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By Andy Ross, Swimming World Contributor
The Texas Invite has historically been one of the fastest mid-season invitationals in the sport of swimming. Texas usually fully rests for the meet to get cuts for NCAAs. The powerhouse Arizona team would often do the same, along with Southern Cal. Super teams Michigan, Auburn and Wisconsin would also send swimmers that were fully rested. The meet was sometimes an NCAA preview as the winner of each event would go on to be a favorite come March for NCAAs.
This past December’s Texas invite proved to be no different than year’s past with Texas, Arizona, Southern Cal, Stanford and Arizona State putting on quite a show in Austin. But there was a small Division II team in attendance that had one swimmer turn some heads on Thursday night of the meet.
Oklahoma Baptist senior David Lambert is a guy you have most likely never heard of. The 24-year-old Lambert won the Texas Invite with a 19.17, good for a new Division II NCAA record, getting under the 19.18 set by Lindenwood’s Serghei Golban from 2016.
Lambert had made some noise at the Missouri Invite a couple weeks prior when he finished second in the 50 with a 19.44, which was faster than the winning time at Division II NCAA’s last year, and would have scored in the B-Final at last year’s Division I meet. He was behind Missouri’s Luke Mankus (19.39) and finished ahead of 2017 World Championship team member Michael Chadwick (19.49).
Again, Oklahoma Baptist is a Division II school, and has been since the start of the 2015-2016 season, having previously competed as an NAIA school for many years. It was at the 2015 NAIA Championships where Lambert first laid eyes on the Oklahoma Baptist team led by Dr. Sam Freas.
“I saw at the NAIA Championships that his team had more fun and out-swam everyone, and I wanted to find out more about his approach to swimming,” Lambert said after he swam a lackluster meet at the 2015 NAIA nationals with St. Andrews.
Lambert’s college career actually started in the fall of 2012 with Daytona State, a junior college in his home state of Florida. Lambert finished fourth in the 2013 JUCO national championships with a 20.27, the same race that was won by 2014 NCAA Division I champion Brad Tandy.
But Lambert was forced to leave Daytona State after the team was cut, so he transferred to St. Andrews in Laurinburg, North Carolina where he started his sophomore year in the fall of 2013.
“I swam two years there and just wasn’t pleased with my results, so I contacted Dr. Sam Freas at Oklahoma Baptist.”
Although the team’s fun atmosphere appealed to him, he was also impressed by the swims of one specific swimmer.
“After seeing 5-foot-6 Daniel Ramirez go 42 in the 100 free, I really thought Sam could get anyone to go fast as long as they trusted him and his very unique way of coaching,” Lambert said. “I just knew that there was more in me and I felt like Sam Freas was the coach to get it out of me.”
So after the 2015 NAIA nationals where he was national champion in the 50 (19.81), Lambert went home to Florida where he trained for the 2016 Olympic Trials with National Training Center Aquatics in Clermont.
He ended up doing quite well at the Trials, placing 31st with a 22.92, tying Division III national champion Oliver Smith of Emory and national junior team member Jack Franzman.
Lambert made his debut at Oklahoma Baptist in the fall of 2017, the first year the school could compete at the NCAA level. He was a virtual no-name even at the Division II level heading into the season, since he had not swam at a college meet since this year’s senior class were freshman. But he quickly made a name for himself when he shot to the top of the national rankings after the Mizzou Invite. But the Texas Invite was really where he made heads turn.
He was the second seed going into finals behind Joseph Schooling and would be swimming next to Olympians Matt Grevers and Santo Condorelli.
“I was not nervous racing the people I did at the Texas Invite, being a D-II school and having those opportunities to race those quality guys like Schooling and Grevers I wanted to take advantage of it and very much looked forward to getting to face that type of competition,” he said.
With virtually no pressure on him in the final, Lambert beat out all the Olympians and broke the Division II NCAA record in the process. But even though he had gone another best time, Lambert is still expecting more.
“I was hoping to go a little faster while we were training hard and working through the semester,” he said. “But the times will come when the time is right and we can actually rest.”
With his time, Lambert currently ranks fifth in the entire NCAA sitting behind Olympians Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Held, as well as Alabama’s Robert Howard and Cal super freshman Ryan Hoffer.
If Lambert can bring his 50 time down under 19 seconds, he will become the first swimmer at a non-Division I school to ever break the barrier. But Lambert doesn’t think too much about time.
“Our coach does not believe in time goals and doesn’t even give our sprint times (in practice) because he thinks they are limiting.” Instead, Lambert says Freas uses verbal cues when a race is good or bad, instead of giving out times, and it works for him.
Even though he isn’t focused on time, Lambert’s intense attention to detail has made him the fastest man in Division II and one of the fastest men in all of the NCAA.