Ithaca College’s Lucas Zelehowsky Excels in the Empire 8

Lucas Zelehowsky

By James Sica, Swimming World College Intern

During the 2013-14 season, Ithaca College junior Lucas Zelehowsky broke five school records (200 Medley Relay, 400 Medley Relay, 200 IM, 100 and 200 butterfly), qualified for those five events at Division III NCAAs, and was named a captain alongside three other members of his class (Brendan Marks, Matt Morrison, and Clement Towner).

Many would consider that list of accomplishments alone a tremendous achievement; however, what makes Lucas’ successes even more special is how he got there. A former Division I swimmer who left the sport after his sophomore year, Lucas’ time off and subsequent move to Division III has given him a valuable perspective on his sport and what it ultimately means to be part of a team.

A Late Start

In many ways, Lucas’ journey through swimming has been atypical. For many collegiate swimmers, it is common to specialize in competitive swimming early in their careers. Lucas, however, recalls that as an adolescent he “played every sport he could,” and that at certain points of the year he would run through a marathon day of practices that included football, basketball, and (of course) swimming. It wasn’t until high school that Lucas really began to realize his talent in the pool, and at the age of 15 he decided to dedicate more of his time to swimming. He joined a USA club team with his brother, Adam, in Lansing, NY–which, coincidentally, is the next town over from Ithaca College and where he first met his current co-captain Clement Towner.

Lucas improved quickly and soon began hearing from Division I programs that were interested in the versatile swimmer (he was and continues to excel in butterfly, breaststroke, and the IMs). He eventually decided to go to Western Kentucky University (WKU), where he competed for the Hilltoppers. Following his sophomore year, however, Zelehowsky decided to transfer to University of Louisville, where he stopped swimming and hung up his goggles after 13 years of competing in the sport.

The Return to Swimming

While swimming was beginning to fade in the rearview mirror, Lucas’ younger brother club teammate, Adam, was beginning his freshman year at Ithaca. Lucas recalls he would talk to Adam on the phone and get “reports every weekend on how everything was going, from their new facility to the rigorous class schedule he had.” Having swam club in the area, Lucas had known Head Coach Kevin Markwardt for many years since his team would often practice at the Ithaca College pool. That familiarity made Lucas feel even better about Ithaca, and he says “one night when I was talking with Adam on the phone he told me ‘man, if we had you on the relays they would be insane,’ and I realized that I did miss it…I told him ‘ya know what? I’m going to swim next year.’” After looking at the Exercise and Sport Science program and learning more about the Human Performance Masters degree program that has a focus on applied aspects of exercise science, transferring to Ithaca and to complete his final two years of eligibility was quickly looking like it could become a reality.

Success At Ithaca

While transferring schools and changing environments was difficult, Zelehowsky admits that his time at Ithaca has been “surreal…the team as a whole blew me away with how welcoming they were. Joining a new team you expect some type of hardships. Whether that’s different coaching styles, team dynamics, or even just the schedule, but everything Ithaca had fit like a glove.” Having his brother Adam (who specializes in freestyle and is the school record holder in the 200 free, 500 free, and 3 relay events) at his side has made it an even better experience: “On top of all of that I am training with my brother. We have always been competitive in everything and I’d say it has worked very well for both of us. Even though we swim completely different events we still find ways to compete.”

Moving from Division I to Division III has not left Lucas feeling like a big fish in a small pond. While he was part of the conference winning 200 medley relay, he was challenged in his individual events; although he broke school records in all five of his events, his highest conference finish was third in the 200 butterfly. “My journey through my college career has been humbling to say the least,” Zelehowsky says. “Everywhere I go there is a group of guys and girls who give it their all every practice and every meet. From Division I to Division III everyone gets after it…and that’s what I love most about this sport.”

Ithaca’s Exercise and Sport Science department has also given Lucas the opportunity to find a new passion: coaching strength and conditioning. Last spring he had the opportunity to work with several of the club and intercollegiate teams at Ithaca, and he plans to apply to the Master’s program in Human Performance at Ithaca with the hopes of one day becoming a collegiate strength and conditioning coach. Lucas has relished the opportunity to work with professors who are world renown for their work in the strength and conditioning field, and when he graduates from Ithaca in May with his undergraduate degree in Exercise Science he knows that experience will set him up to have a successful career outside of the pool. For now, however, Lucas has his sights set on wrapping up his collegiate career with the Bomber men. He says that he had few expectations after taking a year off from training, and now that he has a whole season under his belt he is excited to see what he and his team can do.

Having traveled up and down the coast at several schools, Lucas will now end his competitive career back in New York where it started; on a team with some of his best friends (fellow captain and club team member Clement Towner, fellow captain and high school competitor Brendan Marks, and brother Adam Zelehowsky) and with a group of men who have embraced him as one of their own. And, ultimately, those relationships are what he values the most as he reflects on his experience in the sport: “The bond you make with your teammates is something that stays with you forever,” he says. “My team is my family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

James Sica is a volunteer assistant coach with the Harvard women’s swimming and diving program.  Previously, he coached and swam at Ithaca College in the Empire 8.


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1 comment

  1. avatar

    Excellent article! Swimming is more than just practicing……

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