Editorial coverage sponsored by SpeedoUSA
Commentary by Jeff Commings
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, March 27. WHEN I walked onto the deck of the IU Natatorium earlier this morning, all the memories from almost 30 years of competing in this hallowed facility came rushing back to me almost immediately.
I can understand why any of the competitors at the men's NCAA Division I swimming and diving championships would have gotten goosebumps when they first walked on deck earlier this week. It's a facility that has a rich history, including four Olympic Trials that saw numerous world records and close to a dozen NCAA championships that left a lot of proverbial blood in the water.
The first time I visited “The Nat” was in 1986 for the zone championships. I was 12 years old, and it was the first time I was racing in a pool further than 150 miles from my hometown of St. Louis. I had never seen a pool that had so much spectator seating and I was fascinated by the facility's unique starting blocks, which seemed gigantic when I was 12. I swam the 50 and 100 breast there, and I did quite well, getting into the national top 16 for my age group.
I wouldn't return to the pool until I was 18 for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials. If you have read my autobiography, you know exactly what transpired that day, specifically how I missed making the finals after being seeded fourth and proceeded to blame Jenny Thompson for my failure to swim fast. While it is true that seeing Jenny Thompson break the world record in the 100 free just 10 minutes before I was set to swim the 100 breast rattled my nerves, I do believe the gravity of the situation was slowly becoming reality. I was about to swim for a chance to be a part of the most respected community of swimmers on the planet, and I wasn't sure I was ready for it.
At the time, the Nat was the biggest swimming facility in the country. Though other pools around the country were as fast (Federal Way, Austin), they could not match the noise level when things got exciting. Yes, the temporary pools built in Long Beach and Omaha for the 2008 and 2012 Trials got twice as many people packed into a facility, but even the nosebleeds in the Nat still felt like they were part of the action, thus the sensation of 7,000 spectators in the IU facility nearly matching that of the CenturyLink Center at last summer's Trials.
I wasn't able to shake the demons from the 1992 Trials when I returned to the pool two weeks later for my first NCAA championships. To say I swam horribly is an understatement. I didn't make the championship final of the 100 breast, and I wasn't very good on our medley relays. To add insult to injury, I shaved my head completely bald for the meet, which caused a lot of ingrown hairs that tormented me for weeks.
I had to put that experience behind me for the 1993 NCAA championships. Stanford was the heavy favorite to win the team title, but we wanted to not make it easy. My performance on the 400 medley relay was atrocious; I took my Texas teammates from second to fourth after my 54.4 on the breaststroke leg, and that's where we stayed at the end of the race.
The next day was the 100 breast, and I knew I needed to be fast to make what was bound to be a very close final. I swam a lifetime best of 54.25 in prelims, placing me third overall. For some reason, I wasn't nervous for finals, and the excitement of the meet carried me to another lifetime best of 53.76, good enough for third place. It would be the fastest time I would swim in the 100-yard breast, and my highest place at the NCAAs.
Video of Jeff Commings in the 100 breast at the 1993 NCAA championships:
I was unable to catch lightning in a bottle again for my final three competitions at the Nat as an elite swimmer, and I am certain it had to do with my failure to completely take in the essence of the facility and use it to my advantage. (A failure to properly prepare for the meets also played a role.) At the 1994 world championship trials, I failed to make the final of the 100 breast, swimming about a second slower than my lifetime best. It was a fast year in the 100 breast, when Seth Van Neerden broke the American record and I was forced to watch it happen from the pool deck. I remember the capacity crowd giving him a standing ovation and erupting with cheers. The noise in the building was so loud, the deck rumbled.
The 1995 NCAAs and the 1996 Olympic Trials went by in a blur. My memories of those meets grow fainter every year, which is just fine with me. I can't remember one happy memory from my swims at those meets, but two memories that have nothing to do with me stand out.
At the 1996 Olympic Trials, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy as Tom Dolan and Erik Namesnik waged war in the 400 IM, coming close to the world record. As I mentioned before, even the nosebleeds felt so close to the pool that they might have felt a splash or two from Dolan's kick.
The other memory came near the end of the meet, when Byron Davis was attempting to become the first African-American to make the Olympic swim team. With 25 meters to go in the final of the 100 butterfly, it appeared he would do it, and the spectators knew history in the making when they saw it. People were on their feet, cheering Davis through those painful final 10 meters. And though it wasn't enough to get him on the team, the crowd nearly tore the roof down.
When I retired from the sport in 1998, I never thought I would return to the Nat again. At the time, I hadn't fully realized that I had my best and worst swims of my life in that pool, a distinction that makes it one of the few pools in the world to hold a permanent place in my memory.
I was happy to get the chance to swim there again in 2004, when United States Masters Swimming held its short course nationals there. I had a very good meet, going 6-for-6 in individual events and breaking a national record. Though the meet was being held in the hallowed IU Natatorium, the Masters vibe gave the meet a more relaxed feel, though everyone this was not just some neighborhood pool.
I'm glad the facility is still used for top-notch competitions, including this month's NCAA championships and the world championship trials USA Swimming will hold in late June. Whether it's stepping onto those mammoth starting blocks, seeing the light reflect off the stainless steel lines at the bottom or being inspired by the names of Olympians on the wall, everyone who steps onto the deck at the Nat leaves with a lasting memory of the place. I am hopeful the building will still be around to make memories for many future generations.
Feel free to share your memories of swimming at The Nat with us by posting a comment in our Reaction Time section below.