Bobby Finke Surprised Even Himself With 14:12 1650 at SECs, But Will Miss Opportunity For Encore at NCAAs

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Bobby Finke tore apart the record books in the 1650 at SECs. But with no NCAAs this year, he won't get a chance for an encore performance at NCAAs. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Editorial content for the 2020 NCAA DI Men's Swimming & Diving Championships coverage is sponsored by GMX7 Training. See full event coverage.
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Editor’s Note: Bobby Finke and the rest of the college swimmers had their NCAA championship meets cancelled Thursday because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The following is a preview written before the meet was cancelled:

For 14 straight minutes, Florida’s Bobby Finke was at the center of attention at the SEC Swimming and Diving Championships in Auburn, Alabama. From the time he dove into the pool for the 1650-yard freestyle on the final night of the five-day meet to the time he touched, Finke was in the lead. He was under record pace from the get-go, and kept building and building ahead of the fastest men in history. Leaving everyone, even the history books, in his wake.

Finke touched the wall at 14:12.08, knocking six seconds off Zane Grothe’s American record of 14:18.25 from December 2017, and 10 full seconds off the NCAA record set by Clark Smith in the epic 2017 showdown three years ago.

But Finke did not expect to swim the time that he did. In January, he had fallen ill right before the Gators’ meet against Tennessee, leaving him a bit shaky mentally and physically heading into SECs.

“I wasn’t expecting to break the record at all to be honest,” Bobby Finke told Swimming World. “I knew I had a shot at breaking it going into the race but I didn’t think I was going to break it at SECs, I was going to try and break it at NCAAs.

“When I broke the record it was a really big shock to me and I couldn’t believe I actually did it there.”

Although Finke did not expect to break the record in the way that he did, his teammates were not at all surprised at what happened.

“From his performances and his training this year and how he has been in the water, I knew he was going to do something really really crazy,” said fellow sophomore Kieran Smith, who broke the American record in the 500 free at SECs. “I saw him flip in 4:15 and there was no chance that any records were going to stand after that. I was so proud of him.

“I knew he earned that and I think he is going to go even faster in a couple weeks.”

Finke’s record holder status should not come as a surprise to those who have followed him the last couple of years. He made the World Championships team after his junior year of high school in the 1500 freestyle, finishing 21st at the 2017 Worlds. In 2018, he was second at US Nationals in the 1500 and was ranked eighth in the world just before he went off to Gainesville to start his freshman season.

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Bobby Finke at the 2017 US Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

At SECs last year as a freshman, he got within a second of Clark Smith’s NCAA record, swimming a 14:23. That swim earned him the top seed at NCAAs. But at NCAAs the pressure got to him and he wound up adding 19 seconds to finish 12th.

Overthinking had plagued him as a freshman on the big stage last year, and it was a great learning experience for him.

This past summer, he won three LCM national championships in the 800 and 1500 free, and the 400 IM. His 1500 swim, although three seconds off his lifetime best, put him 10th in the world for 2019.

Finke is currently in his sophomore year at the University of Florida where he trains under Anthony Nesty. Sophomore year is a telling time in a swimmer’s career. With a year under their belt, ideally the swimmer is supposed to be a year stronger, wiser, and faster. That sophomore jump was evident at Florida, where Finke and Kieran Smith both broke American records at SECs.

Their records were the result of the environment that was built in Gainesville this year. The men at Florida were all-in on the team.

“There was a lot of doubt coming in for our class since we lost a lot of transfers, like a lot of big names. So there was a lot of doubt that we couldn’t win SECs. We were really motivated to try and prove everyone wrong.”

Florida entered this season as the seven-time defending champions in the Southeastern Conference. They lost Maxime Rooney and Erge Gezmis to transfers. Trey Freeman also redshirted this year because of an injury. The Gators had lost a lot, but they set the tone on night one of SEC’s with a win in the 800 free relay. Kieran Smith led off with a 1:30.11, which put him fourth all time in the 200 free.

