Position available: NCAA swimming champion. Job description: more than 300 days of training, morning and afternoon, year-round. No excessive partying or weight gain. Requirements: buy in to a team concept and swim faster than about 1,000 other guys. Benefits: see your name painted on a large outdoor sign.
This is the position Jack Brown wanted when he arrived at Arizona in the fall of 2006. He wanted to be an All-American. He wanted his name on the Wall of Honor at Hillenbrand Aquatic Center, next to all the Olympians and national champs.
But he went home that year, he remembers, "in tears, bawling and devastated."
"I came here with a little chip on my shoulder, with something to prove," he says now. "In all honesty, it backfired."
College swimming is so demanding, so all-consuming, that you wonder how anyone gets through four seasons with their sanity intact. Those who do make it, those like Jack Brown, peaking at the end, "are the kind of people you stand back and admire," says UA coach Frank Busch.
Today, at 22, Brown is college swimming's time leader in the 200 IM and the 400 IM. He is the reigning national swimmer of the week, a member of the USA national team, a senior bent on helping the No. 1-ranked Wildcats win their second NCAA championship next month.
It sure didn't begin this way.
At the 2007 NCAA finals, Brown failed to make the finals for his best event, the 400 IM, and immediately went into a career pout. That night, in the consolation heat, he finished dead last, 16 of 16. "I shut down," he says.
UA assistant coach Greg Rhodenbaugh, a nice and thoughtful man, didn't put an arm around Brown and offer any we'll-get-'em-next-year consolation.
"Rhodie told me I had basically wasted the coaches' time and my time," Brown remembers. "It was a stab in the heart, but it was true. I was selfish. So I went back home to Atlanta that summer and re-evaluated everything. I had to change. Now I can say this is the greatest experience of my life, swimming for Arizona. I'm incredibly blessed."
Little by little, overshadowed in a pool full of All-Americans such as Albert Subirats, Adam Ritter, Nicholas Nilo and Joel Greenshields, Brown established a similar identity.
He was a two-time All-American in 2008 and a three-time All-American last year. In the 2009 USA Nationals, he was a fraction of a second from making the American World Championship team. Finally, in December, USA Swimming sent him to England as part of the American team in the "Duel in the Pool."
"Jack was a good swimmer when we recruited him, but you just couldn't imagine he'd get to this level," Busch says. "He put in the work, kept plugging, kept improving, and now he's a game-changer. We're grateful to have him."
Along the way, Brown broke the school's 400 IM record set 15 years ago by 2000 Sydney Olympic silver medalist Chad Carvin. There's a tangible reward for setting a school record: a work crew shows up at Hillenbrand and erects the name of the record-setter on ominous signboards that stand watch over every UA workout.
Busch had a novel way to motivate Brown during some of the inevitably difficult training sessions: Busch would stand on the deck and shout "Jack Brown: I want to see your name on that board! I want to see you take Chad Carvin down!"
With expansion of the Hillenbrand facility last spring and summer, work crews didn't get time to re-do the record boards until late summer. One day a guy showed up with a ladder and a bucket of paint and the changes began.
"I was waiting to see my name go up there," Brown remembers. "It's funny, they redid all of the boards, doing the women's records first. I kept waiting around. Finally, they got to the slot for the 400 IM. They painted J-A-C and then they got off the ladders and went home for the day.
"I said 'Come on, are you serious?'"
Now, a visitor at the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center can read the whole name, J-A-C-K B-R-O-W-N, on the big signboard. Sometime this spring, if all goes well, the painters will return to put up a second "Jack Brown" on the big board for NCAA champions.
The wait has been worth it.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.