsl’s difficult regimen, especially in freestyle. While we would miss the many seniors from the 1990 season, we would return some key contributors in 1991, so hopefully the momentum could continue.
For me, the 1990 swim season was a new beginning in more ways than one. Somehow, this non-athlete had earned a letterman’s jacket, bearing the name of a town that he’d only just arrived in, and the respect of several upperclassmen along the way. Swimming had become not only a way to gain acceptance in this strange new environment, but a large part of my identity. In the years that followed, my relationship with both swimming and those who participated in it would continue to grow.
- To read the prologue to this series: How I Got My Start in Swimming
- To read Part 2: Fractured and Displaced
- To read Part 3: With a Little Help from My Friends
- To read Part 4: Finale
- To read the Epilogue: Aftersharks
This blog post contains real names of people who were a part of my swimming story, some of whom are probably reading this post. I tried to think of a way to tell my story without using names, but found it impossible. The people are just too important to the story. It is not my intention to misrepresent anybody, but if you were there, and you disagree with my depiction of events or characterizations, I apologize. I blame it on the distortion that occurs to certain memories seen from a singular point of view over 20 years ago.