By Scott Cacciola
NEW HAVEN, Conn., June 25. A pungent blast of chlorine hits Ben Michaelson every time he reaches the pool deck of Hutchinson Natatorium at Southern Connecticut State. It all feels so familiar, the routine and the humidity and the adrenaline.
After five years of training with the singular goal of making the U.S. Olympic Team, Michaelson still sticks to the same masochistic schedule, waking up before 6 in the morning and training twice a day. He even has the same locker — the small one in the corner, which has the unfortunate distinction of being situated next to the toilet. He also points out that the school’s most decorated athlete has yet to receive a key to the building.
"I think they should give me a key pretty soon," Michaelson said, "and maybe my own parking space."
Good-natured but determined, Michaelson has done more than swim 45 miles a week and win 10 NCAA Division II titles at Southern. He has also cultivated a severe and self-professed chip on his shoulder, a me-against-the-world mentality that has fueled his drive to the cusp of an Olympic berth.
Eighteen days remain until Michaelson, 23, mounts a starting block at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Long Beach, Calif. The third-ranked American in the 100-meter butterfly, Michaelson knows that only the top two finishers will qualify for the Summer Olympic Games in August. Michael Phelps and Ian Crocker, considerably higher-profile athletes who happen to be the two fastest men in the history of the event, stand between Michaelson and Athens, Greece.
"I think all along it’s just been to prove to myself that I’m the best athlete I can possibly be," said Michaelson, who grew up in Seymour. "And after kind of getting snubbed by Division I coaches, it’s about proving to them and to my critics that I am a good athlete and that I don’t need their big budgets or their big, fancy training facilities to be a good athlete and beat their guys."
Michaelson never got a whiff of consideration from Division I programs — no scholarship offers, not even a form letter expressing interest. And even though Michaelson maintains that he can only control his own performance and what happens in the narrow confines of his lane, it seems clear that he has used Phelps and Crocker as motivation.
Phelps, 18, has emerged as the poster boy for the U.S. Olympic effort, pegged by NBC Sports as the great American hope and endorsed by more than six companies, including Speedo, which has offered him a $1 million bonus if he can match the seven gold medals Mark Spitz won in 1972. Phelps, who lives and trains in suburban Baltimore, holds world records in three other events.
Crocker, a 22-time All-American at the University of Texas, set the world record of 50.98 seconds in the 100 butterfly last year. At a meet two weeks ago, unshaved and untapered, he posted a time of 51.61 seconds, the fourth-fastest result in history. Michaelson set his personal best of 52.76 seconds last year at a national meet against Australia in Indianapolis.
"Even though most people who know them like Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps, I think a lot of people will be rooting for Ben," said Phil Whitten, editor-in-chief of Swimming World magazine. "It’s the traditional American ethos of rooting for the underdog. Here's Michaelson, a guy coming from a tiny school, going up against a guy who’s had every advantage in college, in Crocker, and another who’s essentially had his own coach since he was 11, in Phelps."
Michaelson has taken an unorthodox path to contend for a spot on the team. He still trains at Southern with coach Tim Quill, without the benefit of world-class teammates or lots of endorsement opportunities. His summer workout buddies include teenagers with the Southern/Northern Connecticut Swim Club, who often swim seven to a lane at Hutchinson. Michaelson, it should be noted, does get his own lane during workouts.
"If Ben were to knock one of those two guys off and make the Olympic team, it would be monumental," Quill said. "I mean, that would be a huge story."
Michaelson finished up his NCAA eligibility last year and needs about a dozen credits to graduate from Southern, but he took the spring semester off to train for the Olympics. His sole focus since August has been to finish among the top two at the trials. On July 12, the top 16 in the morning preliminaries will advance to the semifinals that night. The top eight will then compete in the finals on July 13.
"It’s all about timing and peaking at the right time," Quill said, "and I think by us continuing to add just a little bit more to his daily regimen over the past four years, we’ve promoted the chance that he can have that pinnacle swim, that once-in-a-lifetime swim at the Olympic Trials."
The volume of his workouts has been pared in recent weeks so that his muscles feel fresh and sharp. The emphasis has been on short, intense practice sessions and maintaining his form. Quill says Michaelson intends to break 52 seconds, which would give him a solid chance.
"And if those two guys both go under the existing world record and do something that one year ago would have been considered absolutely inhuman, hey, not too much I can do about that," Michaelson said.
A lot has happened since Michaelson finished 20th at the trials in 2000. He became a household name in the Valley and cracked the national radar. He watched his name take nine of the 14 slots on the Southern school-record list. He also learned to embrace the underdog role, even comparing himself to Rocky Balboa, who went to train in Siberia before beating the indomitable Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV."
Michaelson said he can already sense the nervous excitement of being led to the blocks before a crowd of 10,000 in Long Beach. Five years of work will be distilled into little more than 50 seconds.
"When it comes down to the final few minutes before the race, everything else gets shut out," he said. "They walk you out to the blocks, get behind your lane and there’s really nothing except for you and a 50-meter stretch of water that’s 9-feet wide."
Scott Cacciola is a writer for the New Haven Register.