A childhood obsession with sharks and marine biology symbolized early signs of a career in the pool. Even his baseball nickname, “The Iceman,” pointed toward water.
Now, as the American 100-yard breaststroke record holder, Ian Finnerty looks through his pink goggles at the path to the 2020 Olympics.
Born in Bloomington, Finnerty began his life at IU as a toddler beneath his mother's desk during meetings. He kept himself occupied with an array of different interests. Dinosaurs and sharks were some of the first.
“We had millions of those tiny plastic sharks and dinosaurs,” said Dina Adkins, Finnerty’s mom. “You could give him five of them, bring him in here and have any kind of meeting you needed to have. He was an excellent baby.”
Finnerty’s family moved to Avon, Indiana, when he was 6 years old. At the time, his sister Sarah was 13, his dad worked as a train engineer and his mom worked for IU Purdue University Indianapolis.
Also making the journey north was the family’s Australian shepherd, Shelby. Shelby has since died, but she reminds Finnerty’s mom of a favorite memory and hidden character trait of her son: his humor.
“He was able to teach Shelby how to growl on command,” Adkins said. “He could just point at her teeth, and he would get the dog to growl at people.”
Finnerty’s humor often gets masked, not just from his introversion, but also by his serious athletic disposition. As early as fourth grade, Adkins said Finnerty showed no emotions on the pitching mound, where he gets “Iceman” from.
He was locked in a zone, aiming for nothing but dominance. This, in part, stems from his emulation of deceased University of Oregon track star Steve Prefontaine.
Prefontaine was Finnerty’s role model. His fascination with Prefontaine revolved around the runner’s obsession with hammering away at his personal goals until they were attained, a mindset Finnerty maintains to this day.
“Ian has good days and bad days, but he knows himself and can do things fully his own way,” said Kirk Grand, a mentor and swimming coach of Finnerty’s. “His belief in himself is pretty impressive, and that’s a big thing he has in common with Prefontaine.”
The Finnerty family returned to Bloomington for Ian’s eighth grade year. Adkins started her new job in the IU Office of the Bursar, and her daughter was beginning her sophomore year as a history major at IU. Adapting to a familiar yet foreign place, Finnerty struggled to adjust to the new setting.
The Runcible Spoon and Chocolate Moose were two of his favorite places. Video games became a pastime.
Yet they were not enough in making his birthplace feel like home again. High school would change that.
Grand and the swimming team’s seniors made Finnerty comfortable. Baseball remained his primary sport as a freshman at Bloomington South High School, but that changed during swim season.
One of the seniors, Scott Haeberle, was instrumental in releasing the full power of Finnerty’s inner-Prefontaine. Haeberle was the big cat on the Panthers’ roster. Nobody could catch him in the water. That is, until Finnerty set his sights on taking the senior down.
“As a freshman, I thought Haeberle was the coolest person ever because he was going to California Berkeley to swim, and I was like, ‘One day I’m gonna beat you. I’m going to keep doing breaststroke until I can beat you on the 50-breaststroke,’” Finnerty said.
Defeating Haeberle was a feat few could accomplish or foresee. Grand said Finnerty’s knack for setting goals made him a better swimmer, and at that stage of Finnerty’s swimming career, the coach knew there was something special about his gutsy freshman.
While Grand admired Finnerty’s dedication to stick with an objective and meet it, he also saw it expand outside the pool.
“He skipped a practice in high school because Call of Duty Black Ops came out and he played it for 24 hours straight until he beat the game,” Grand said. “He’s very capable, and he gets into something until he maxes out on it.”
Grand took a job at Auburn University between Finnerty’s sophomore and junior season and was replaced by Kandis Looze. The two coaches urged Finnerty to pick a sport and he chose swimming.
Between junior and senior year, Finnerty trained with the IU team, familiarizing himself with the staff as well as the current and incoming athletes.
Closing out high school, Finnerty took first in the Indiana boys State Championships in February 2015, winning the 200-yard individual medley and the 100-yard breaststroke.
Finnerty concluded his Panther career as a five-time finalist at the National Club Swimming Association Junior Championships for the 50- and 100-yard breastroke, 200-yard individual medley, 100-yard butterfly and the 100-yard freestyle.
Although he targeted Auburn to reunite with Grand, Finnerty chose his hometown school. Walking around the IU campus made him feel right at home, and his familiarity with Coach Ray Looze’s staff and athletes resulted in his commitment.
