Northeast Times

Bensalem's Szyszko vying for Olympic selection

La Salle Uni­versity swim­mer and Ben­s­alem nat­ive Blase Szyszko will at­tempt to qual­i­fy for the U.S. Olympic Team this week in Omaha, Neb., at the Olympic time tri­als. (Greg Car­roc­cio / Side­line Pho­tos)

Start­Frag­ment

Com­pet­ing in the Phil­adelphia area as a stu­dent-ath­lete for his en­tire life, Blase Szyszko’s next step for­ward would be his biggest one yet.

In fact, it will be Olympic-sized.

Szyszko re­cently com­pleted his ju­ni­or year as a swim­mer at La Salle Uni­versity. The La Salle Col­lege High School product and Ben­s­alem nat­ive is already one of the more ac­com­plished swim­mers in the pro­gram’s his­tory, but what awaits Szyszko next week in Omaha, Neb., is something truly spe­cial.

Start­ing on Monday, Szyszko will have the op­por­tun­ity to live every swim­mer’s lifelong dream as he is set to com­pete in the United States Olympic Tri­als in both the 100- and 200-meter breast­stroke. He will be com­pet­ing against the best of the best in a cut­throat com­pet­i­tion with ex­tremely long odds, and if he fin­ishes in the top two (out of about a hun­dred) in either event, his tick­et will be punched to Lon­don for the start of next month’s 2012 Olympic Games.

For his part, Szyszko knows the odds are stacked against him, something he thinks will ac­tu­ally help him when he’s set to jump in­to the pool.

“From my per­spect­ive, know­ing my chances aren’t great is ac­tu­ally a good thing,” he said. “I know I have to swim fast, so there’s not as much pres­sure. I’m ap­proach­ing it with an open mind…I’m go­ing there to have fun, know­ing it’s a great op­por­tun­ity for me to swim as fast as I can. Those are the best para­met­ers to swim in: have fun and swim fast.”

Szyszko doesn’t have an ex­tens­ive swim­ming ped­i­gree; in fact, he said nobody in his house­hold (which in­cluded four sib­lings) had any back­ground in the pool. His moth­er signed him up for swim­ming les­sons at an early age, and the goal at the time was no more than to make sure Szyszko “didn’t drown in the pool.”

While com­pet­ing on the swim team at St. Charles Bor­romeo in Ben­s­alem, Szyszko quickly dis­covered a love for the sport and the people he met — both team­mates and op­pon­ents — while com­pet­ing. He joined a loc­al club team in Lang­horne and by the time he was 13 and ready to enter high school, he came to a cross­roads. Szyszko had to choose between swim­ming and his oth­er fa­vor­ite sport, ice hockey.

“I think around that point in my life, I knew I had really gained a pas­sion for com­pet­it­ive ra­cing and the people I was around,” he said. “I knew I had to make a de­cision if I wanted to ded­ic­ate my­self to this sport, and I happened to get a chance to com­pete at the Uni­versity of Texas sec­tion­al meet around that time. That was the turn­ing point for me.”

Once he made up his mind that swim­ming would be­come his life pas­sion, Szyszko threw every ounce of him­self in­to hon­ing and im­prov­ing his craft. This in­cluded (and still does) mul­tiple ses­sions in the pool each day, weight train­ing and a me­tic­u­lous diet that keeps his body go­ing.

As both his men­tal and phys­ic­al strength in­creased throughout high school, Szyszko began to gain con­tin­ued ex­pos­ure at the na­tion­al level. He was a Ju­ni­or and Seni­or Na­tion­al Qual­i­fi­er in high school and a two-time All-Amer­ic­an in the 100-breast­stroke. Szyszko qual­i­fied for the 200-breast Olympic tri­al last sum­mer, and got his name on the dock­et for the 100-breast this past March. In the mean­time, he was also busy win­ning the 100- and 200-breast at the At­lantic 10 Tour­na­ment, which in­cluded him break­ing a 20-year old school re­cord in the 200.

