Jack Aikins Hopes Focus of Redshirt Year Will Pay Off at Trials

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Jack Aikins Hopes Focus of Redshirt Year Will Pay Off at Trials

Jack Aikins didn’t want to arrive in Indianapolis with any doubts. The last two summers, the junior at the University of Virginia left summer trials meets less than 100 percent sure that he had done everything possible to earn an American flag on his cap.

So with the 2024 Olympics a year out, the native of Atlanta made the choice last summer to take a gap year and sell out to get on the plane to Paris.

“The goal was to just make sure I’m doing every single thing possible I can to put my best foot forward next month (at Olympic Trials),” Aikins said recently. “So just learning from my experiences, the past two years at Worlds qualifier events where I felt like I could have been doing more, just making sure that’s not in the back of my head this year so that no matter the outcome, I’m proud of myself and know that I did everything possible to put myself in the best position for it. I think it has been huge for me personally to be able to focus on swimming and just get better every single week.”

Aikins feels in good position after taking what for this cycle has been a more unusual path. Instead of the rampant Olympic redshirts of years past, Aikins is in the minority in skipping NCAA competition with the Cavaliers. But he’s filled the calendar with long-course racing to gain confidence ahead of Trials.

Short-course racing hasn’t always gone great for Aikins. He was ninth as a freshman in his signature event, the 200 backstroke, at NCAAs. But his sophomore foray in 2023 fell short of expectations – 41st in the 50 free, 32nd in the 100 back, three relays shy of the top eight and a distant 25th in the 200 back. None successfully built on the 2022 national title he won.

So eschewing the NCAA season may not have been the most difficult of decisions, even if it brought the adjustments of not being around teammates as regularly.

In place of the steady diet of NCAA competition, he’s burnished his skills in the longer pool and in trials-and-finals meets that will suit him in Indy. He won gold in the men’s 200 back at the Pan Am Games in the fall, setting a games record of 1:56.58. He added gold in the men’s medley relay and mixed medley, plus silver in the men’s 400 free relay.

At the 2024 World Championships in Doha, with a limited American squad, he added four relay medals, with golds in both medley relays. He finished eighth in the 100 back and fourth in the 200 back. More importantly, his in-season times in Doha approached bests from the previous summer – .17 off his best at 1:56.21 in the 200, .04 off his PB in 53.49 in the 100 – to portend well for the summer ahead.

“I’m thankful for my experience at the World Championships to get a big meet this year, before trials,” he said. “Another prelims-semifinals-finals meet is always a huge opportunity to get to feel what it feels like to swim three 200 backstrokes. It’s been great so far getting to focus on one thing, just swimming, all year, and it’s been huge for me personally. So I’m really happy.”

Aikins is laser focused on the present. He’s mentally preparing to swim backstroke in a football stadium, a particular challenge everyone will have to adapt to at Lucas Oil Stadium. He recalled his experience at the much smaller CHI Health Center Arena in Omaha three years ago, tracking his progress via the jumbotron on which he could watch himself. (“Probably not the best to be looking at a video while you’re swimming,” he admits in retrospect.)

But the redshirt has a potential delayed payoff. Aikins will be a senior when a historic class hits Charlottesville in the fall of 2025, a group that includes current Cavalier Aquatics swimmer Thomas Heilman, plus Maximus Williamson and several other blue-chippers. Aikins has watched the rise of Virginia women’s swimming into powerhouse status, and hopes are high that the men can follow. If they do, Aikins will have a central role as a bridge between eras.

“I’m super excited for that class to get here,” he said. “It’ll be my fourth year here when they all arrive, and I think we have a chance to do something really special. And I’m excited to be a part of that and to help those incoming boys as much as I can, and it’s going to be great. I’m really excited for that.”

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