The phone rang. We didn’t have personal phones in 1994. We didn’t even have separate lines, as I was often reminded when attempting to play DOOM over my modem and my roommate saw fit to pick up his receiver to use the phone, resulting in a garbled mess of text on the screen. I’d been expecting this call. Somewhat reluctantly, I lifted the earpiece off its cradle.
In the fall of 1993, everything was new and exciting. I was a freshman at Purdue University, living on my own for the very first time. That is, if sharing a shower with 40 other eighteen-year-olds on your parents’ dime can be considered “on your own”. So much of that first year of college was amazing. I got to live with one of my best friends from my high school swim team (Mark Ullom), we had a color TV, a mini fridge and a CD player. As a graduation gift, I had received my very first personal computer – a Zenith desktop with a huge CRT monitor and a 486 processor running Windows 3.11 for Workgroups. I was meeting new friends, most notably the four students in our dorm on exchange from the United Kingdom. I was having new experiences, like when Mark and I decided to walk down to the Purdue West shopping center and buy a couple of pipes to smoke. Being somewhat health conscious, I never intended to inhale the smoke. I just thought it would look distinguished and smell nice. But all was for naught, anyway, as we accidentally bought smokeless tobacco instead of pipe tobacco and ended up with a sticky mess in our new pipes that was unlightable, no matter how hard we puffed.
Everything around me screamed freedom and opportunity. We’d go to class (most of the time), meet our friends in the cafeteria for lunch, order pizza when we could afford it, and go to the $2 campus movie night to see the latest angsty 90’s pseudo-intellectual thriller. I was blessed to have been accepted to one of the premier institutions of learning in the Midwest. But as the days started to grow colder and shorter, the initial excitement of college turned to anxiety as deadlines loomed and exams were bumbled. Amidst all of this, I started feeling a tug. It felt like something was missing. In each of the previous four years, I’d begun my swim training in the late fall just prior to the upcoming high school season. At a time when everything was new, I was beginning to wish for some familiarity. So, despite my previous relief at being finished with swimming, and despite my dislike of practice, I started swimming again. Not every day, but a few times a week. The best time to go was in the morning, so I’d set my alarm and head over to the dark, musty co-rec pool and push through one to three workouts each week. This went on for a while, until it didn’t. After several weeks, that little tug was overpowered by the large weight that was my head resting on the pillow.
Despite my newfound freedom and busy schedule, I kept in touch with some of the swimmers on my old high school team, especially Mike Ullom (Mark’s brother), who was one of my closest friends in the later part of my swimming career. Occasionally, I’d even find my way back to a swim meet, as was the case for the big Sagamore Conference meet in the winter of 1994. As I was still friends with most of the Tiger Sharks, and close with Coach Lohsl, I was invited down to the pool deck for the duration of the conference meet. It was a little strange being down on deck as a spectator instead of a participant, but I did my best to cheer on the team in my street clothes and tennis shoes. Lebanon still had a very strong team in 1994 (the remnants of “my team” from 1993 plus some new faces), and with the legendary Western Boone class of 1993 all graduated, Lebanon was finally able to win conference. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to witness that historic moment in the Tiger Sharks’ history from the poolside. After so many years of coming in second place (including a 3 point loss my junior season), it was oddly satisfying. As of this writing, 1994 is still Lebanon’s only conference championship in swimming. The team seemed to understand my relief, and they embraced me as one of their own, even throwing me into the water in celebration after the final score was announced!
Mikey Ullom had an amazing senior year at Lebanon, being named for several awards, qualifying for state and breaking a sprint record (50 freestyle) that still stands. His physical growth and improvement between his junior and senior years was nothing short of remarkable. While most of my records have been long erased, Mikey remains one of the best high school swimmers to have come through our school. Occasionally, we would keep in touch during my freshman year at Purdue. I’d keep up on his times and progress, and we’d talk about his future. He wanted to come to Purdue, and at some point started speaking to Coach Dan Ross about the possibility of joining the Purdue swim team.
I was astounded. I had briefly entertained the idea of swimming at Purdue while I was still a senior in high school, but never seriously pursued it and, in the back of my mind, didn’t really consider myself good enough for that level of competition. I knew Mikey had improved, but was sure that I could still hang with him if I really tried (I’d been lifting weights since arriving on campus and had continued to gain strength, surpassing even my high school bests). If Coach Ross was talking about scholarships with Mikey, surely I had a chance to at least walk on to the team.
After a few phone conversations with Mikey, I had made up my mind. I was going to try out for the team, because if I didn’t try, I would never know if I was good enough, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life not knowing if I could have made the team. So, I did the extremely brave thing of asking Mikey to drop my name with the coach at his next earliest convenience, because I didn’t have the slightest idea how to approach a Big Ten swim coach.
Thus, a week or so later I found myself wandering the hallowed halls of Purdue’s Mackey Arena, where the Purdue athletic offices are located. It was certainly a different world from the dingy freshman dorms I’d grown accustomed to. Gleaming trophy cases surrounded me. Pictures of championship teams of eras past lined the walls. I could have run into the legendary Gene Keady or Joe Tiller at any second! Was I about to become a part of this tradition? It didn’t even seem real.
