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