It set the tone. And the Gators took off from there.

And the next night, Smith swam the fastest 500 freestyle in history with a 4:06.32.

“It really motivated everyone to get going,” Bobby Finke said of watching Smith swim. “I roomed with him at SECs so it was really fun to be around him and everything and he was really getting everyone excited too.”

Finke and Smith intersect in training three days per week, where they train for the 400 IM and 500 free together.

“It’s spectacular,” Smith said of training with Finke. “We have a really good environment. We are always pushing each other. Usually he gets me pretty good in long course but in short course I like to keep it close with him. He is a beast in training.”

“I would say half the time we train together and always racing,” Finke said of Smith. “More 500 and IM training. A lot more IM than 500. When it gets to the longer stuff, it’ll just be me and Brennan Gravley.”

Florida’s distance group is stacked and it showed at SECs when the Gators put five in the A-Final in the 400 IM.

“There was one practice in the fall in October I think and we were doing repeat 400 IM’s on like 4:40 or something,” Smith said. “By the end of the set, the five people in the A-Final: me, Bobby, Grant (Sanders), Miguel (Cancel) and Kevin (Vargas) were all hitting under 4:00 for 400 IMs and it was that practice when I was like ‘wow, we are going to have a really special group at SECs and NCAAs if we keep this up.'”

“The minimum amount of points we could have scored was 120 and then we were super confident and super stoked and proud we could do that,” Finke said of the 400 IM at SECs. Florida went 1-2-3 for the second straight year with Smith leading the way (3:37.31) followed by Sanders (3:40.20) and Finke (3:41.56).

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Bobby Finke (right) shares a hug with Kieran Smith after the 400 IM at US Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

The Gators have been training a lot more long course this year because of the upcoming Olympic Trials in just over 100 days. As a result, they didn’t spend a full group to the Georgia Tech Invite in November, saving guys like Finke and Smith for the US Open which was held in long course two weeks later.

Finke swam the 1650 at Georgia Tech so he could get a seed time to put him in the night heat at SECs but his focus on this season was on the Olympic course. It is something that the Gators have been doing to take the pressure off of constantly training for short course.

“Our coaches wanted us to get a good long course meet in at US Open and get used to racing all those top tier guys for Olympic Trials because we wouldn’t be racing them until April or May,” Bobby Finke said.

“I think it does take the pressure off because if you’re going into SECs and NCAAs and constantly thinking about it, I think you can just overthink and you might just break down at the meet. So I think switching it up a little bit is healthy for the mental state of racing at those meets.”

In less than two weeks, Finke will race short course for the final time this season where he will lead the Gators into NCAAs in Indianapolis. Florida is seeded to finish third and have a chance to win a couple titles in individual events and in relays.

“We have team meetings about how we need to take care of our bodies and everything like that and stay healthy and we are going to be good,” Finke said.

He will be swimming the 500 free, 400 IM and 1650 in Indianapolis (if there is still a meet because of the virus pandemic).

“I’m looking forward to the mile as much as I don’t want to say it,” Finke said of which race he is looking forward to the most for NCAAs. “I want to race Felix and all those guys again. I think it could be really exciting this year.”

Another race that should be tight for Finke is the 500, where he is seeded fifth. Ten guys are seeded under 4:12, and it could take around that to make the A-Final. The quickest it has ever taken to make the A-Final was a 4:12.18 in 2017. It could be even faster in 2020 based on how the season has gone thus far.

“It’s going to be really hard to get into the final of that race. There’s a whole bunch of 4:10’s right now so it’s going to be an all out in the morning and try and score as many points as I can at night.”

But Finke is ready for the challenge after having a disappointed rookie season.

“I’m just trying to rest a lot more than I did last year,” he said. “And stay off my legs and everything and just be much better and stay healthy.”

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Bobby Finke. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The coronavirus has caused the NCAA Championships to be cancelled. There is no word on if they will be made up at a later date but it seems rather unlikely that a rescheduling process would occur.

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