The Rise of America’s Finest Distance Man, Connor Jaeger

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder

Fourth place in the 400 free and fourth place in the 800, a combined seven tenths of a second away from a pair of bronze medals. That was not good enough for Connor Jaeger.

His times in those first two races had been solid identical to those he had posted in his Worlds debut two years earlier.

With a two-day break from racing before he had the 1500 free, Jaeger got to sit in the stands watching his American teammates. He watched closely as fellow distance standout Katie Ledecky proceeded with her five-gold medal, three-world record performance.

And then, re-inspired and competing under the strangest of circumstances, Jaeger swam the race of his life and in his own words, “went nuts.”

China’s Sun Yang had already won gold in Kazan in the 400 and 800 free, and he had in fact been the winner of all five World Championship races Jaeger had ever swum. He was favored to earn his third straight World title in the 1500—but under mysterious circumstances, he never showed up for the race.

“We’re in the ready room, and we’re just joking around because obviously he’s going to come, right?” Jaeger said.

But neither Jaeger nor anyone else behind the curtains that day actually imagined he would not.

“I didn’t want to get too worked up—when they walk me out, he’s going to be out there already for some reason,” Jaeger said. “And then he doesn’t show up. So at that point, the whole race dynamic changed—everything was going to be based on what he was doing, and now he’s not there. It was exciting.”

Without Sun, Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri and Canada’s Ryan Cochrane set the early pace with Jaeger cruising along about three seconds back. A third of the way through the swim, Paltrinieri took off and established a cushion of about three seconds ahead of Cochrane.

But Jaeger fought back, passing Cochrane just after the 1000-meter mark and holding on to second place the rest of the way.

He could not catch Paltrinieri, who won gold in a European record-time of 14:39.67, but Jaeger touched second in 14:41.20. He broke Larsen Jensen’s 11-year-old American record by more than four seconds and secured a silver medal.

Jaeger relished the opportunity to stand on the podium, but the time drop was the big accomplishment after some less-than-satisfying efforts earlier in the week.

“I was [already] pretty sure I was in second place, so I was already pretty excited about that,” Jaeger said. “Coming into the wall I’m like, ‘Look, if this is 14:47 or 14:51, this is good. This is fine.’ I touched, and I look, and it’s 14:41. I was shocked. You know what it’s like to look and be surprised by your own performance? There’s almost nothing better than that.”

Dr. Josh White, the associate head coach at the University of Michigan and Jaeger’s primary coach, was not in Kazan, but the 14:41 did not shock him after witnessing the training Jaeger had put in during the lead-up to the meet.

“When he gets fourth place twice—obviously you want to medal—you just know about Connor that he will use that in a positive way, be able to tap into that emotion, to that frustration of having just missed out, to propel him to the next level,” White said. “Seeing how all that training was building up and building up and building up for him, [we] believed he was capable of breaking that record for sure.”

Jaeger reached a new level with his performance in Kazan, but few could have imagined the Fair Haven, N.J., native getting anywhere close to that when he arrived on campus in Ann Arbor in August 2010. Few knew much about him that first year when he scored in one event at NCAAs—he was 13th in the 500 free—and didn’t even compete in the mile.

A year later, Jaeger was third at NCAAs in the 1650 and fifth in the 500, and all the sudden his name started to be tossed around in some circles as an outside contender for an Olympic team berth. Peter Vanderkaay had established himself as one of the best 400 freestylers in the world—he ended up winning bronze in the 400 free in London—but no American had won an Olympic or World Championship medal in the mile since 2005.

Jaeger showed up in Omaha in 2012 having never broken 3:50 in the 400 free, but in his first Trials race he led the way through prelims in 3:48.05 before finishing sixth that evening. After his 200 free the following morning, Jaeger would sit out the next four days of the meet before returning for the 1500 free in the final preliminary event of the meet.

The CenturyLink Center was mostly empty when Jaeger dove in for heat eight. He took control of the race early on, establishing a comfortable lead ahead of Vanderkaay. He began splitting under 30 seconds per 50 at the 1000-meter mark and looked on his way to posting the top time of the day to that point.

Jaeger dropped seven seconds from his personal best as he recorded a time of 14:59.97.

But then he flipped and kept swimming.

Jaeger had miscounted his laps. Lap counters could not be placed in the water at Trials, and Jaeger, like most of his competitors, did not lift his head to check. But after noticing that Vanderkaay had stopped swimming, Jaeger stopped after an extra 75 meters. He floated back to the wall while receiving a standing ovation for his effort.

