By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Monday, July 10, 2017
Before the start of last week’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, True Sweetser thought his best opportunity to make this summer’s FINA World Championships team would come later in the week in the 800 freestyle.
Fortunately for him, he took care of securing his seat to Budapest on the first day of competition – winning the arduous 1,500 freestyle.
And he did it his way.
“Last year at Olympic Trials, I didn’t swim my race, and I had a disappointing finish,” said Sweetser, who finished 14th in the 1500 free last summer in Omaha. “Even when everyone went out fast and I was behind most of the race, I didn’t panic. I swam my race.”
Sweetser said going into the event, he wanted to stay near the back of the pack but within striking distance so that when there were only a few hundred meters left, he would have a lot “left in the tank” and could make his move.
He did just that in Indianapolis – biding his time while staying no more than a couple of body lengths behind the leaders.
And when the time was right, Sweetser slowly inched his way forward, passing the leaders to win by more than a body length.
But he said remaining patient through the first 1200 meters of the race was far from easy.
“I’d be lying if I said it was easy to chase the leaders for most of the race, but I knew what my game plan wa,s and I followed it as we laid out in practice,” said Sweetser, who followed his “disappointing” Olympic Trials with a second-place finish in a then-personal-best time (15:04.52) in the 1500 freestyle and third-place finish in the 400 free at the 2016 U.S. Open to earn a spot on the National Team.
“My best races have always come when I go out more controlled. I knew what my pacing needed to be, and I was ready to make my move when the time was right.”
With the win, Sweetser – whose first name is Nicholas but he goes by his middle name, True, which is a family name he shares with two great, great uncles – is realizing a dream he didn’t think was possible even after he finished second in the same event two years ago at Nationals.
When he finished third and out of contention to add the 800 free to his World repertoire, Sweetser said he was reflective and very fortunate to have swum the race he wanted to qualify for the team.
“Swimming the 1500 the first day took a lot out of me, so by the time I swam the 800, I didn’t have much left,” said Sweetser, who finished his freshman year at Stanford this spring.
“I’ve had steady drops in my 1500 free time over the past couple of years, so I’m ready to see what I can do in Budapest. I know it will take a sub-15 minute time just to make the final. That’s my goal at this point.”
Sweetser said he has focused on making some improvements to his stroke over the past year on the Farm as well as practicing at a higher tempo without using a lot of legs so he has more in reserves at the end of his races.
“The plan is to split the last 100 with a lot of legs, and I’ve added strength and lowered my stroke count and tempo which has enabled me to have a higher body position in the water,” he said.
He competed at Short Course Worlds last December, finishing sixth in the final, and gained a ton of confidence while realizing there is a definite difference between short and long course strategy.
As he sees it, it’s like comparing apples and oranges, but when he put his short course time into a meters time converter, he was hovering around the sub-15 minute mark – something he had never accomplished prior to his race at Nationals.
“Knowing that I was capable of hitting that time also gave me a tremendous boost in confidence,” he said. “With that in the back of my mind, it just propelled me even more in practice to want to prove that I could make the conversion a reality in the pool.”
As the baby of 6 – 14 years younger than his closest sibling – Sweetser said he grew up largely as an only child even though his brothers and sisters were and always have been part of his life.
His older siblings all swam (four in college), so when it was his turn, despite all of them having left the family house, he also took to the water naturally.
Living in Panama City, Fla., at the time, he swam often in his family pool and liked the sport right away. He quickly discovered he had a talent for the water, and kept with it even when the family moved to Idaho for his father’s work as an oncologist.
When it was time for him to choose a college, Sweetser said he gravitated toward the academics and swimming of Stanford – and having family in San Francisco made the transition easier.
“Moving cross country would have otherwise been daunting for me, but my parents are both from the Bay area and I have an aunt nearby so I stay close to my family,” he said.
And even though he just finished his first year at Stanford a couple of weeks before Nationals, Sweetser said it was easy to change his focus from school to competition – and now he’s ready to make the transition to focusing on swimming well and representing the United States at a high level at World Championships – the biggest meet of his young life.
“I think Trials last summer and now (the past two) Nationals have prepared me well for a meet the magnitude of Worlds,” he said. “I’ve had goals to represent the United States at a big meet like Worlds since elementary or middle school, so I’ve been thinking about it for years.
“Now it’s a reality, and I just want to do my best and wear the USA cap with honor and swim well. It seemed so far out of reach until the past couple of years, and it still seems a little surreal when I really think about it, but I’m ready to swim fast and have a fun experience at Worlds.”