John Shebat Finally Gets ‘Perfect Ending’ With 200 Back Triumph

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John Shebat (right) embraces Texas teammate Austin Katz -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

John Shebat carried some heavy emotional baggage into his final NCAA championships, beset by his repeated frustrations in individual national title races to put his hand on the wall first, despite his team winning every year.

“I’ve gotten (grief) from friends back home, from family, jokingly,” Shebat said. “It takes a lot out of me. I always had an itch whenever doing weights, doing practice, anything.”

Because for two straight years, Shebat was the man for the first 150 yards of the 200 back. As a sophomore, he finished second in the 100 back behind Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy and then led Murphy for the first 150 yards of the 200 back, but he fell back as Murphy won his fourth straight NCAA title in the event. A tough loss but an understandable one given Murphy’s credentials.

But the 2018 loss stung, because after a rough year for Shebat where he had to undergo orthoscopic knee surgery just weeks before the Big-12 championships—and didn’t have any NCAA qualifying times until the conference meet—Shebat was in pole position to take advantage of Murphy’s graduation and win NCAA titles in both backstroke events.

Instead, he was in store for a double whammy of heartbreak. In the 100 back final, Coleman Stewart touched out Shebat by one hundredth for the national title. And then in the 200 back, Shebat led by a full second with 50 yards to go, but he was out of gas. He split 26.31 on the last 50, the third-slowest in the field, and freshman teammate Austin Katz stormed by him and touched first.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

So Shebat entered his senior year with a whopping four individual NCAA runner-up finishes—and no individual titles. The 100 back didn’t work out as hoped, either, as Shebat ended up fourth in a deep final. So that left the 200 back, where Shebat qualified second behind Katz.

It would be his final race as a collegiate swimmer. And Shebat was going to go out as he always did—fast.

No one went with the Texas senior from Oak Hill, Va., for the first 100 yards, and he was out in 22.06 at the 50 and 46.03 at the 100, both times under American-record pace. At the 150, he flipped dead even with Murphy’s record pace and led by a half-second.

“I knew that if I wanted to be near Austin, I needed to take it out a lot faster than Austin because I know he’s probably the best backstroke swimmer I’ve ever competed against, ever trained with,” Shebat said. “I knew that if I ever wanted any chance at a title, I needed to take it out (guns) blazing because I don’t have what it takes to bring it back like he does.”

But then came the familiar sensation—the burning legs, the slowing arms—and Katz was coming, hard.

Under the flags, Katz pulled even, maybe ahead. But this time, Shebat was not going to get touched out. He got his hand on the wall in 1:36.42, three hundredths ahead of Katz. The two men became the second and third-fastest men in history, respectively.

Shebat slammed the water and screamed in exuberance. He swam over to the lane line and embraced Katz. Texas assistant coach Wyatt Collins ran over and laid down on the pool deck between lanes four and five to congratulate the two swimmers.

“Surreal,” Shebat said. “Didn’t seem real. It felt like I was still playing the race in my head.”

One lane over, Katz didn’t wear the face of a man who had by three hundredths missed defending his NCAA title. He exuded joy, including on the awards podium when he clapped vigorously as Murphy handed Shebat his national championship trophy.

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John Shebat after his 200 back NCAA title — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“He’s like my brother,” Katz said of Shebat. “I train with him every day. I’m with him almost 24/7, essentially. I heard, ‘John Shebat,’ and in that moment, I was incredibly happy. It was like I won. I don’t know. I’ve seen him work so, so hard all year and the year before that. It’s hard to put into words. I’m glad it turned out that way. It was a perfect ending, I think.”

Immediately after that race, Texas coach Eddie Reese informed Shebat that he would be joining teammates Daniel Krueger, Tate Jackson and Townley Haas on the Longhorns’ 400 free relay—a moment that would be special for the Longhorns, even with Cal having dethroned the Longhorns from their national championship perch.

Texas delivered, earning a national title to cap off the meet in winning fashion.

“It was kind of icing on the cake,” Shebat said of swimming on the relay. “I don’t think I’ve swum a 100 free since junior year of high school, dual meet or anything. I was a little worried when Eddie came up to me after the 200 back and said, ‘You’re going to be in the relay.’ I was like, ‘Uh, alright. Let’s go.’”

For the first time in his four years, Shebat will not leave the NCAA championships with the team trophy. But on his final night of college swimming, in his home pool in Austin, he finally got his championship moment.

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9 comments

  1. avatar
    Daniel D'Addona

    This emotional moment between teammates was really touching. Shebat finally winning was definitely one of the feel-good stories of the meet.

  2. avatar
    Cindy Luetkemeier

    So proud of your John Shebat! Perserverance & hard work paid off!! Congrats!!🎖🎖🎉🎉

  3. avatar
    Anonymous

    What a great moment to share with a teammate!

  4. Jim Deitrick

    Way to go, John! A lesson for us all: keep working for your goals and adversity can make us stronger! Hook ‘Em!👏👏🤘🤘🏊‍♂️🏊‍♂️

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