“I was just so focused on making the final,” Jaeger said. “[Michigan head coach] Mike [Bottom] was all concerned that I was going to be really down on myself that I embarrassed myself, but I didn’t really care. It’s a good story.”

Jaeger might not look back at the moment and laugh had miscounting his laps pushed him out of the final. But he got there, and the next night he qualified for his first Olympic team, touching just behind Andrew Gemmell in 14:52.51.

Jaeger went on to make the Olympic final of the 1500 in London before finishing sixth, and he has been the most consistent American distance swimmer since. In addition to his 1500 free bronze from Kazan, he won a bronze in the 400 free at the 2013 World Champs, finished fourth on four other occasions on that level and out-dueled Cochrane to win the mile at Pan Pacs in 2014.

And with all that experience behind him, Jaeger will head back to Omaha in two weeks’ time for his second Olympic Trials, this one with much higher expectations than the first. He will be the top seed and big favorite to finish first in both the 400 and 1500. But the latter event is his focus and still his best chance at an Olympic medal.

Four years ago, Jaeger had little experience swimming the 1500 and had only contested the event four times ever before Olympic Trials. But now he is much more comfortable in the mile and has an intimate understanding of the strategies and nuances of the event.

“My strategy for the mile has totally changed from how I swam it, thought about it and approached it four years ago,” Jaeger said.

Although he struggles in the shorter distances, Jaeger can count on his fitness and comfort with the mile to deliver a good performance.

At the Arena Pro Swim series meet in Charlotte last month, Jaeger was coming off a third-place finish in the 400 free in 3:48.62 and what he calls a “super, super bad” 200 free where he finished in 1:52.16. But he still managed to put together a sub-15:00 performance in the mile, which he chalks up to his sound conditioning.

“I knew after that that I was definitely in great aerobic shape. Regardless of how it felt, you can’t argue with the result,” Jaeger said. “The 1:52 compared to a 14:59, it’s like two different meets right there.”

Since Charlotte, Jaeger and the Michigan distance crew have come down in yardage but increased their intensity with threshold and race pace sets. He had one last tune-up meet this past weekend in Indianapolis where he finished fourth in the 200 free in 1:49.56 and won both the 400 and 1500 despite forgoing his usual race strategy.

But even though Jaeger has yet to drop any eye-opening in-season times, White feels very good about his swimmer’s preparation for Olympic Trials.

“I think as a coach maybe more than an athlete you have more of an opportunity to examine an entire body of work as opposed to what’s happened more recently. We feel really good about the work that he’s done and some great sets along the way,” White said. “I think based on who he is physiologically, the better shape he’s in, the faster he should be able to go in all three events.”

White focuses heavily on the process of preparing to swim fast, which at this point in the season includes just a little bit of tinkering—no major changes—and about two weeks out from the meet, taper. He and Jaeger have also been planning for during the meet at Olympic Trials, where Jaeger figures to have at least three days off before his 1500 free—just like he had the break at Worlds last summer.

“I think you have to have a plan for that,” White said. “It’s a long period of time where you can de-train, even if you just did a really hard race… We think about what we need to do the two days before the next swim and then fill in the in-between with training that’s going to keep them at their best.”

Jaeger plans to not take any chances and put all his focus on Trials, but that does not mean he has ignored some of the other fast swims around the world in his events. Both Paltrinieri (14:34.04) and Australia’s Mack Horton (14:39.54) have posted impressive times early-season times in the mile.

But Jaeger refuses to let himself be psyched out by the fast times he sees around the world, knowing that nothing matters until the best milers in the world are all together in the Olympic final.

“The race will be there in Rio, and hopefully I’m there to be in it,” Jaeger said. “We don’t give medals away because of what your best times are. It’s good to know what they’re capable of, but everyone has to do it on that day.”

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Mark Lewis

    The men’s 400 free is up for grabs at the Olympic Trials.

    Conor Dwyer is the favorite as he’s swim 3:46 this season.

    Zane Grothe, Clark Smith, and Connor Jaeger have all swum 3:48.

    Personally, I’m pulling for Zane Grothe. He’s come a long way in the last 2 years to give himself a shot at the Olympic team.

    • avatar
      David Rieder

      I wouldn’t read too much into what people have done this season. That’s part of why Trials is so difficult to predict. Believe me, I have more than once been a victim of recency bias. But I’d say Jaeger’s track record combined with the fact that he’s clearly in really good shape (mile time, his even-split 3:49, etc.) make him the clear favorite.