I have watched more than a thousand swimmers race during the past 10 years around the state of New Jersey. One of those swimmers stands alone in my mind.
He is sixteen-year-old Bradley Wachenfeld. Two years ago during his freshman year at Ridge High School, he thought about quitting swimming. Although a standout swimmer from ages 7-11, he started having a tough time in the pool at ages 11 and 12. Not winning nor dropping times as much as he had earlier in life, and not yet qualifying for the YMCA National Meet for his Somerset Hills YMCA team, he started running cross country and performed well. His competitive swimming days were on the verge of ending.
"He had a period of self-doubt when he was working hard and not getting results and he was finding success in running," said his father, Jeff. "He was really frustrated. He said he wanted to give up swimming. He was very close to stopping."
His parents, stressing to their son that he had invested so much of his youth in the pool, urged him to give swimming one more year. "He had one moment of self doubt and discouragement. But he got his head back into it," Wachenfeld the father said.
Last week at the YMCA Long Course Summer National meet in Atlanta, he had another chance to quit. He was not feeling well only 100 meters (2 laps) into a 1650 meter (32 lap) one-mile race. "It was one of the worst feelings I had ever had a big national meet," said Bradley, who since the age of 12 has specialized in longer distanced racing. "I wasn't supposed to feel anything like that."
Despite feeling lousy, he found himself in first place after 300 meters. This was his typical race strategy; take an early lead and try to hold on. "Even though I was feeling bad, I was ahead of the back and saw I had a chance to win it," he said. "So I decided I was going to push through, forget about the pain, and go for it."
He led by no more than five meters at most all race long. During the last 50 meters, the second place swimmer was narrowing the gap. "The last 50 was the most painful thing I've ever done," he said. "My legs felt like weights driving me down. I could barely breathe. I could barely get my arms out of the water. I saw this guy coming up on me and I swam as fast I could."
Wachenfeld touched the wall first by more than two seconds with a time of 16 minutes and 16 seconds, 34 seconds faster than his fastest time ever. He out-dueled the nation's most elite YMCA swimmers.
"I didn't expect to win the race," said Wachenfeld, who ranked the accomplishment among the top swimming moments of his life.
Winning this national title-the first of his career--was one of his several impressive meet achievements last week at Georgia Institute of Technology. He finished third out of 42 competitors in the 800 meter freestyle; 8th out of 113 in the 400 freestyle; and 14th out of 105 in the 200 meter backstroke. He also competed in three relay events for Somerset Hills.
"I've definitely been training a lot harder this year than three years ago," he said. "I just started becoming a better swimming recently. I had this desire to be one of the best. Since then I've been working as hard as I can to get this point."
This hard work has not entailed swimming a lot more laps than he used to, but rather swimming harder and faster the laps he does swim. "I used to be in the back of the lane at practice. Now I try to stay ahead of everyone. It's definitely quality over quantity at practice. And I???ve recently been working on my underwaters (coming out of turns at the walls), which has made a big difference in my racing."
In another demonstration of his grit, Wachenfeld had to overcome a major challenge in April of this year at the YMCA National Meet in Florida. While practicing on the first day, he did a flip turn late and his heels landed out of the pool. He badly bruised one heel and split open the other one. He had to be taken to the hospital where he received six stitches across his heel. The doctor advised him to stay out of the water for 12 days. After discussing the situation with his parents and coaches, he chose to ignore the doctor's advice and decided to swim all of his events. Using crutches to get to the starting blocks, he gutted it out and finished every race.
This young man is a true inspiration. He was a star swimmer at a young age. Then he met with frustration and setbacks. He wasn't winning as he had before. He wasn't getting much faster. Other kids he used to swim faster than were passing him by. He could have stopped there. Many kids, and adults, would have. They couldn't have taken the pain and embarrassment of realizing they weren't as dominant as they used to be.
But Bradley dug down deep into himself and found the moxie and desire to turn his swimming career around. It was all achieved through hard work and discipline. He got focused. He refused to quit. He put in the tough, laborious hours, overcame his self-doubt, did the countless and monotonous early morning and late evening swims, and endured the pain at practices and in meets. He kept going back to practice methodically to fine-tune his craft. He changed how he approached the sport. He changed how he approached his life. He figured out what he wanted to do and went after it.
In the mile he raced in Georgia, he drew upon all of this. He blocked out the extraordinary pain he was feeling. He refused to stop or just take it easy. He used his mental toughness to just keep going as fast as he could for as long as he could. Now he's the national champion, a rarified achievement for anyone in any endeavor. I salute him and have learned from him. He has inspired me. He is a person to be emulated and admired.