By John Lohn
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pennsylvania, July 16. THE opportunity to represent the United States in international competition presents itself to only a handful of athletes. For that reason, the few who realize the dream look to savor the moment.
Count Ian Clark in that category.
The 22-year-old Malvern, Pennsylvania native, who trains under Charlie Kennedy at Suburban Swim Center in Newtown Square, fondly remembers the first time he represented the Red, White and Blue. He was a teenager then, competing at the 2003 Australian Youth Olympic Festival while a member of the United States National Junior Team.
That meet went well for Clark, as he captured a gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke. Now, a little more than four years later, Clark will try to duplicate his international success when he takes part in the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. Clark is scheduled to swim the 200 backstroke.
"It will definitely be a great opportunity, the biggest meet of my career," Clark said. "I've gone to a lot of Nationals and I went to Australia, but this is a lot bigger. It's so prestigious. I'm excited and hope I can bring home a medal. I'm focused."
Clark is the latest in a long line of Suburban Swim Center athletes to qualify for international duty, joining the likes of Olympians Carl Robie, Tim McKee, Brenda Borgh and Brendan Hansen. Whether he can bring some hardware back to the facility will soon be determined.
Before Clark teamed up with Kennedy at Suburban, he molded his talents as a youth under the watch of Glenn Neufeld at the Upper Main Line YMCA. From a family with a rich history in the sport, Clark was a 32-time YMCA All-American and landed a scholarship to Southern Methodist University. There, he became one of the most dominant swimmers in Conference USA.
But after his freshman year at SMU, located in Dallas, Clark opted for a change in his training locale. With Neufeld having left UMLY to become an assistant coach at the University of Alabama, Clark decided to give Suburban a shot. The decision made perfect sense, as two of his siblings, Jaffrey and Corrie, were already training with the club. Neufeld has since returned to UMLY, regarded as one of the premier YMCA programs in the country. His prize pupil these days, Delco Christian's Evan Reed, is one of the top recruits in the Class of 2008.
"Because Glenn was gone and because everything was going well with my brother and sister with (Kennedy), I decided to go to Suburban," said Clark, whose siblings have also enjoyed national-level success. "It turned out to be a great fit for me.
"(Kennedy) is very much a technician and that has been a huge benefit. He's given me new insights, but he also makes his athletes take the initiative and own their training. He makes you be your own boss and he knows how to work with each individual's abilities. It's been a good match."
In his final collegiate season, Clark excelled at the Conference USA Championships, winning gold medals in the 200 backstroke and 400 individual medley. In helping the Mustangs to a second consecutive team title, he also grabbed silver in the 200 I.M.
There's no reason to believe Clark is incapable of earning a medal at the Pan Am Games. With a personal best of 2:01.17 in the 200 backstroke, posted at last summer's U.S. Nationals, he's confident a sub-2:00 clocking is in his future. Should he crack the two-minute barrier, a podium position is a distinct possibility.
In Brazil, Clark will try to further the immense success the United States has enjoyed in the 200 back. The three-fastest performers in the event's history and four of the top five are Americans. At the World Championships in Melbourne earlier this year, the U.S. went one-two in the event behind Ryan Lochte and Aaron Peirsol, with Lochte setting a world record.
"I think it's pretty cool to be part of an event where the U.S. is so strong," said Clark, who was home-schooled. "It raises the bar. To make the Olympic Team next year, it's probably going to take a world record. In 1996, going 1:58 won the gold medal at the Olympics. Today, that might get fifth or sixth in the U.S. But, I think it's great when competition enhances an event."
A finance major and economics minor, Clark plans to delay his move into the working world while training for next year's Olympic Trials in Omaha. His six-day-a-week schedule features nine practices, with three days holding double sessions.
With a goal of reaching the 200 back final at Trials, Clark is also qualified in the 200 and 400 individual medley events. He's unsure of what his swimming future holds beyond the Olympic Trials, but knows his immediate plan: Produce a personal best at the Pan American Games.
"He's so talented and he's still improving," Kennedy said. "He works hard, but he's also good-natured and makes himself available to our younger kids. He has a lot of versatility and a great feel for the water. He knows how to pull it all together when it matters."