Currently, Dan Ross has been the head coach of the Purdue swim team for 33 years, garnering Big Ten coach of the year in three separate decades. He has accumulated numerous accolades over his career, but as I sat in his office in 1994, he’d only been head coach for nine seasons. Still, he was a presence, especially to a kid who was already overwhelmed simply by the walk to his office. He asked me all of the questions I should have expected: Why do you want to swim? (I missed the camaraderie), Why did I not try out before? (I wanted to make sure I could handle Purdue’s academics), What were my best times?
When we got to the end of the interview, Coach Ross told me: “We’ll hold walk-on tryouts again in the fall. You can do one of two things: you can train on your own, and then come in and try out. Or, you can train with us over the summer, and then you can try out. Training with us won’t guarantee you a position on the team, but if I get to see you every day, I’ll certainly have a better idea of what you can do. I wish I could let everybody on the team who wants to swim, but we’ve got limited pool space so we can only take a couple of walk-ons.”
I could read between the lines. My best shot to make the team would be to train with them over the summer. Plus – I’d get to train with the team over the summer! The Purdue swim team! What a cool opportunity! There was only one problem. I didn’t have anywhere to live in West Lafayette over the summer. My dorm contract ended when spring classes ended. I called up my dad and we came to an arrangement. I’d sign up for a history class (that he would pay for) for summer session, which would give me another reason besides practice to drive up from Lebanon every day. Mikey was going to be participating in the same summer training regimen, so we carpooled up to Purdue every single day during the summer of 1994.
Each day, training consisted of both a dry-land set and a swimming set. Mikey and I would pair up for the dry-land exercises (weights, bands, medicine balls, sit-ups), and shared a lane during the pool portion of practice. It was strange to be back at swim practice. You would think that swimming at a Big Ten school would be more glamorous than a small town Indiana high school, but that turned out not to be the case. At this time, Purdue was still swimming at the pool in the Lambert Fieldhouse, a building that was constructed in 1937 and was originally used for Purdue basketball until Mackey Arena was built in the 60’s. I’m not sure how old the pool in Lambert was, but it was certainly darker and dingier than our high school facility in Lebanon, which had undergone extensive renovation only a few years prior. The building was more suited for swim lessons from the YMCA than an elite-tier swim program.
Even so, I was practicing with the Purdue swim team with my good friend Mikey, and life was good. Remembering coach Ross’ words to me during our meeting, I worked hard in practice under the watchful eyes of him and the assistant coaches. Though I wasn’t competing, I was older and stronger, and by the end was in the best swimming shape of my life. I was repeating sets on similar (sometimes faster) intervals than I had in high school. Partway through the summer, most of the team took a break, but Mikey and I continued working, trying to push one another.
The days turned into weeks, and before long the summer was over and classes were starting up again. I took a couple of weeks off from swimming to get used to my class schedule, but I did attend the big “start of the year” speech given to the team by Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke. It was a surprisingly intimate setting with someone who I was used to seeing in the pages of the Lafayette Journal and Courier. Morgan told us how he was once a swimmer at Purdue and about the pressures and temptations we would all face. He talked about representing the university and about the myriad of tutoring opportunities available to us as student athletes. If things seemed surreal before, the feeling really hit me while scanning the amenities of this plush conference room. I was a student athlete at Purdue.
Well, not quite.
We still had to go through tryouts. Tryouts were held not at Lambert, but at the outdoor co-recreational facility pool adjacent to the basketball courts. Prior to tryouts, I was stretching out on the deck, mingling a little with some of my potential teammates, trying to get a feel for my chances. It didn’t take long before all of the confidence I’d carried out of the Morgan Burke meeting had vanished. I was by far the smallest guy on deck, with the exception of one other guy who was a walk-on the previous season. I estimated the next smallest person on deck was six feet tall, with the average being closer to 6’2’’. At just under 5’10’’, I was dwarfed by an average of 4-5 inches. I knew height was an advantage in swimming, but I had never been surrounded by so many tall competitors in one place. It struck me right there on the pool deck that this was one thing that separated Big Ten swimming from anything else I’d ever experienced. Mikey, in addition to being very talented and incredibly smart, measured in at 6’7’’. Surely, it was one of the things that instantly caught the attention of the coaching staff. You can’t help but envision the athletic potential of someone with those dimensions!
Side note: from 2000-2012, the average height of an Olympic gold medalist in the 200 freestyle was 6’4’’.
While wandering around a bit, I struck up a conversation with one of these Boilermaker giants. I learned that he was on partial scholarship and was from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest – Washington or Oregon. I mentioned being nervous, and he looked at me as if to say “why?” He then reassured me that he was positive I’d make the team. I think he meant it, too! I don’t suppose someone on scholarship has ever been cut from anything in his life. The possibility had never even occurred to him, and worrying about making the team was a foreign concept.
