By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, March 3, 2017
Close, but no cigar.
That’s how Jordan Wilimovsky’s excellent Olympic adventure last summer in Rio de Janeiro can be summed up.In his pool event – the 1500 freestyle – he finished fourth and just missed the medal stand. A few days later in the Open Water 10K race in the Atlantic Ocean at Copacabana Beach, he trailed for the first half of the race but made a furious rally at the end only to come up short again.
This time, he was fifth – but only missed a medal by three seconds.
Rather than leave the meet filled with disappointment or bitterness, however, Wilimovsky chose to look back on his entire 2016 and focus on the positives – and look forward to future opportunities.
“I had an incredible year last year and was very fortunate to be able to represent the U.S. on the Olympic stage,” said Wilimovsky, a senior at Northwestern University. “My goal all year was to make the 1500 free and open water competition, so to be able to do both was really cool.
“The turnaround between events was pretty short, but the U.S. staff did a great job making sure I was prepared to race.”
Regardless of his outcomes in Rio, Wilimovsky accomplished something no other U.S. swimmer had done since the open water 10k competition was introduced to the Olympics in 2008.
When he finished second in the 1500 free at Olympic Trials, he became the first American swimmer to compete in both pool and open water events in the same Games.
No doubt a great feat, this wasn’t the first time Wilimovsky did this at a major international competition. At the 2014 Pan Pacific Games, he also competed in the 1500 free and open water competition – also leaving the meet with no medals.
Still, considering when he first started swimming at the age of 10 he didn’t believe he would ever make an Olympic team, his summer of 2016 was quite fantastic.
“For a long time, I wasn’t very good; however, toward the end of high school, I started to improve and have significant time drops and thought it would be an outside possibility to make the team,” he said.
“From there, I just worked to improve every day, year by year, and the possibility of making the team became more and more realistic.”
Wilimovsky started doing open water when he was 16 at the recommendation of his coach Dave Kelsheimer.
His first venture into open water swimming came at the 2011 Open Water Nationals when his coach suggested he give the 5K competition a try.
And while he said he didn’t have an option to decline, the experience proved life-changing for him.
He was hooked.
“He just said I was entered and going to do it,” Wilimovsky said. “I did terribly. I wasn’t prepared. I had no idea really what to expect. The water was rough and choppy, and when I turned to go to the finish, I kind of lost my way.
“The result was pretty bad, but the experience itself proved pivotal for me. I learned how much I enjoyed the competition, but I still wanted to keep competing in the pool as well.”
In 2012 at Olympic Trials, Wilimovsky said he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the event.
Three years later at Open Water World Championships – having a couple of NCAA Championships, National Championships and the 2014 Pan Pacific Championship under his belt – he said he was much better prepared, setting the tone for a great 2015 that carried over into the Olympic year.
“I was really happy with how I swam at Worlds in 2015, but I think one of the best parts of racing great athletes is that you can immediately see what you need to improve upon,” said Wilimovsky, who has encountered his fair share of “experiences” during open water swims, including getting stung by a jellyfish he mistook for a floating plastic bag at the 20k marker of the 25k competition at 2013 World Championships.
“So I was fortunate to make the team a year out, and just focus on improving and racing all year without feeling any pressure or need to do well at any meet other than the Olympics.
When he went to Olympic Trials last summer, Wilimovsky said he felt a sense of calmness – no pressure – because he knew he was already heading to Rio to compete in open water. He qualified at World Championships the previous summer.
Enjoying success in both the pool and open water, he said he hopes to want to continue competing in both moving forward.
With his graduation from Northwestern coming this June, he’s already decided to keep swimming at least through the 2020 Olympic Trials with the intent of continuing to improve and be right there to make his second Olympic team.
But if he had to choose, he’d most likely focus on open water. He’s been a lover of outdoor swimming since he started surfing as a youngster in his hometown of Malibu, Calif.
“I like both pool and open water, but open water is fun because you get to travel to these cool beaches and get away from the pool,” said Wilimovsky, who will earn his degree in political science.
“I would like to keep swimming for a couple of years, and then I’m not entirely sure as far as career plans go...hopefully find a job.”
Last weekend at Big Ten Championships, Wilimovsky finished second in the 1650 (yards) freestyle. With NCAA Championships still a couple of weeks away, he knows he has time to fix a few things so he can make a concerted run toward winning his first NCAA title in his final collegiate meet.
After redshirting last year to focus on the Olympics and with all the success he’s experienced over the past year or so, he said he’s enjoying swimming now more than ever.
“I think once you make a National Team or something like that, it really motivates you to get back there and keep making teams,” said Wilimovsky, who is looking forward to Open Water National Championships in May and Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – which will decide the 2017 World Championship team – at the end of June.
“I still find it really fun. Swimming-wise, I have different goals and training but I still really enjoy coming in everyday and training to try and get better. I think it’s just fun to swim and improve. I have some goal times I still want to achieve so that definitely motivates me every day.”