VANCOUVER, British Columbia, December 4. WHEN Luke Reilly decided to attend the University of British Columbia it was because the school not only satisfied his present needs but also could address his future swimming goals.
After carefully judging the pros and cons of many schools the Richmond, B.C., native decided to stay home because UBC offered him some continuity. A successful career with the UBC Thunderbirds could earn him a spot on Canada’s national swim team and allow him to continue training at the National Swim Centre — Vancouver.
“I wanted to stay at UBC because it was world-class swimming and a world-class school,” said the 17-year-old, whose goal is to compete at an Olympic Games. “I really like the team, the coaches and the environment.
“It’s really fluid. I get to train with the national training centre. There are lots of other swimmers on the team that already have gone to the senior national level.”
Reilly was recently named Swimming Canada’s Junior Male Swimmer of the Year. His fifth-place finish in the 400-m individual medley at the FINA World Junior Championships in Dubai set a national age group record.
Tom Johnson, the long-time UBC and national team coach, said Reilly was identified early as one of the up-and-coming age group swimmers in the Lower Mainland. He swam with the UBC Dolphins program, so moving onto the Thunderbirds was the next logical step.
“He’s a good enough swimmer but he was somewhat under the radar,” said Johnson. “He had decided pretty much last spring he was going to stay in Canada.”
Enrolling at another university in Canada or the U.S. would mean adapting to a different city and new coaches.
“This has been so much easier,” said Reilly. “The coaches I am coached by here now, I have been coached by for the past two years.
“I was pretty comfortable with them. It was a natural environment and pretty stress free. It was really easy to get used to.”
Reilly admitted he did consider heading south of the border.
“I did give some thought about going to the States,” he said. “I had an SAT tutor. I was getting ready to write my SATs when I decided I really wanted to go to UBC. I wanted to stay in Canada.”
Johnson said the Thunderbird program develops its swimmers with an eye to moving them onto Canada’s national team where they can challenge for Olympic and world championship medals. Many U.S. universities have different priorities for their swimmers.
“We have a have continuity of care,” said Johnson. “We have a program that will look after those kids 11 months of the year and keep moving them toward the international scene as a priority.
“In the United States their priority is, first and foremost, score points for me at the NCAA or conference championship. Our whole program is more about getting them into the international arena, then blooding them and developing them in that arena.”
Reilly, the oldest of three children, was actually born in Dallas, where his father was doing his residency for medical school. The family stayed there for only a few weeks after he was born.
“It was an accident of birth,” Reilly laughed.
Growing up Reilly attended Red Cross swim programs and was swimming competitively by age five. For the last few years he’s been coached by Brian Johns, a three-time Canadian Olympian and former world record holder.
Reilly made his mark at the 2012 Summer Nationals when he won the 400-metre individual medley, which qualified him for the Junior Pan Pacs. This year he represented Canada on the Australian Junior Tour and competed at the NSW Age Championships where he won three medals.
Reilly showed flashes of his potential at the FINA World Junior Championships in Dubai where he finished fifth in the 400-metre individual medley. He was the fastest swimmer in the preliminaries, then his time in the final knocked more than two seconds off the previous national age group mark of 4:20.67 set by Alec Page in 2011.
For Reilly the meet was a taste of what to expect when he sinks his teeth into more senior competition.
“It was a lot like a senior meet at a junior level,” he said. “It was a great stepping stone for progressing to the senior level.
“You could see what it was like but not have the full stress of the senior meet. It was a dress rehearsal for senior meets.”
Reilly, who also swims the 200-m IM and 200-m butterfly, brings some idiosyncrasies to the pool. In the past, he would drink a Pepsi before racing in the 1,500-m. He still slaps his quads on the starting block before a race.
So far racing at the university level has been a learning curve.
“You have to go from race to race, even if you are tired or even if you are stressed,” Reilly said. “You have to keep going, not let the stress or exams get in your way.
“You just swim.”
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