Zach Harting Becoming More than Swimming’s Batman

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

In full view of thousands, Zach Harting stepped onto a pool deck and became swimming’s Batman. Preparing for his first Olympic Trials final in the 200 fly, Harting decided to forgo his typical Louisville warmup gear in favor of a Batman towel with a hood, a Batman onesie and a pair of yellow crocs.

Harting’s favorite super-hero is Batman—the Christian Bale version from The Dark Knight trilogy, he emphasized—but his dress-up plan for Trials was a backup after Harting realized his original finals walk-out idea was impractical.

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Harting dressed as Batman at the 2016 Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I was going to Heely out for finals, but the flooring wasn’t optimal to roll. So I called my parents, and I was like, ‘Yo, bring the onesie,’” Harting said. The onesie had been a gag gift from an uncle a few years earlier. “I had them bring it from Alabama.”

And so Harting was Batman. After he finished seventh at Trials, he would be better known for his Batman attire than his actual swimming. Not that Harting minded—in fact, he loved when his international teammates who would go home and tell their friends that they swam with Batman.

By that point, his teammates knew: That’s just Zach.

Harting thought back to one of his first weeks at Louisville, the summer before his freshman year of college. He remembers a set of 10 x 400 IM, where every third repeat was fast, and the rest of the Cardinals weren’t yet used to Harting’s personality.

“I was like, ‘Screw this, I’m going to try being funny.’” So before the third repeat of the set, Harting announced to his team, “I’m going to take this one down like the Avengers took down Ultron!”

“Two seconds later, I pushed off into my fast one. The girls behind me probably didn’t know what to think. (Louisville assistant coach) Steph (Juncker) was standing over the blocks with the watch thinking probably like, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’”

But the way Harting saw it, the set was hard, so he wanted to make it a bit more fun. He wanted “some stupid phrase or line to make it seem like we were not about to do a fast 400 IM in practice on a Thursday morning.”

The logic of wearing a Batman costume to the blocks for the biggest race of his life? The same: Go big to distract himself from the enormity and the pressure of the situation.

The other Louisville swimmers and coaches got used to Harting’s shenanigans, and they became endearing, rather than annoying. Whatever would help him swim fast—so long as he’s not damaging any property, any of his teammates or himself. For instance, Harting refuses to simply jump into the pool when he arrives for early morning practice.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“If I’m going to get into a cold pool at 5, 6 a.m., I need to make sure I have a reason to do it,” he said. “I’m always one of the first ones in, definitely first one in my lane. That way it’s safe, and I’m not risking jumping on anyone. I always do a flip.”

Harting has tried back flips. He’s tried running and jumping onto one of the starting blocks in the deep end and then doing one-and-a-half flips into the pool. One time, he jumped off the five-meter platform and touched the flags. But when he tried to run and jump over the flags, “that was almost bad,” Harting recalled, “so I’m probably not going to do that again.”

He will even do a handstand on the blocks and let himself fall into the pool.

“You’ve got to be careful. You kind of just tip it forward and then go feet first in and push off the bottom. That’s a fun one, too. Coaches don’t like it, though,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you push up hard enough to make sure you go into the water. Mallory (Comerford) always freaks out when I do that. I’ll be on the block, inverted and about to fall in, and she’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

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Right before the 2018 NCAA championships (Harting’s junior year), he purchased a gas can, despite having no intentions to store fuel inside. He wanted to drink water out of the can. He had seen a performer try that once at a concert.

“I was like, ‘Alright, there’s no normal, sane person that normally drinks from a gas can,’” Harting said. But he knew that his status quo, both in training and in competition, had to change. With the end of his NCAA career looming, he knew he needed a breakthrough so that he could afford to continue swimming past March 2019.

“If I wanted to be with these people I’m trying to compete with, Olympians and World Champions, I figured my training would have to be insane.’ The gas can was ultimately for them, to keep me reminded and focused on what I was trying to do at practice.”

More than 1000 swimmers participated at this summer’s U.S. Nationals, and most of them brought traditional water bottles. Harting brought his gas can. And when he swam the 200 fly on the meet’s first day, he got that breakthrough he had been looking for.

Harting acknowledges about the 200 fly that “yeah, she’s cold-hearted, and she’ll be mean and rough you up,” but he calls the event his “baby.” He is rarely the aggressor in the race, preferring to hang back and then charge home. Indeed, in the National final, he was last after 50 meters, last after 100 meters—and then fourth at the 150, after posting the fastest split on the third lap.

