Jakub Maly Explains The Minnesota Experience

Photo Courtesy: Ski-U-Mah Magazine

Minnesota swimmer Jakub Maly was recently featured in the February 2016 issue of Ski-U-Mah Magazine.  Ski-U-Mah is the official alumni magazine of Minnesota Athletics, and has some of the best athletics content available from throughout the nation.

Minnesota has provided the full copy of the article.  You can also see it in its full magazine layout embedded below.

Reprinted with the express written consent of Minnesota Athletics.

National team swimmer, soldier, All-American. 23-year-old junior Jakub Maly is all of these things, and more. Story by Jake Ricker | Read the February 2016 issue of Ski-U-Mah

Experience is life’s greatest teacher. Nothing can replace the lasting knowledge which comes from experiencing something firsthand.

No one understands this more than a 21-year-old college freshman, which is somewhat ironically a unique experience itself. Jakub Maly lived that moment two years ago when he arrived in Minnesota. The Czech-born Austrian citizen had seen and done more than almost all of his first-year peers combined. Maly had moved from Prague to Vienna after ninth grade, splitting time between living on his high school’s campus and his grandmother’s nearby home during high school. He then served his mandatory two-year term in the Austrian military while also training and competing in major international competitions, most notably the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona. Meanwhile, many of his classmates were living away from their parents for the first time in their lives.

“I was three years older than the guys here as a freshman [and] you could feel the difference,” Maly remembered. “I just had experiences that the guys, the freshman guys, didn’t have yet and they had to learn. If you’re 18 years old, you do things, just crazy things. … I felt like I was just too old for that.

“But it gave me the chance to lead by example and show them what are the right things, and maybe not the right things, to do.”

Maly’s head coach, Kelly Kremer, had coached international student-athletes in the past, including those who have served in the military prior to college. In Maly, he sees some of the same positive qualities those other swimmers have brought to the program.

“They’re so appreciative of the opportunity,” said Kremer. “Part of that could have been the military service that they had, the discipline, knowing this experience wouldn’t exist for them in their country. …. It wasn’t like you were educating those [guys] on not being a normal college student and the ‘Don’t get wrapped up in that.’

“If every freshman started college at age 20, maybe we’d see a difference.”

Even if every freshman started college after moving past their teenage years, they may not bring the same wealth of experience Maly brought with him to the Twin Cities. His maturity showed even before he committed to swim for the Gophers. Unlike most swimmers recruited from outside the U.S., he insisted on taking an in-person visit before signing with Minnesota.

“With the Europeans in particular, and we’ve had quite a few over the years, [we] normally don’t encourage them to visit. We prefer they didn’t because of finances,” Kremer said. “It was really Jakub that wanted to see the university and meet the coaches before making a decision.”

Maly was only aware of Minnesota thanks to Paul Nelsen, a former Gopher swimmer who coached Jakub’s younger brother in Austria. Nelsen knew Maly wanted to swim for a U.S. college and pushed him to consider Minnesota. While Maly’s dream of coming to America involved going to school “somewhere warm on the coast,” he visit Minnesota during a trip to the U.S. after connecting with Gopher coaches.

“It was funny because I was coming from Florida State, which is pretty warm. Then [I visited] a friend in Mississippi [where] it was like 84 degrees, then I got here,” recalled Maly, smiling and pausing for the punchline. “It was April 28th or 29th and it was snowing here.”

Maly was undeterred by the unseasonable late April snowfall. “I would never decide to go to school just for the weather,” he said. “I just liked everything about [Minnesota]. I liked the fact that the campus is in a city so there is stuff to do. I liked the campus itself. The pool is one of the best pools I have ever seen. I loved the coaching staff. It was everything I was looking for. It felt like the right place for me.”

For someone as well-traveled as Maly, finding a place that felt right was important.

He had been on the move for much of his younger years. As he was growing up, Maly’s four-person family “moved around Prague a lot,” but his life remained centered around the Czech Republic’s capital city until he was 15. After ninth grade, Maly had to decide where he would attend high school. He weighed options to go to school in Vienna, near his grandmother, or in Budapest, near his aunt, ultimately opting to attend a high school in Austria with an Olympic training center feel. During the next four years, he would spend the week living on campus at his high school, his weekends with his grandmother and every fourth weekend or so, he’d make the nearly 300-kilometer (about 185-mile) trip home to Prague. That existence could be lonely, especially for a competitor in an individual sport.

In the United States, unlike Europe, “swimming is a team sport and you swim for a team. That was a change I was looking for, to be a part of a team because, since I was very little, I always swam for myself,” said Maly. “I wanted to go to the United States to have a team that could support me.”

Maly found that team when he arrived at Minnesota but swimming for a team proved to be a new experience for which he wasn’t fully prepared, even if it was his dream back in Austria.

“I was used to having a group of eight to ten people swimming with me while I was doing different stuff. I needed to do more because they were usually younger or slower. Now [at Minnesota] I was in a group of people, all the time just pushing each other,” Maly said. “That was probably the biggest transition. I think I handled it pretty well but it took me a while to get there.

“Back home, there’s always this kind of rivalry. You always want to beat somebody else. In the beginning, I saw some of my teammates like this. It took me a while to realize they are here for me. That were are striving to get better as a team. It made me more humble and appreciative of the opportunity to have a team that’s willing to support me.”

Maly thrives on the support of his team, which has not only made him a better swimmer, but made him a better teammate as well. His ability to quickly settle into the team concept is one of Kremer’s first observations of how Maly has evolved thanks to his experience at Minnesota.

“He’s really embraced team. [He wants his] team to be great. [He wants his] teammates to be great,” Kremer observed when listing some of Maly’s best qualities. “With international students, you’re not 100 percent sure because they didn’t experience this. They don’t have high school swimming and diving [but] he has been just an awesome team person. That part has only gotten better, in terms of his ability to lead a team and lead our team.”

