Out of the Pool: John Piersma Found Direction at Michigan, In Pool and Classroom

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Photo Courtesy: John Piersma

Out of the Pool: John Piersma Found Direction at Michigan, In Pool and Classroom

The life of a swimmer extends well beyond the pool. In a new occasional series, Out of the Pool, we talk to former swimmers who’ve gone on to excel in their post-athletic careers.

The biggest assist that John Piersma got from legendary Michigan swimming coach Jon Urbanchek might not have happened in the pool.

Piersma was part of a special generation of Wolverines, including the 1995 NCAA championships team, the school’s first since 1961. He swam alongside the core of the 1996 men’s Olympic team, an esteemed group that included Tom Dolan, Tom Malchow, Eric Wunderlich and Erik Namesnik.

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Photo Courtesy: John Piersma

Second to Dolan at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 400 freestyle, Piersma swam at the Atlanta Games, winning the B final to finish ninth (in a time of 3:50.69 that would’ve been sixth in the A final). In all, 10 Wolverines – including Gustavo Borges (Brazil), Derya Buyukuncu (Turkey), Ryan Papa (Philippines), Francisco Suriano Siu (El Salvador) and Marcel Wouda (Netherlands) – swam at the 1996 Olympics.

After three consecutive 800 free relay NCAA titles and completing the 200 free-500 free double his senior season in 1997, Piersma graduated sure that he wanted to work with athletes. His father was a doctor in his native Alabama, but he didn’t want to follow that pathway. Instead, with a degree kinesiology, he figured he’d focus on physical therapy or athlete performance.

But through Urbanchek’s wife, Melanie Urbanchek, a Ph.D. at Michigan’s School of Medicine, Piersma’s interest was piqued. He ended up attending medical school at Michigan, as did his wife and fellow former swimmer, Rachel Gustin, now a dermatologist. Piersma has his own practice in Cincinnati, practicing “personalized internal medicine,” a career shift that he undertook just a year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

John Piersma talked to Swimming World recently about his swimming and medical careers and what it’s like to become a swim parent. (Interview is edited for clarity.)

Swimming World: Let’s start in the pool: You were part of a special generation at the University of Michigan in its days as a national powerhouse. What was it like to be in that kind of environment?

John Piersma: It was such an amazing time to be at Michigan because the program was really in its heyday. We were in the middle of what we called our “decade of dominance,” winning Big Ten titles. We were consistently in the top five in the NCAA rankings and we continued to amass talents. Our team worked so well together. We had a lot of depth; we had a lot of fun. It was an awesome time. It is hard to describe how awesome it was to be a part of it, and with the coaching expertise that was there, with Jon Urbanchek and Alex Braunfeld, it was outstanding.

There were 10 Michigan swimmers at the Atlanta Games. What did it mean to be part of a group like that?

JP: It was outstanding to have such a big group of Michigan swimmers going to the Olympics, not just for the United States team. … It was just awesome. To be in the water every day, and this was even pre-‘96, there was so much talent and so much effort put into going to Trials and trying to make that team. I was certain we had more people who could’ve been on that team, but Olympic Trials are the fastest meet in the world.

You went to the Olympics in 1996 before your senior season at Michigan. What was it like to return to campus after the experience from a personal perspective, and from a swimming perspective, to try to keep the momentum of that summer going?

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Photo Courtesy: John Piersma

JP: The summer of 1996 to 1997, I took an extra semester (off), so I was basically coming back that year. Coming back from the Olympics, we were flying high. All of us were just so excited and ecstatic to be part of an Olympic team. Bringing all that talent and excitement back to start our year at Michigan, with a whole bunch of new freshmen athletes to get our team excited and going that year was really outstanding.

Some people might say it would have been a letdown to go from all that excitement, but it was just so much fun to come back to the team because we had such a great group of guys and girls. It brought so much excitement back to the program to get everyone psyched up to swim that year that it was a lot of fun. I don’t look down upon it. Coming from the Olympics, there was a little decrease from that excitement and hype. You were seen as, I don’t want to say as “the big man on campus,” but you were seen as, this group came back from the Olympics and they did well and now they’re right back on campus with the rest of us, getting our team excited to race and be part of the NCAA season.

Judging by what you did at the 1997 NCAA Championships, winning the 200 and 500 freestyle, it seems like it worked for you competitively, too.

JP: That year, coming back and being able to swim, I’d have to look at my numbers but I don’t think I lost a 200 free in a dual meet all year long as a senior. That was a pretty exciting accomplishment for me. NCAAs was fun, our team was excited, great times, and capping off my career with some NCAAs swims was really exciting. And having a team to support here and be there with you was really fun.