Harting couldn’t quite finish the race with the same intensity as Justin Wright, but he ended up placing second. He qualified to swim at the Pan Pacific Championships, and there he earned a bronze medal in the 200 fly, securing his spot on next year’s World Championship team in the process.

And when he came back, he was the same old Zach.

In early November, Juncker posted a video to Twitter of Harting blasting his guitar at full volume inside Louisville’s Ralph Wright Natatorium prior to the team’s 6 a.m. practice.

As it turned out, Harting was practicing for his upcoming solo performance at Golden Goggles, and he needed a place where he could turn up his amp to full volume.

I was going to come back after practice, but I had an extra minute before practice, and I was really curious what it sounded like and how loud it really got,” Harting said. “I cranked it all the way up. I didn’t tell the coaches or anything. They just kind of walked in.”

Weeks later, Harting swam at the Indiana Invitational, and during a warmdown, he decided to have some fun with a teammate—or so he thought.

“There’s a girl kicking in. I thought she was from Louisville, which is why I thought it was okay. Turns out, she was not. She was from NC State,” Harting said. “I was standing on the block to get in and warm up. I did a jump off the block. I made eye contact with her, still thinking she was one of our swimmers. I jumped in and did a cannonball right next to her and splashed her.

“I come up, and I was like, ‘Got you.’ And then I was like, ‘Wait, I am so sorry. I thought you were someone else.’”

Thankfully for Harting, the NC State swimmer wasn’t mad, and the two kicked together for a few minutes. Initially embarrassed after what he called “the cringiest thing,” Harting ended up making a new friend.

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Harting with Justin Wright & Luca Urlando after the 200 fly at U.S. Nationals — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

As for the gas can, that has been “retired,” confined to Harting’s home in Alabama.

“It went to Pan Pacs. There was no way it wasn’t going,” he said. “ Then I used it a little bit during the six weeks of training at the beginning of the season. Then I kind of retired it. As of right now, it’s retired. Maybe it will come back if there’s a need for it, but I don’t know if I’ll need it like I needed it this summer.”

And this summer, when he believed his future in swimming was at stake, Harting used one of his quirky tactics to push himself to emerge from a crowd of fine swimmers and become one of the best 200 flyers in the country. It worked—and finally, he was more than swimming’s Batman.


More from Zach Harting: 

What did your experience at Pan Pacs mean for you and your career?

“One, it was a lot of fun. Going overseas always fun. But what set this one apart from the other times I’ve gone overseas is I swam well this time. This was the one time I’ve gone overseas and gone faster than I did to qualify for the meet, so that was really satisfying knowing that I could go over there and I could perform.

“I was scared going in because I had gone to Singapore (for the 2015 World Junior Championships), and I didn’t go as fast as I wanted to. Then I went to Taipei (for the 2017 World University Games) and didn’t go as fast as I wanted to. Now in Tokyo, I didn’t want to miss a week of school and be behind and not swim fast.

“That’s what happened in Taipei. I was like, ‘This kind of sucks because nothing is going well here right now.’ Not that that experience wasn’t fun—I had a great time and made a lot of friends in Taipei—but this was the first time I went over there and swam fast like I knew I was able to. It was encouraging that it wasn’t a one-time thing and I could put those performances up back to back like that.”

Is there more of a clear path forward for you now that you’ve been on a team like Pan Pacs?

“I made this past summer of training really big because I figured if I wanted to be a professional swimmer after this year, then I had a lot of work to do. I figured if I didn’t get a lot of that work done last summer, then I didn’t have a shot after this summer. I pretty much put all of my eggs in that one basket. I think I took two classes, but it was one class a day, so that was really manageable.

“I tried to do all the little things that you’re told growing up in swimming. Like, ‘Hey, you should actually be stretching, and you shouldn’t eat out because it’s not good for you.’ I tried to do a lot of those little things right, put all my eggs in the basket. ‘It’s either this or bust and I’m going to have to get a job when I graduate.’ That’s what I did, and it worked, which is nice.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m the best or anything, but now I’ve got a shot to keep swimming after this year is over, which is what I’ve wanted to do since I started swimming. It works out really well with my masters program because my masters program is an extra year anyways. The masters I’m going to do is all online, so I can do a pseudo-pro style: train, go home and nap, go back and practice, then do my online class stuff at night. I can live that life.”

200 fly is an event that not everybody is rushing to sign up for. Why does that event fit for you so well, from both a physiological perspective and a mental perspective?

