Luca Urlando Proving To Be Rare Teen Phenom at Men’s National Level

luca urlando, gianluca urlando
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

Luca Urlando figured he could drop a second, maybe two in the 200 fly, and perhaps claim a spot on the Junior Pan Pacs team. But as it turned out, in his first swim at this summer’s U.S. Nationals, Urlando swam nearly three seconds faster than he ever had before, putting himself in a situation to be a boy among men.

Of the eight men to qualify for that 200 fly A-final, seven of them were born in the 20th century; Urlando wasn’t born until 2002. Seven of those men are now either in college or graduated from college; Urlando is a high school junior.

And in a turn of events no one saw coming, Urlando stuck with the heavyweights in the final. At both the 100 and 150-meter walls, Urlando was in second place behind Olympian and pre-race favorite Jack Conger. And after a wild last 50, Urlando ended up touching third, in a dead-heat with Conger. His time was 1:55.21, four second faster than his lifetime best entering the meet and just a tenth away from second.


Zach Harting, Justin Wright & Luca Urlando after the men’s 200 fly at U.S. Nationals — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Conger didn’t attend the post-race medal ceremony, leaving Urlando to pose for photos with race winner Justin Wright and runner-up Zach Harting. It was the most unlikely of podiums for the entire meet, but at least Wright and Harting figured to be finalists in the event. Not Urlando. Never.

“It was kind of shocking. It was almost unreal just because that was the biggest final I’ve ever been, and I think it kind of helped that I had never been in that situation before. Being next to people like Tom Shields and other Olympians that were in that final, it was like, ‘Wow, I’ve kind of made it.’”

With that swim, Urlando put himself on the bubble of a spot on the Pan Pacs team—the senior-level team, not the junior one. With 26 male swimmers to be named to the team, select third-place finishers would make the team based on their world ranking, and headed into the last night of the meet, Urlando was one of the top candidates to earn a trip to Tokyo.

And indeed, Urlando was offered a spot on the team and then announced as a qualifier—only to find out later that night that there had been a mistake.

“They didn’t do over the world rankings the correct way,” Urlando explained. “They set the wrong date. It made it so that I was on the team, and as soon as they switched the world rankings, I was off the team by one spot. I was definitely angered that something that big could happen, and it happened to another junior team member. I was frankly very mad that something that big could happen on a scale that it did.”

Austin Katz, the third-place finisher in the 200 back, got the final spot on the team, instead of Urlando. But while Urlando was frustrated with the way the situation played out, he was fine with the consolation prize: a trip to the Junior Pan Pacs in Fiji—his target meet all along—and he won gold in the 200 fly.

And now what? Well for one, Urlando is ahead of the curve. Pre-college-age males qualifying for senior U.S. National teams are a rare species, and he is first in line for a spot at the Pan American Games next summer.

He’s ahead on his college recruiting process, too, since he announced last week that he was verbally committing to the University of Georgia for the fall of 2020—a decision that he insists wasn’t too early to make. He liked the program and the small-college town feel in Athens, and he is a double legacy, with both his parents having graduated from Georgia. His father, Alex, remains the UGA school record holder in discus.

“I think I just found my fit,” he said. “It was a fit that was made now, but it also could have been made a year from now, too.”

More from Luca Urlando:

Gianluca Urlando georgia

Photo Courtesy: Gianluca Urlando

Why did you decide to commit to Georgia and to do it so early on in the process?
“Frankly, I just really liked the program. I liked the coaches, the people there, and I think growing up in California my whole life, it’s nice to have a change in scenery to experience something new, but the swimming definitely backs it up. They’re a great program, and I’m excited to go there.”

What does it feel like being done with the college process so early?
“I’m really excited. I don’t think it’s necessarily too early of a decision. I think I just found my fit. It was a fit that was made now, but it also could have been made a year from now, too.”

Over the summer at Nationals, you had your big breakthrough when you dropped almost four seconds in a day in the 200 fly.
“Yes, that is true.”

How did that happen?
“Really just the training that I started doing, and my coach helped me achieve some of the goals that I had, but honestly, I didn’t expect to drop so much time at Nationals. I was just super-happy with what came out of it.”

What was the difference in training?
“I think more pace work. Also, I grew about two or three inches from last year. Getting bigger and stronger helped.”

