By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, May 4, 2018
Gunnar Bentz realized something at last summer’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships that had eluded him in the past.
In missing making the 2017 World Championship team a year after winning gold for the United States at the Rio Olympics, he came to the conclusion that in swimming, having a bad meet isn’t necessarily a failure.
If anything, it’s a lesson learned on the way to greater understanding and perspective.
“It’s more of a stepping stone toward getting better,” he said. “I went best times in every event except for the 200 free last year, so I really can’t complain. It just keeps me hungry for this summer.”
At Phillips 66 Nationals, Bentz may have missed getting a seat on the plane to Budapest, but he actually swam very well. His competition was just that much faster.
In addition to a third-place finish behind Georgia teammates and training mates (and 2016 Olympians) Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland in the 400 individual medley, Bentz notched fourth-place finishes in the 200 butterfly and 200 IM.
Surprisingly, in the event he made the 2016 Olympic team – the 200 free – he finished a disappointing 14th (5th at 2016 Olympic Trials).
“I went in to 2016 Trials with not a lot of expectations, and not many people know this, but I broke my heel about a month and a half out from the meet and didn’t think I would be in contention to make the team,” he said. “After a disappointing 400IM, I knew that my best shot would be the 200 free, so I just kept doing what I do best, which is swim a lot of races.
“I ended up placing 4th in three events and 5th in the 200 free. Funny thing was that I made the team in the event that I placed the lowest in, but I wasn’t complaining.”
In retrospect, he admits he went into Phillips 66 Nationals last summer with over-inflated expectations and ultimately set himself up for disappointment – but definitely not failure.
“Although most of my swims were best times, I was swimming for a spot on the Worlds Team – not for myself or to just have fun, like it should be,” he said. “I’m approaching this summer with a much different mentality than I had last year.
“For me, I have to take myself less seriously and know that whatever happens is just another chapter in my swimming career. Just being able to compete and showcase my capabilities excites me and motivates me.”
Almost two years removed from the incident with U.S. teammates Ryan Lochte, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen during the Rio Olympics, Bentz said that experience – being held at gunpoint and then later pulled off a plane headed home to give testimony about what happened at the gas station – has given him a whole new perspective about what’s important in life.
It was a great lesson in humility and the power that celebrity and notoriety as an athlete bring to his life – and how he chooses to use them to give back to the community in a variety of ways.
“Experiencing what we did in Rio taught me a ton about who I am as an athlete and as a person,” he said. “I returned home knowing that the people who stood with me were the ones who were actually important to me.
“I also learned to invest much more of my time in others, getting very involved in community service, mentoring and other leadership outlets around campus. My development came with the idea that no great man became great without struggles or obstacles.”
As far as his final year of collegiate swimming is concerned, he said he performed well at NCAAs despite being limited in his training for several months after breaking his collarbone in the fall.
And while he didn’t perform at the highest level he is used to, he did leave Georgia swimming with performances and times he was proud of.
“My main goal was to make A Finals in every race, which I did,” said Bentz, who will graduate in December. “I never really was a short course swimmer anyway, so it’s fine. I was happy with my races.”
Bentz said he is taking swimming year by year right now but remains focused on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
He’ll take an important step toward re-establishing himself as a top contender this summer at Phillips 66 Nationals, where the 2018 Pan Pacific and 2019 World Championship teams will be selected, but he knows going in that the level of competition will be at its highest and strongest in all of his events.
Whatever happens this year and moving forward in the pool, Bentz said he is ready for the next phase of his life – whenever that happens.
He knows his post-swimming life will be doing something in the aerospace industry, and he’s currently working an internship with a company in Athens called Torch Technologies.
“I am taking swimming year by year,” said Bentz, who is studying management with a minor in aerospace studies at Georgia. “If I am not having fun with it anymore, or find something else that interests me more, then that is the path I will choose.
“I love swimming just as much as ever so I do not plan on being done anytime soon, but I have big career goals outside of swimming.”
And as far as his overall career is concerned, Bentz said he is most proud of overcoming the many obstacles that he’s faced – broken clavicles, heels and international incidents among them.
None of them have derailed or detoured him from his ultimate goal: swimming fast and making himself and the people who have supported and continue to support him in his swimming and life proud.
“Swimming has given me innumerable opportunities and gifts – from simple, yet hugely important aspects such as a scholarship at a renowned university, to more complex aspects such as growth and strength in my principles, goals and capabilities both in and out of the water,” he said. “Swimming has brought me friends, mentors, and connections that will last for the rest of my life.
“Thanks to everyone for their continued support and interest – not just in me but also in the sport of swimming.”