Heading into his freshman year, Finnerty was distracted by a lingering summer injury in Ireland. Finnerty had stress fractures on three ribs.
“I was very confident that I was going to come back from it, but swimming expectations were really low,” he said. “I’d go to practice a few times and help out, but I had to be a sedentary as possible.”
Those who are amped up by Finnerty’s 6 a.m. music blaring at the Counsilman Billingsley Aquatic Center knew being sidelined did not sit well with him. Nevertheless, after three months of recovery, he excelled throughout his freshman season.
At the Big Ten championships his freshman year, Finnerty won the 100-yard breaststroke with a time of 51.75 seconds. He would also take third and fourth on the 200-yard breaststroke and individual medley, respectively. His remaining freshman accolades included multiple All-America Honorable Mentions at the NCAA championships and being named Big Ten Rookie of the Year.
“I didn’t expect anything from Big Tens to begin with, so the biggest takeaway was seeing how much I had accomplished in a short period of time,” Finnerty said. “I’d give it a B.”
The summer of 2016 brought Finnerty into a stronger relationship with bronze and gold medalist Cody Miller. Aside from Miller’s mentoring, the two bonded over something more endearing than swimming: a Pomeranian.
During the Rio Olympics, Miller’s dog gave birth and he didn’t know what to do with the puppies. The Finnerty family already had a new Australian shepherd, Finn. Adkins’ love for animals led her and the Finnertys to take in one of Miller’s puppies.
Finnerty made it to the semifinals of the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2016 Olympic trials. His 11th-place finish was a half-second better than his preliminary time and far beyond his expectations going in.
“I went in trying to keep an open mind, hoping I’d be top 30, and I ended up being top 16,” he said. “The atmosphere is nothing like any other swim meet ever, and the adrenaline and pressure is the best thing in the world.”
This experience propelled Finnerty into a successful sophomore year as a member of winning 200 and 400 medley relays for his team at the 2016 AT&T Winter Nationals. Finnerty claimed another first-place finish on the 100-yard breaststroke and helped IU to its first Big Ten title since 2006.
Despite a battle with the flu throughout the 2017 Big Ten championships, he managed to earn solid times anyway.
All the while, Finnerty had history on his mind.
During his junior year, Finnerty set a goal for himself no man in history had accomplished. Finnerty wanted to break the 50-second barrier on the 100-yard breaststroke.
“I talked it into existence,” he said. “I thought, if I say it enough times I’m gonna have to back it up.”
At the NCAA championships in his junior year, Finnerty made it happen.
After he touched the wall at 49.69 seconds, the entire arena blared with cheers. Finnerty thought he broke the record but couldn’t see his time on the scoreboard, which flashes when a record is broken.
Not only did Finnerty not know his time, but Looze didn’t either.
“Ray turned around and couldn’t watch it for some reason,” Finnerty said. “He also didn’t really know what to say because I don’t know if he really expected me to break 50.”
Finnerty was ecstatic after setting the American record with his performance. His junior season gave him a multitude of records, six All-America honors and three total national titles.
As a rising senior Finnerty’s health spiraled throughout summer training as a blood test revealed an illness. Bracing for his senior year, Finnerty decided to focus on goals of placement rather than times. His plan worked.
In February, Finnerty became the only man in Big Ten history to win the 100 breaststroke all four years. This was an achievement even Miller didn’t reach.
In 2019, Finnerty became the first Hoosier in 45 years to defend an individual national title in Austin, Texas. His 49.85-second time on the 100-yard breaststroke was the second-fastest in his career -- and history.
Ultimately, what made the senior’s final season all the more special was having Grand back. After leaving Finnerty in between his sophomore and junior year of high school, his favorite coach reentered his life as an IU assistant coach.
From the day he met Finnerty to his final IU season, Grand said he always respected Finnerty’s independence and rejection of the status quo.
“Ian has always been the guy to do it his own way, and sometimes as a coach that’s a pain in the ass,” Grand said. “But, at the same time, that’s what makes Ian great. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, even if it’s an unpopular opinion.”
With the season over, Finnerty picked up rowing with his girlfriend Sydney Shuert and continues to venture up the rock walls of Hoosier Heights. As he waits on graduate school applications for sports marketing, Finnerty will soon embark on new training geared toward long course breaststroke for the 2020 Olympics.
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