Confident Ricardo Vargas Chasing a Second Olympic Berth

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Ricardo Vargas. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Politely, Ricardo Vargas turns the question around.

Four years ago, Vargas was an 18-year-old vying for a spot in the Olympics that he regarded as a longshot dream. He was hardly an unknown commodity: He’d represented Mexico at the Youth Olympic Games in 2014 and the World Junior Championships in 2015. By the start of his junior year at Technologica de Monterrey high school, he was already the fastest Mexican ever over 400, 800 and 1,500 meters of freestyle.

But the Olympic dream he chased felt far off. He’d be ecstatic to get there. But if he fell short, the disappointment would be short-lived and his alone.

So four years later, with the Olympic rings tattooed to his biceps, the University of Michigan junior respectfully redirects the question. It’s not what he knows now that he wished he knew four years ago. It’s what he didn’t know then that, some days, he wishes he could unlearn now.

“The last time, I did have a shot to go to the Olympics, but that wasn’t 100 percent my goal,” Vargas said last week. “It just seemed so, maybe, unrealistic, and just performing, doing best swims and doing the performance of my life without anything to lose, it was really fun.

“That’s one of the mentally challenging things that I’ve been going through is that now that I’ve been to the Olympics, I know what the experience is about and I know I can be better. And I know that I’m 100 percent more prepared to go to the Olympics, but it’s that fact that I already went that makes it harder for me because I have more pressure.”

That mix of confidence and pragmatism is what Vargas hopes will define the quest for a trip to Tokyo.

From Disney to Rio

The career of one of Mexico’s best male swimmers started in a hotel pool in Florida.

Ricardo Vargas was 2, as he recalls it, when his family went on vacation to Disney World. Vargas’s highlight of the trip wasn’t the Magic Kingdom. It was the pool at their hotel, which Vargas’s parents had to pry him out of.

“My parents couldn’t take me out of the pool,” he said. “I would cry, and that’s how my mom decided to put me into swimming lessons.”

It wasn’t that long afterward that Vargas became one of Mexico’s top swimmers, swimming at nationals for the first time at age 12. He’s lowered each of the Mexican records he set at the 2015 Pan Am Games, and he’s added the 400 individual medley mark. One of those times came in Rio in the 1,500 free, one of only three Mexican swims at the competition. His time of 15:11.53 placed him 25th.

Vargas has become a regular on Mexican delegations to international meets. Mexico gleaned six bronze medals from last summer’s Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru; Vargas was part of three of them, via the 800 and 1,500 free and the 800 free relay.

He’s grown into a big contributor for the Michigan Wolverines, where the 2017-18 Big Ten Freshman of the Year A-finaled twice at NCAAs as a freshman and once as a sophomore.

His training group at Michigan – which includes Austrian Felix Aubock, who already had his 800 free A cut – and a family devoted to education convinced the economics major and Academic All-Big Ten not to take a redshirt to prepare for the Olympics, instead leaning on his support network at Michigan to help him weather a busy 2020.

“I love challenges and I like school, so it’s been really fun for me,” Vargas said.

Training for Tokyo

Jul 18, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Ricardo Vargas of Mexico wins his men's 1500m freestyle final during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Ricardo Vargas. Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel/USA Today Sports Images

Ricardo Vargas is on the path toward Olympic qualification. He has notched Olympic Selection Times in the 400 IM, 400 free, 800 free and 1,500 free. His time of 7:56.78 in the 800 free, from Pan Ams, is a personal-best two seconds shy of an automatic Olympic qualifying time. He went 15:14.99 in the 1,500 at Pan Ams, within 2.5 seconds of his Rio time and about midway between A and B cuts.

Vargas’s training is geared toward Canadian Olympic Trials in Toronto the week after men’s NCAAs, where he plans on time trialing for his A cuts.

After Pan Ams, though, Vargas had to reset. He’d tinkered with his stroke and struggled in some of the warmup meets, and his performances in Lima were uneven. (His 400 IM time there, for instance, was 4:33.22, 13 seconds slower than his personal-best from the previous summer at the Central American and Caribbean Games.) So a rethink was necessary to set the course of the pivotal year ahead.

“After Pan Ams, it was just taking a couple of days off, rethinking and going back to my old stroke and just thinking about all the things that I have changed that really didn’t help me,” he said. “I just tried to redo myself because I knew I needed a change and I knew that if I didn’t make those changes, me getting to the Olympics was almost impossible.”

A rebalanced Vargas laid down fast times in the fall semester – 4:16.24 in the 500 free, 14:49.16 in the 1,650 – that compare favorably to his season-end times last year. He sounds confident about the plan that Michigan assistant coach Josh White has sketched out to manage yardage in his taper in March around Big Tens, NCAAs and Canadian Trials.

It’s not the only balance Vargas is looking to strike. He’s embraced his role as one of the leaders of Mexican swimming. He’s part of a WhatsApp group with members of the squad from Lima – Arizona sprinter Jorge Iga, breaststrokers Mauro Castillo and Miguel de Lara, Penn State grad Melissa Rodriguez and former Texas A&M swimmer Monika Gonzalez-Hermosillo – to offer each other support in their disparate training locations. He’s part of a network of prominent (especially men’s) swimmers at the college level, from Iga at Arizona to Andy Song and (the since graduated) Long Gutierrez at California and a strong contingent at Texas A&M that has rewritten the national record board.

It brings home the point of how much pressure Vargas can feel, but also the responsibility he takes in knowing what he has accomplished and what he can do.

“It puts things in perspective,” Ricardo Vargas said. “Now there’s people watching and they talk to you about it, and I know I have a shot and I know I can do better than four years ago. I know I can train better and get better times. I know all that stuff. But being in the spot that I am makes it a little more challenging. … Now I know preparing myself, I know it’s really challenging to go to the Olympics. I know you have to earn it and I know it’s not a joke, so I take things very serious. I know it’s not going to be easy.”

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