Did you expect that you would be in that situation, be in a National final and then get third?
“Honestly, no. I would have been happy if I had gotten a one or two-second drop.”

When you’re swimming against guys you’ve watched on TV and heard about for a long time, how did that affect you?
“I just kind of was like, ‘Wow, I’m finally racing people that I’ve looked up to and always watched race.’ I guess I don’t really hold super-high expectations for myself. I don’t like setting limits to myself, so it was just kind of cool to look back and see how well I did.”

Do you not want to aim for a certain goal because you’d rather go and see where you can end up?
“I want to become the best that I can be, and if that means only dropping a half-second more throughout my career, as long as I know that I’m as good as I can be, that’s perfect.”

How do you make sure on a daily basis that you know you’re being the best that you can be?
“Definitely thinking about whatever I’m doing when I’m swimming and, especially during main sets, trying to push my body to where it can’t physically do what it did before the practice.”

Do you have to make sacrifices in your life for swimming, and what are some of the most difficult things you’ve had to say ‘no’ to?
“Missing so much school is very difficult. Especially this year—I had all three of my college visits back-to-back-to-back. Just trying to stay ahead so that I don’t collapse under the pressure of homework and other things.”

How much are social pressures weighed against swimming, and how do you deal with that?
“I have to say, ‘Oh no, I can’t hang out because I have swim practice,’ or ‘I’m sorry I can’t go to your birthday party or hang out or sleep over,’ all the time because of practice, but it pays off in the long run.”

Does it ever bother you to say ‘no’ to something, or are you really geared in on those goals all the time?
“I’m definitely bummed to miss some stuff, but I try and remind myself that eventually it will work out. When I have those two weeks off every year, it’s definitely worth it.”

Was it hard for you to accept that you were going to Junior Pan Pacs instead of Pan Pacs?
“I wasn’t too mad. The goal was always to go to Junior Pan Pacs going into that summer.”

What did you get out of that Junior Pan Pacs experience?
“It was really cool. It was my second time representing the U.S., and every trip I’ve gone on has just gotten better. The camp is always very exciting and very eye-opening. Everyone wants to be there and is very high-energy.”

What were the big takeaways from Fiji for you?
“Just to stay focused, and even if there aren’t a lot of people on your team that can push you, just look back at some of the memories and experiences that I had during that meet to help push me.”

What do you take away from your summer as you go back into training this year?
“It’s definitely a confidence boost. It just reminds me every day in practice that I am capable of doing things that most people aren’t.” 

Is that cool for you?
“It’s super cool. Sometimes you forget about it and then you remember again, and you’re just like, ‘Wow.’ Sometimes I even watch my race from Nationals to get myself psyched up again.”

How often do you watch that race?
“At least once a week.”

What part of that race gets you the most excited?
“Probably the last turn. I remember looking to my side and seeing that Tom Shields was slightly behind me and thinking like, ‘Wow, I have a chance.’”

What are you thinking when you watch the last 15 meters?
“I honestly get as nervous as I did during the race because it was just so close.”

What are you favorite parts of swimming?
“I shouldn’t say I like winning, but I honestly like winning. I like the thrill of racing people.”

What are those emotions that you get in a big race, behind the blocks, when you’re getting in, when you’re in the middle of the race?
“Before the race, I try to stay as calm as possible. I try not to think too much about the race because then I kind of psych myself out. During the race, I try and think about things I need to focus on. Sometimes I blank out during the race and let my body kind of control what I do.”

What are your biggest interests outside the pool?
“I like jumping off rocks and cliffs into waterfalls and stuff like that. I haven’t done that a lot recently, but I like it. It’s fun.”

Do you consider yourself a thrill-seeker?
“I would say so. Yes.”

What other risky or non-risky things do you like to do?
“Obviously I like hanging out with my friends and taking naps, because I need as much sleep as I can get.”

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5 years ago

Hope he realizes that UGA might not have any of the coaches or post grad swimmers there when he gets there in the fall of 2020?!? Talented kid who has a nice UGA legacy!

5 years ago

Hope he realizes that the current coaches and post grad flyers probably won’t be there come fall 2020. He is a great swimmer no doubt and a big UGA legacy! The best of luck in 2020!

5 years ago
Reply to  Superfan

According to who Superfan? Or is this just your wild speculation?

Simon Kelly
5 years ago

Una pasada

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