We all got into the water to begin the official Purdue swimming tryouts. I held my own during the freestyle and butterfly sets, although I was starting to wish that I hadn’t taken a few weeks off just prior to tryouts. I was hoping it would act as a taper, but I could tell it was affecting my muscular endurance. Next, we switched to backstroke and breaststroke, my weak events. And by weak, I mean – weak even for high school. Whatever my muscles do to increase the speed and stamina of my freestyle and butterfly strokes, they do at the expense of the other two. It was apparent that I was struggling. My breaststroke felt like I was just sitting in one stationary spot, trying desperately to get my body to move through the water. I was falling behind and not catching up. During the backstroke, it felt like I was taking water directly into my face. I struggled to balance between taking in air and sputtering out water. But the worst thing about the backstroke was that I could see the coaches, pacing up and down the pool deck and pausing occasionally to write something on their clipboards. I couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking.
We finished up, and I crawled out of the pool, not confident that I had put my best performance on display. I wasn’t as physically or mentally sharp as I had been as a team leader in high school. Still, I had a chance. I had practiced all summer for Coach Ross and he’d seen my work ethic. He knew I was a good teammate. Maybe that, and the desire I’d displayed in his Mackey Arena office last spring would be enough to secure a spot on the team.
We were told that the final roster would be posted at a certain time outside of a specific building on campus, just like every teenage movie from the last thirty years where the protagonist has tried out for a play, or a team, or a club and must endure the anxiety of walking up the steps of the building and searching for his/her name on a list. I couldn’t do it, though. Still slightly shaken from my tryout experience, I couldn’t make myself walk up those steps, surrounded by giants who were assured of their position. When the day came, I asked Mikey to check the list for me, and call me afterwards. I used the excuse that I didn’t have any classes in that area, so it would be too far out of my way.
The phone rang. I’d been expecting this call. Somewhat reluctantly, I lifted the earpiece off its cradle. It was Mikey on the other end. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew what the news was. “You didn’t make it.” he uttered dejectedly. It turned out that Mikey had made the team, as we’d both expected. To this day, I feel badly for putting him in that position. He had to tell me, a good friend and onetime mentor, that I’d failed. I should have been brave enough to walk up those stairs myself, but I wasn’t. Truthfully, Mikey sounded more disappointed than I was. I congratulated him, and wished him the best of luck, trying to sound more upbeat than he did. Then, as slowly as I had picked up the earpiece, I replaced it. Silently.
I was disappointed, of course. But that one word doesn’t do justice to the emotions I was wrestling with. In a sense, I was also relieved. For one thing, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to crisp, early morning outdoor practices at the co-rec. But more than that, I had decided to try out for the team in order to answer a question I still had in my mind: was I good enough? That question was now answered: no, I was not. Beyond just disappointment and relief, I wrestled with the knowledge that that phone conversation punctuated, with absolute finality, the end of my swimming career. Two years earlier, I experienced a similar feeling at the 1993 IHSAA state finals after my last event, but at that time, college swimming still seemed like a distant possibility, something I could do later if I decided to. This time, though, the door was closed tight. Able as my body was, and willing though my mind was, there would be no comeback. I think the best words to describe my feeling that day is somber, and maybe a little numb. This amazing chapter of my life had ended, and not in a way that I’d hoped. Some people end their careers with an exclamation point, and some with a question mark. Mine had ended with a quiet, unassuming period.
Being the analytical type, I’ve thought a lot about why I was cut from the team. It’s really not much of a mystery when you put all of the pieces together. In fact, I should have expected it. For one, I was going to be a sophomore, so I’d already lost a year of development. Sitting out my freshman year probably also called my dedication into question. I was small, which limited my improvement potential. On top of all that, I was trying out for a coveted walk-on spot but was only seriously proficient in two of the four competitive strokes. Big teams need their walk-on’s to be versatile, like a utility player in baseball. They need to be able to “plug them in” to the roster wherever they have a need. In the Big Ten, I was not talented enough to be a specialist as I’d been in high school. My inability to do backstroke and breastroke at a competitive level killed my chances to swim D1. I didn’t have any hard feelings towards the team or coaching staff. I still proudly wore my “Purdue swimming” T-shirt around campus for several years afterwards. I felt like I’d earned it. I attended a couple of Mikey’s meets and it was fun to wave down at the swimmers and coaches and to have them acknowledge me. It made the bitter pill a little easier to swallow.
In the end, I returned to the life of a student and Mikey had a successful athletic career. I’m still glad I tried out. We had a fun summer together, one last hurrah. It’s an experience that has molded who I am today, as much as the successes I’d experienced beforehand. Not many people can say that they were good enough to try out for a Big Ten team, and even fewer can say that they were cut by a legendary Purdue coach! I had finished my swimming career in much the same way that I had approached it throughout the duration: fighting to the end, never conceding. Knowing this, I have no regrets.
After finishing this post, I tweeted a link to coach Dan Ross, as it only seemed right that he be the first to read it. I was astonished to learn that he actually remembered me, as well as this story from almost 25 years ago. It made my day!
- To read the prologue to this series: How I Got My Start in Swimming
- To read Part 1: Beginnings
- To read Part 2: Fractured and Displaced
- To read Part 3: With a Little Help from My Friends
- To read Part 4: Finale
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.