He couldn’t quite describe what he was feeling.
That made sense, considering this is the first time Ray Looze produced a swimmer that will swim for the United States in the Olympics.
Fourteen years after taking over an IU program known more for what it had accomplished 40 years ago, Looze finally brought what is considered one of the historically great swimming programs back to the pinnacle.
“It’s literally been the hardest thing I’ve ever been involved with, but again it just feels really, really good,” Looze said. “I didn’t know if this day would ever come.”
That day was Monday, when Cody Miller finished second in the 100-meter breaststroke at the USA Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, which punched his ticket to Rio for the Olympics later this summer.
The next day, it happened again, when Lilly King swam the third fastest 100-meter breaststroke an American woman has ever swam.
Not only will there be a Hoosier on the U.S. Olympic team for the first time since 1976, there will be two this year.
“It’s kind of indescribable,” Looze said. “When I came to IU in 2002 it wasn’t even a desirable job at all. It was a place that had been good a long time ago. I was born in 1967 so I wasn’t even old enough to remember those days myself, I just learned through word of mouth.”
High school swimmers today have no recollection of Doc Counsilman, the man who coached what Sports Illustrated called the greatest college sports team of all-time in 1971.
They knew Mark Spitz more as the man Michael Phelps surpassed in 2008 to become the greatest swimmer of all time. In 2008, Looze was trying to find and maximize the potential of swimmers no one else wanted.
Convincing swimmers to spend their college years in the Midwest isn’t easy considering the sport’s connection with sunshine and warm weather. As a result, the sport is dominated by teams in California, Florida, Georgia and Texas.
Since IU’s last national championship in 1973, Michigan has been the only cold-weather school to win a title. The Wolverines managed to win twice, in 1995 and 2013.
Looze’s goal was to change that and, even though he knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight, he also isn’t someone who likes to wait around, he said.
“It’s been a seven day a week job, 365 days a year,” Looze said. “I know people say that, but I’ve made recruiting calls on Christmas Day, Thanksgiving and I’ve done it for many, many years.”
A typical Sunday for Looze consists of making phone calls from 11 a.m. until dinnertime, because while the dynamics of collegiate swimming have shifted, which made Looze’s job harder, the expectations are the same.
The faces of former Olympians like Spitz are plastered on the walls of the Counsilman-Billingsley Aquatic Center, a reminder of what the expectation is.
This means an increased emphasis on finding recruits willing and capable to improve. Sometimes, that’s longer than their time as student-athletes, like in the case of Miller.
Even though he graduated in 2014, he still trains with IU alongside King, who was a freshman last year.
It’s that training King said made her believe she would become an Olympian. Coming to IU as one of the most talented swimmers Looze has recruited, King has only gotten better. That’s become IU’s approach to success.
It’s that approach that produced Miller and King, the latter of which is the presumptive favorite to win gold in Rio.
Her time of 1:05.20 is the fastest time in the world since 2013 and is faster than the gold medal winning swim at the 2012 London Olympics. The only two Americans to swim faster times did so with suits that are now banned because they were making swimmers too fast.
There’s also still the 200-meter breaststroke, a race in which King set the short course American record earlier this year. The preliminary heats for that start Thursday morning.
Looze and his coaching staff have been perfecting this method of finding swimmers others pass over, recognizing an ability to improve and maximizing that potential for 14 years. Now, that same process is being applied to a faster starting point.
“Lilly was just an opportunity to do that at a higher level and it’s cool to see,” Looze said. “It really didn’t surprise me how well she’s done because I knew she was good. I was just hoping we could get her.”
King and Miller swimming in the Olympics won’t change that, Looze said. A potential gold medal won’t raise the temperature in Bloomington, so the same challenges will still be there, which is why Looze said he can’t focus too long on the successes at this week’s trials.
So even though IU’s program symbolically returned to prominence the moment Miller touched the wall in second place, Looze only spent a moment savoring the euphoria. There were other swimmers to coach and recruits he needed to call.
“It’s really been the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve done some hard stuff,” Looze said. “I think building something always takes more time and it can fall apart quick.”
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