I imagine kinesiology is a pretty rigorous course of study for an undergrad at Michigan. Was it challenging to balance that with your athletic aspirations?

JP: It was hard. Michigan is an outstanding academic institution and all of us are really there trying to focus on our academics as much as possible. I won’t lie to you: It was very difficult to maintain a level of Olympic-caliber training and the academics that were put upon us. I enjoyed it. It was hard. I can tell you that my grades were not outstanding that year of the Olympics. And no one’s to blame except myself, but the timing and the effort that was required was very difficult. I graduated with a degree in kinesiology, which essentially was in exercise physiology, as I was so tuned to sports and the body and fitness, that’s where I was headed initially. Graduating from there, I got married, took a job and my wife was going to medical school at that time, but that sort of helped drive my career and thoughts and where I am today.

Your father was a doctor, but it sounds like that wasn’t your initial plan?

JP: My father was a family doctor. I think growing up, I didn’t really want to be a doctor. I’m not sure why. But I wanted to be involved in sports and work with athletes and their training. I had an injury right before World Champs in 1998 that ultimately required me to have surgery and sort of pursuing that path of physical therapy and fitness for athletes is where I thought I was headed after graduation, which I did for a moment and then my path sort of crossed with a few people who helped guide me to do some different stuff.

What kind of changes, if any, has the COVID-19 pandemic brought to your practice and the day-to-day operations?

JP: As we came through this, I had basically just been working on my own for about six months before this pandemic hit. It was a real challenge to grow a practice in the time of a pandemic. However, it has been nothing but positive. I have grown my practice tremendously through the pandemic, I have made a lot of great connections with patients and families around town who I used to care for and a lot of folks that are new to me, which has been wonderful.

The pandemic itself has been such a challenge. There have been so many unknowns. Most of us physicians have struggled with the changing data that is presented to us. One month it’s, ‘this is how we should manage this.’ One month it’s, ‘we shouldn’t do it this way, we should try it this way.’ This is a learning opportunity for all of us, especially as physicians. I know the general public finds it frustrating when there isn’t clear information available on how to do A, B or C, us physicians agree with that and struggle in providing great advice so we take the information that’s presented to us, we read about it, we apply it in practice and keep reading to make sure it hasn’t changed to make sure we can provide our patients the highest quality care that’s up-to-date with what everyone’s doing. It has been challenging but very exciting.

Your practice describes an emphasis on personalized care, preventative medicine and forming connections with patients more than just managing symptoms. How has that approach in particular adapted to the challenges of COVID-19?

JP: I think it is a perfect fit for the pandemic. I’m biased obviously, but I have really generated some amazing relationships with patients. The pandemic is frightening for everyone, obviously. Half of my patients are Medicare-aged, and I am able to, because I take care of a small number of patients compared to a normal practice, I can call people every so often to touch base with them. They don’t have to come into the office and wait in the waiting room. I can do video visits with them. I can just call them on the phone and make sure they’re getting what they need. When the vaccine rollout came, I was able to work to get most of my older population that was eligible for a vaccine signed up to get a vaccine, help them get plugged in, get the right numbers, give them the information on who to call and how to do it, because it’s really challenging. It’s hard. There’s not enough vaccine and they’re trying to give it to the people who need it most first, and I think my type of practice has really allowed me to connect with people and get them the care they need, and if they want to come in and see me, I have oodles of time to see them because the volume of people coming through my door is less than a regular practice.

So you married a swimmer, and now you’ve raised a Michigan swimmer, with Ella Jo recently committing to swim there. What’s it been like to transition from being a swimmer to being a swim parent?

JP: It’s probably infinitely harder for her, coming from a family whose mother and father are both collegiate athletes. I’m certain that has been challenging for her to live up to. She is an incredible girl, she’s an incredible athlete. When she was little and playing sports and swimming and soccer and ultimately volleyball up until not too many years ago, we really left it up to her, is this what you want to do? You need to love this because it’s a sport that you need to spend an incredible amount of time with. And I think she fell in love with it, just like my wife and I fell in love with it and the other swimmers you talk to fell in love with it. She chose to pursue this whole-heartedly, jumped right in with both feet and has been climbing the ranks since she was a little girl. This last year and a half has been challenging because of recruiting itself in a separate sense and in the age of a pandemic where you can’t really visit and do a lot, it’s a different way to be recruited. It’s 20 years plus since I did this, and it’s very different. We’re just grateful and blessed that she had so many people who were interested in her academic prowess – she’s a brilliant kid – and her athletics, and we were just lucky that it ended up being that she chose to go to Michigan. She had outstanding offers and interest from people, but it’s just so awesome to be a part of it as a parent.

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