“Breast­stroke is an in­ter­est­ing one be­cause those that are good at it are usu­ally pretty bad at oth­er strokes,” he ex­plained. “The 100 is pretty much a sprint, while the 200 you have some more time to get in­to a rhythm.”

In a sport where races are of­ten de­cided by just hun­dredths of a second, only the most dis­cip­lined swim­mers reach the level where Szyszko cur­rently is. Con­sid­er­ing the in­tense re­pe­ti­tion of train­ing ses­sions, it all comes down to how hard one is will­ing to work. And while he knows the odds are long that he would be­come a team­mate of Mi­chael Phelps in next month’s Olympic Games, Szyszko is com­mit­ted to en­joy­ing the jour­ney for however long it lasts.

“The mag­nitude of how big this is, I don’t think that will hit me un­til I get to the pool,” he said. “I’ve been to big meets be­fore, and even though they wer­en’t on this scale, I don’t really think it’s a men­tal thing any­more. It’s very ex­cit­ing, but at the same time I’m very fo­cused.

“It’s a huge hon­or and a great feel­ing…not just rep­res­ent­ing your school, but an area where you’ve spent so many years com­pet­ing,” he con­tin­ued. “It’s a great op­por­tun­ity, one that I’m really proud of that I won’t take for gran­ted. It’s won­der­ful to rep­res­ent this city and all of the people that have sup­por­ted me in my en­deavors. It’s mo­tiv­ated me to do my best.”

Count his coach at La Salle Uni­versity as one of his biggest fans.

“Him com­pet­ing at this level is huge for our school and our pro­gram,” said Matt Nun­nally, a La Salle alum and the school’s swim coach since 1999. “Amer­ica is the best swim­ming coun­try in the world, and he is among the elite of the elite. I’m glad to be a small part of help­ing him get to where he wants to be.”

Nun­nally ac­know­ledged the moun­tain his prized swim­mer has ahead of him, but it’s not a chal­lenge the coach ex­pects Szyszko to back down from.

“Put it this way, he’s got a tough chal­lenge ahead of him,” Nun­nally said. “We’re real­ist­ic in say­ing he’s not the fa­vor­ite, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing this is the toughest Olympic team to make. But at the same time, you nev­er know. Noth­ing he does at this point sur­prises me and know­ing him, I wouldn’t count him out, that’s for sure. He’s worked his butt off to get here and he loves to race. I can tell he’s ex­cited.”

For his part, Szyszko is just en­joy­ing the ride. Wheth­er he makes the Olympic team or not, he still has one more sea­son at La Salle to look for­ward to. In ad­di­tion to swim­ming, Szyszko is the Stu­dent-Ath­lete Ad­vis­ory Com­mit­tee Pres­id­ent at La Salle and helped spear­head the “Ex­plorer a Cure” stu­dent-ath­lete can­cer fund-raiser in the fall. He also serves as an am­bas­sad­or-li­ais­on between cur­rent and former stu­dents and finds time to par­ti­cip­ate in the loc­al Big Broth­ers Big Sis­ters pro­gram. In the classroom, Szyszko holds around a 3.5 GPA in his field of In­teg­rated Sci­ence, Busi­ness and Tech­no­logy and hopes to open his own busi­ness after col­lege, though he’s still un­sure of the field.

He knows the fu­ture will ul­ti­mately work it­self out; for now, Szyszko is all about the present, which for him be­gins on Monday in Neb­raska.

“When I get there I’ll just be liv­ing in the mo­ment,” he said. “I’ve worked for it my whole life, so it’s very emo­tion­al in a sense. Sev­en­teen years of work got me here, so I ex­pect it to hit me and be kind of breath­tak­ing. I’m go­ing to let my­self en­joy that mo­ment and re­flect on all the great times I’ve had and the people I’ve met be­cause of swim­ming. It truly is an awe­some op­por­tun­ity.” ••

End­Frag­ment

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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