The Water Is My Sky Documentary Tells Excellent Story of Highs & Lows of Elite Level Swimming

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Later on this month, the documentary The Water is My Sky will be released. It tells the story of an elite swimming career in three parts – a past Olympian reflecting on his journey in Tom Wilkens, an active professional training for a second Games and a trip to the podium in Connor Jaeger, and a rising high schooler with dreams of reaching the elite level in Taylor Garcia.

The documentary, written and directed by Brian Tremml and co-produced by Tommy Haines and Kiel Nowakowski, provides a great depiction of the true struggle it takes to become an elite swimmer. Telling the story from three different swimmers in three stages of their lives was a wonderful decision by the filmmakers and one that shows just how difficult it is to reach the pinnacle of the sport of swimming – one that Wilkens and Jaeger both achieved in their careers, but one that Taylor Garcia did not.

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Taylor Garcia, one of the featured players in The Water is my Sky. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Garcia’s high school career was interplayed in the documentary as a promising young star in the sport – a junior national finalist in 2013 and 2014, and one of the top high school athletes in the entire state of Michigan. The decision to include a current swimmer who has yet to reach the level of Wilkens and Jaeger was excellent, as it shows just how difficult it is to attain the status of Olympic swimmer and the amount of hard work and dedication it takes. This isn’t to imply that Taylor Garcia didn’t work hard, but the quote provided by Dan D’Addona says it best: “Anyone who wants to be anything in swimming makes the same sacrifices from an early age that Olympians do. They just don’t always get to be Olympians.”

Jaeger’s senior year of college at the University of Michigan and his initial transition to professional life in 2014 was a big part of the film. Jaeger emerged as a legit Olympic medal favorite at the end of 2014 when he won Pan Pacs in the 1500, and followed that up with Worlds silver in the same event in 2015. He ultimately finished his career with a silver in the 1500 at the 2016 Games, but the majority of the footage shown of Jaeger portrayed his struggles in 2014, which was a smart decision again, because of the importance of having “bad” days when striving for a long term goal. There is that old adage that success is not a straight line, and Jaeger’s struggles are shown in the film, where he often doubted if striving for an Olympic medal was worth it.

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Connor Jaeger, a featured player in The Water is my Sky. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Jaeger reflected on his initial transition to professional life in 2014 saying that he thought he would have more free time as a professional athlete but he was still going to grad school, still training every single day, traveling more on weekends for clinics, and on weekends where he wasn’t doing clinics, he was going to professional meets.

One prominent meet that is shown in the film is the 2014 Santa Clara Grand Prix, one of the first meets after Jaeger went pro. It was smartly edited to be shown right after his senior year Big Tens at his home pool in Michigan, where his swimming was all for the team and very emotion-driven, whereas it cuts to the Santa Clara meet where it is now all about him, overplayed with voiceovers from John Lohn and Rowdy Gaines, explaining just how solitary training as a professional athlete, especially for the 1500, can be. The music edited over this sequence, which played a key role in the film, exasperates the isolating feeling of being a postgrad swimmer in the pursuit of an Olympic berth.

Tom Wilkens

Tom Wilkens, one of the featured players in The Water is my Sky. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The main storyline focuses on the career of Tom Wilkens, who won the bronze medal for the United States in the 200 IM at the 2000 Olympics. It focuses on his work ethic to get up to the standard of swimming for Hall of Fame coach Skip Kenney at Stanford in the late 90s and to swim for legendary Hall of Fame coach Dick Jochums at Santa Clara Swim Club.

Training as a 400 IM’er in the lead-up to the 2000 Trials, Wilkens was hardly considered a favorite to make the Sydney team, until he beat Tom Dolan pretty handily in the 400 IM at the Spring Nationals. Dolan was billed as an “unstoppable” force in the 400 IM, coming in as the reigning Olympic champ from Atlanta in 1996 and the two-time reigning World champ from 1994 and 1998 as well as the world record holder. After beating Dolan at the 2000 US Spring Nationals in Seattle, Wilkens was all of a sudden the favorite heading into the 2000 Trials, attracting the attention of media outlets wanting interviews, as well as being the literal poster boy for the 2000 Trials. All this built up to a tense 400 IM final on the first night of Trials.

In a very intense sequence that was edited finely with music that makes the viewer feel like they are watching the race live, Wilkens lined up alongside Dolan and rising star Erik Vendt. With a big lead at the 300, Wilkens was in position for an Olympic berth but was run down by Dolan and Vendt, as the latter’s time in second place was slower than Wilkens’ time at Spring Nationals a few months before.

The way the film was edited really accentuated the devastation of finishing third in an event at Trials, and it also really amplified the pressure of his next race – the 200 breaststroke, where Wilkens finished second over Brendan Hansen by 0.15. The editing in this sequence was superb and it leaves the viewer with the feeling of nervousness for Tom. And the difference in editing the Trials finals versus the 200 IM final in Sydney, where he won the bronze medal on the last 50, really shows how the Olympic Trials final is oftentimes harder and more intense than the Olympic final.

The last 50 of Wilkens’ 200 IM was the storybook ending for his career and a perfect ending to this documentary, preceding Wilkens, who hailed from the same town as Jaeger, talking to Jaeger on a park bench in New Jersey reminiscing on the day Wilkens came to Jaeger’s school in second grade.

Overall, The Water is my Sky is a great representation of three stages of elite swimming – retired swimmer reflecting on his career, a current professional struggling, but ultimately reaching the top, and a rising star experiencing the first real highs and lows of elite level swimming. The film has been in pre-production for about seven years, but it is well worth the wait for swimming fans who wish to get a glimpse of the every day struggles of Olympic level swimmers.

The film will be released on May 21.

Pre-order the film here.

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    looks awesome

  2. avatar
    Peg Wilkens Ahlberg

    I was lucky enough to see the premier and am so proud of this documentary and all involved especially my nephew Tom and Brian Tremmel! – well done!!

  3. avatar
    Jocelyne

    Looks awesome !

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