Blast From the Past: How Ben Michaelson Shattered the Norm and Became a Pioneer

Ben Michaelson 2

Blast From the Past: How Ben Michaelson Shattered the Norm and Became a Pioneer

Pioneers change minds. They show what is attainable. They dispel pre-conceived notions. And, perhaps most important, they open doors and provide opportunities for the next generation. Simply, they have a lasting impact. One such pioneer was Ben Michaelson.


Flash back to 2002. As a junior at Southern Connecticut State University, Ben Michaelson was a standout, flourishing in the butterfly and sprint-freestyle events. The year ended with Michaelson capturing a second consecutive NCAA Division II Swimmer of the Year award, and his time of 46.25 in the 100-yard butterfly opened some eyes.

For many observers, though, Michaelson was merely a lower-level performer. Not Division I? Not part of a blue-blood program? Then, who cares?

It was an unfortunate scenario, but one that ultimately proved beneficial. See, Michaelson embraced his position. With the support and guidance of Coach Tim Quill, the Division II star adopted an against-the-world mentality.

A year later, Michaelson was firmly in the spotlight—where he truly belonged.


Ben Michaelson

Photo Courtesy: Peter Bick

“Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of swimming for a powerhouse Division I program,” Michaelson said. “I remember getting the (Swimming World) NCAA issue every spring and imagining myself on the cover with my team, throwing the coach in the pool and hoisting that big championship trophy.

“The fact is, it just wasn’t in the cards for me. I grew up in a factory town and swam for a (recreation) team. There was only one Division I program that even returned my calls, and the head coach didn’t show up to the meeting with my parents when I was on an official visit. At that time, I think there were about four people on earth who believed in my talent: me, my parents and Tim Quill.”

Coming out of high school, Michaelson owned performances good enough to land at a Division I school—maybe not a top-10 program, but certainly at several institutions in the D-I ranks. The fact that only one top-level school got in touch speaks to the complicated nature of recruiting, and how athletes can go overlooked.

With Quill valuing his skill set and potential, Michaelson committed to Southern Connecticut State in New Haven. It also helped that Michaelson physically matured during his senior year of high school, his body finally able to complement the work he logged in the pool and through dryland training. During the course of high school, Michaelson bloomed from a 55-high sophomore in the 100 yard butterfly to a 50-low performer as a senior.

The relationship with Quill enabled Michaelson to take the next step, and his profile rose to a point where he was known beyond the walls of Division II. Of course, Michaelson retained his “I’ll-Show-You” demeanor and used his internal motivation to package a senior season that remains an epic storyline in the history of collegiate swimming.


At the 2003 NCAA Division II Championships, Michaelson was the center of attention—and repeatedly delivered. In addition to sweeping the sprint freestyles, Michaelson—who long dedicated himself to perfecting his underwater abilities—claimed victory in the 200 butterfly. Yet, what he managed in the 100 butterfly is what carried him to the top of the sport.

Behind a time of 45.60, Michaelson delivered a Division II record and a performance that—at the time—was the fastest in the country, regardless of level. The only question was whether the effort would hold up through the Division I Championships, and an assault from Olympian Ian Crocker. Ultimately, Crocker produced a time of 45.67, enabling Michaelson to secure the all-division crown for the year.

“Everything for me in swimming was personal,” Michaelson said. “From the time I was 8 years old, all I thought about was beating people. I still remember all their names and the details of our races. I knew that I wouldn’t have a chance to race Ian Crocker head-to-head in yards in 2003, but it was my goal to swim a time faster than him, and I did. We both swam in a pool that was the same length from end to end. Times don’t lie.”


With his college career concluded, Michaelson shifted his focus to representing the United States in international competition, which included pursuit of a spot on the squad bound for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Before chasing that opportunity, Michaelson competed for Team USA at the 2003 Duel in the Pool in April, when he completed an American sweep of the 100 butterfly with Michael Phelps and Crocker versus Australia. Two months later, he set an American record in the 100 butterfly (SCM), then in August, he mined gold at the 2003 Pan American Games in the 100 fly and as a member of the 400 medley relay, setting Pan Am Games records in both events.

As Michaelson headed to the 2004 Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Crocker and Phelps were tabbed as the heavy favorites. Indeed, the outcome was chalk, with Crocker breaking the world record. A month later, it was Phelps who grabbed gold at the Games, as the future 28-time Olympic medalist rallied in the final strokes to clip his American teammate.

Still, Michaelson acquitted himself in fine fashion. With a third-place finish at Trials, Michaelson added another chapter to his fairytale rise in the sport. More, he continued to motivate and inspire, supplying proof that excellence can emerge from all corners.

“I laid it all out there in that parking lot in Long Beach, and I came up short,” Michaelson said. “Ian broke the world record in 50.76 that day, and Michael was right behind him. I was a lot closer to fourth than second. That’s how it works out sometimes. I have no regrets because I know that I trained my hardest and gave it my all.”

While Michaelson represented the United States admirably in the pool, he dedicated himself to his country in 2008, when he began serving as a combat medic in the United States Army. Michaelson served in that role through 2013, as part of the First Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, Third Infantry Division based at Fort Stewart, Ga. Deployed to Iraq in 2010 and to Afghanistan in 2012, Michaelson was honorably discharged in 2013 with the rank of sergeant. His military accolades include the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal.


These days, Michaelson resides on a small farm in Texas and works in the healthcare industry on electronic medical record software. Married with two children, Michaelson is joined on his farm by several pets, enjoys working in his vegetable garden and knows a thing or two about woodworking.

When he looks back, his days in the water remain meaningful. Specifically, he recalls racing at the Duel in the Pool, and deeply appreciates the path that took him to the international stage.

“The moment that stands out for me was when David Marsh approached me and my coach in the warm-down pool at spring nationals in 2003 and invited me to be part of the first Duel in the Pool team that would face Australia in a couple of days,” Michaelson said. “This was my first-ever national team appearance. I got to be on America’s best swim team and race in front of a packed house at The Nat…I got a swim cap with an American flag on it…I got a Team USA parka. I still have them both, and I will never forget that day. And I know that that day would have never happened if I hadn’t made the best choice for me and gone to Division II Southern Connecticut State.”

Where he became a pioneer.

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Pat tully
Pat tully
1 year ago

Inspiring on many levels in life!

Steele Robert
Steele Robert
1 year ago

Bobby Dymitro saw Ben’s great kick as he pushed off at the 75 and decided he’d kick like that as a senior. He kicked to the 15 meter mark in every practice but never passed Ben’s magic 45.60 time A big THANKS to Ben and Coach Quill for a wonderful skill and challenge!

Glenn Partelow
Glenn Partelow
1 year ago

Bed was my student in science class. His father my captain on the team I coached in HS His mom in my class and later taught physics next to me……FAMILY MATTERS!

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