“The reason I never did breaststroke and still don’t do breaststroke is it’s a slow-moving stroke. Fly works because I like how it feels powerful and it feels fast. I’ve always liked that component of it. I’m not going to say it’s the hardest stroke, but it’s kind of the hardest stroke. I like that it’s this monster of an event. Being good at it, that’s kind of cool to say, ‘This is my event.’

“One of our swimmers at the meet swam the 200 fly and got out—he doesn’t train fly—and he was like, ‘I remember why I don’t do this event anymore. I don’t like this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah. Yep. Don’t talk about my baby like that. Yeah, she’s cold-hearted, and she’ll be mean and rough you up. You’ve got to do it just right.’ I like how there’s a balance there—it’s not a sprint, but it’s not not a sprint, and if you can sprint at the end, you’ve got a good shot.

“What also works for me that I’m really happy about is my coaches say that breathing every stroke increases my DPS, which is awesome for me because I like breathing. I was not about to argue with them about, ‘No, we need a breathing pattern.’ They say, ‘That middle 100, you breathe all you want.’”

The 200 fly is definitely an interesting event if you can do it right.

“In long course, you don’t have as many walls, so you can get away with swimming more. Here in the NCAA, it’s a little more underwater-based.”

Do you think you’re a little better long course?

“I think so.”

Do you ever worry you’re saving too much for the last 50?

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Kelsi Dahlia, Zach Harting & Mallory Comerford at Golden Goggles — Photo Courtesy: Diana Pimer

“I was kind of thinking about that. Before Nationals, we were kind of like, ‘This is what we want to do.’ I was kind of tweaking some things. From the Nationals final on, I was very comfortable where I was compared to the rest of the field the entire way, being last at the 50 and the 100. If I was at his knees or his legs, I knew he was going to die, so if I was at his shoulders at the 150, I’ve got him.

“In Tokyo, there’s me at the 75, and I’m a bodylength and a half behind. Kathleen Baker and Regan Smith were in the ready room like, ‘What is this guy doing? Did he slip on the start? Does he know that he’s racing?’ I was good. I was exactly where I wanted to be. I knew how they were swimming it.”

That comes from a lot of racing experience, knowing exactly how it should feel at every point in the race.

“Right. It was like, ‘Okay, they’re going to take it out. If it’s a second, that’s about a bodylength. If I’m a bodylength behind, we’re good.’ I never panicked. The third and fourth 50 came around, and I was like, ‘Alright.’ I was comfortable where I was at, just because of what I knew about how everyone else swims it. And I knew that the last 100 was going to be my money-maker.”

What has Louisville given you, aside from getting you to be a better swimmer?

“This is going to sound strange, considering all the things and shenanigans I’ve told you, but they’ve kind of made me grow up, and I look at swimming a different way. There was one time we were watching the 4×100 relay from 2008, but we were watching it with a super-technical eye. We were watching the last French swimmer (Alain Bernard), we were like, ‘He lost because he kamikazed his legs on the first half, and that’s why he didn’t come home.’

“Just watching that race growing up, it was like, ‘We just came back really fast.’ While that’s also true, there’s a little bit more to that story because the other guy swam it wrong, which you normally only see at the high school level and below.

“We were also looking at the different types of catches, where Phelps’ catch is a little bit different than Adrian’s catch. We watched Dressel’s catch and their lines in the 100 when they went down vs. when they came back. We watched a couple of the different relays. I forget why we were watching it. That’s kind of how I watch things now. I’m more aware of what I do in the water.

“And I think that’s translated to outside the water because I changed a couple of my habits that I’ve done, like learning to cook for myself—which is very nice because feeding myself is not easy, so sophomore and junior year I was just figuring that out. And then the other life skills that go around trying to manage something that you have—I want to do this, so that means I have these other five things I have to do to this, and then you can start working backwards and then structure you’re life around the other things that you have to get done. I think that can apply to just about everything.”

Aside from going fast or making the Olympic team, what are your goals for the rest of your swimming career?

“I guess I kind of just want to keep swimming for as long as I can. As long as I’m competitive enough to keep swimming, I have nothing else that I want to be doing. After that, I’ll have an engineering degree. If I go into that field, that’s fine. If not and I do some sort of swimming-related job, that’s also fine. I’m sure that would be a lot of fun. It’s not something I’m not looking at.

“I want to finish this year and then hopefully get a professional contract so I can keep swimming past next year and then just continue that as long as I’m good enough to go, unless there’s a point where I’m like, ‘You know, this is good, it’s been fun,’ and then hang up the goggles, but I feel like the first one would come before. I’ve been doing this since I was seven, 14 years, so I feel like that’s something I’m not just going to want to walk away from. I don’t know, as long as I can.”