By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, October 25, 2018
As a distance swimmer – spending many minutes in the water during competition – Robert Finke’s mind often wanders.
He’s not quite sure where it goes. All he knows is that once he starts his races – and often even during his lengthy practices – his mind goes into memory darkness.
It enters The Void.
“I never remember anything that I think about during my swims; it’s almost like I have temporary amnesia,” said Finke, a freshman at the University of Florida. “When I hit the wall, it’s like I have no memory of the last 15 or 16 minutes. But it’s OK. It works.”
His ventures into The Void are definitely working, especially the last couple of years.
After a finals showing in the 1500 freestyle at 2016 Olympic Trials, Finke backed that up with a spot on the World Championship Team in 2017.
This summer, he finished second to 2016 Olympian Jordan Wilimovsky in the same event at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships – and earned a spot on the 2018 Pan Pacific Championship team.
And despite finishing as the third ranked American the 800m and 1500 freestyle at Pan Pacs - behind U.S. teammates Wilimovsky and Zane Grothe, respectively – Finke said he left Tokyo with another swimming lesson under his belt and another competitive experience on his resume.
“Being on the (2017) World Team definitely helped me at Nationals this year as well as at Pan Pacs,” said Finke, who said he’s never tapered as much as he did to prepare for Phillips 66 Nationals and Pan Pacs and went under 15 minutes at Nationals for the first time.
“Each of these meets is a building block for the next one. I learned a lot at Worlds and that translated into me learning more at Pan Pacs.”
Unlike Worlds last year – where Finke admits he let the enormity of his first big international meet get the best of him, focusing on everyone else rather than himself – he took a much different approach to Pan Pacs this summer.
He also learned to trust in himself and his race strategy in Tokyo – staying with race favorite Jack McLoughlin from the first 50 to finish second in his heat behind Wilimovsky, who came on strong at the end of the race for the win. Grothe won his heat to take second place with a faster time than Finke’s third-place time.
And while his swim came up just short of earning a spot on next summer’s World Championship team (Wilimovsky and Grothe will represent the United States in the 1500 free), Finke’s performance secured his spot on next summer’s World University Games team competing in Napoli, Italy.
Finke said he’s excited for another opportunity to compete against strong international competition a year out from the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
A big part of the preparation will come the next two seasons at Florida and working with Coach Anthony Nesty and a team of top swimmers.
So far, he said the change from high school senior to college freshman has been good, but it hasn’t been without its challenges.
Still, having known most of his college teammates prior to arriving in Gainesville this fall has made the transition easier – and definitely more fun.
“I love having teammates who push me in the pool every day, and lifting weights along with training in the pool is different for me but I enjoy it,” said Finke, who started competitive swimming as a five-year-old, having followed older sisters, Autumn and Summer to the pool in Clearwater, Fla.
“I have gained so much confidence in my swimming the past couple of years, and now I feel ready to capitalize on that.
As a member of what’s evolving into a deep, fast group of U.S. men’s distance swimmers, Finke said he is excited to see what the United States can do in his events – 800 and 1500 – at Worlds and future meets against the world’s best competition.
He said knowing that his U.S. competitors and friends are putting in extra work in the water every day to reach that next level of performance motivates him every day in his own training.
And he and his teammates’ swims this summer at Pan Pacs are a good indicator that the United States is positioned well to bring home the first 1500 free Olympic gold since Michael O’Brien did in 1984 – although there have been a couple of silver medals (Larsen Jensen, 2004, and Connor Jaeger, 2016) and a bronze (Chris Thompson, 2000) since then.
“We definitely push each other every day even though we’re not physically training with one another,” Finke said. “Knowing that the other guys are putting in as much or more work than me in the pool and weight room is all the motivation I need to keep pushing forward.
“When it gets hard and I’m struggling physically in practice, I just remember what they’re doing, and it’s enough to keep me going. We need to keep pushing each other to make sure we’re right there and competitive at the next Olympics.”