That symbiotic relationship Maly shares with his teammates may seem rote to American athletes who have been in a team system their entire lives, but it was a new experience for Maly, and one that has helped him realize his potential as one of the best swimmers on the roster.

Before arriving at Minnesota, Maly had swam in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, the 2012 World Short Course Championships and the 2013 World Championships. His achievements set expectations on what Maly would accomplish for the Gophers, expectations he quickly moved to meet.

Maly routinely placed among the top swimmers in both the 200-yard individual medley (IM) and the 400 IM, while also showing promise in other events, most notably the 200 breaststroke. That year at the NCAA Championships, he earned All-America status with his 400 IM performance. At season’s end, the conference named him the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

His record-breaking debut at NCAAs served as notice that, despite a trans-Atlantic journey and the energy it takes to become acclimated to a new culture – both in the pool and out, Maly was prepared to compete at the highest levels. He won multiple individual titles in the 200 and 400 IM as a sophomore, efforts that built toward a bronze-medal performance in the 400 IM at the 2015 Big Ten Championships. Maly claimed the school record in the 400 IM as well, turning in a time of 3:42.54 at the conference meet. Maly went on to set his third school record, this one in the 200 breast, at the NCAA meet, finishing in 1:54.57.

“We’ve gotten what I thought we would get with Jakub,” said Kremer.

That said, both Kremer and Maly see a ceiling that hangs high above Maly’s head, like that of the Jean Freeman Aquatic Center when Maly kicks out laps during a training session.

“The goals are always high,” said Maly. “For this year and next year, it’s winning the Big Ten championship in the 400 IM. … In terms of NCAAs, it’s definitely being in the top-eight this year and moving up next year.”

Kremer wants the same for his oldest junior.

“I want to see him in a championship final at the NCAA Championships and I’d love to see him win a Big Ten title individually,” said Kremer. “I’d like him to march out at NCAAs in the championship final, the top-eight, and have a chance to be a first team All-American.

“I don’t think that’s his ceiling by any means, but those are experiences I want for him before he leaves school.”

Experience molds all of us into the people we become. Maly is no different than anyone else in that regard. His shared experiences with his teammates at Minnesota have made them all better swimmers. It’s Maly’s previous experiences that makes him aware of how special his time is at Minnesota.

“I know once I graduate, I’m not going to have this experience anywhere else,” Maly said, looking off into space and considering his next statement. “I’m considering next year to be the peak of my overall career. I’m considering not swimming anymore after my senior year.”

He continues on without pause, showing a sense of calm in making such a strong statement that can only come from careful reflection.

“I just feel like [swimming is] not going to be as much fun as [it is] right now. Everything I’ve done before, I don’t want to go back to it. I don’t want to just drill and drill yards back home, on my own.”

For the 23-year-old Czech, who swam for the Austrian National Team and served in their military, who has lived in several countries and has made of habit of chasing down his goals, the idea of never swimming competitively again after college seems to come easily, with no sense of hesitation. For someone with a lifetime of experiences despite his relative youth, what comes next? At this point, it’s about experiencing the moment.

“I’m really trying to enjoy this year and next year and take the most out of it. I’m really enjoying right now.”

Rubber Ducky, You’re The One

Walking into Jakub Maly’s room at his parent’s home back in Europe would provide a stark visual contrast to what you may already know about him. He’s older than most college juniors and has a collection of life experiences that rival those who are 10 years his senior, including swimming in international competitions, living in multiple countries and serving in the military. Despite the maturity he’s developed through those experiences, a maturity he effortlessly conveys in conversation and in competition, the shelves in Maly’s bedroom are overrun with a simple child’s toy – rubber ducks.

His collection – which he estimates exceeded 250 when he last attempted to count them this past summer – has been building for about eight years.

“I was around 15 and I just saw one rubber duck. We were going canoeing with my parents for a holiday and I thought it would be cool to have the rubber duck tied behind my canoe,” said Maly, a sheepish expression on his face as he smiled and recalled the earnest beginning to his odd collection. “I really liked the ducky. I got another one, got another one, and I was like ‘Maybe I should collect rubber duckys.’”

From that moment, the collection has grown at a rate of nearly one rubber duck per week.

“If I would have a birthday or Christmas and someone needed a small gift for me, they wouldn’t have to think hard. They would just give me a new rubber ducky.”

His excitement comes through clearly as the tone of his voice shifts from the logistics of building a vast rubber duck collection to thinking about the hundreds he’s acquired and what else is still out there.

“I realized they have so many cool, different ones. All different kinds, sizes, colors … they even have a Goldy rubber ducky,” Maly explained. “Really, they have a rubber ducky for everything.”

Perhaps more accurately, Maly has a rubber ducky for everything, though the bulk of that collection resides in Vienna, where his parents now live.

“I have maybe 15 [rubber ducks] here. Most of them are back home,” said Maly. “The ones I have collected this semester are here, then I’ll take them home [but] I have three or four that are on my table here. Those four are probably my favorites.”

In his eyes, what rubber ducks are the favorites, the top two percent among a class of competitors that numbers in the hundreds?

“One of them is obviously the Goldy rubber ducky. One of them is from my parents after I swam the first cut for the World Championships. And one of them is from one of my best friends back home.”
While a couple rubber ducks on a coffee table may not seem too out of the ordinary, especially for an athlete who spends most of his time in the water, the flock that lives on shelves back in Vienna may be a little more conspicuous. Even Maly sees that.

“My room is basically a bed and clothes … and shelves filled with rubber duckys,” said Maly. “It’s a weird room.”