By CHLOE SMITH, UK Media Relations
NOTE: The first of a five-part series of individual features stories leading up to the 2016 US Olympic Trials. Today, learn about freshman sprinter Cobe Garcia.
In the world of swimming, individual superstars reign supreme. Household names like Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky take the limelight, and there is never much focus on the complete team aspect. Even in the collegiate realm, individuals have been center stage with emerging wunderkinds Caeleb Dressel and Lilly King earning their right to become media darlings of the postseason.
Not to detract from the fact that the Georgia women won their seventh national title and the Texas men took home their national record-tying 12th NCAA Championship in 2016, but focus always shifts to individual fast swimming that lead to school, NCAA, and even American records being broken on the biggest stage in college swimming.
Since taking over the program four years ago, Lars Jorgensen has been able to move Kentucky athletes in the mix of individual contender talk, but has made the team aspect a primary focus of the culture shift. “It is difficult in our sport because people do often view it as an individual sport, but we are a product of our team and our environment,” explained Jorgensen.
It’s one thing for a coach to emphasize the importance of the team, but the team can only really grow when its athletes buy in. One swimmer who came into the program with a strong foundational understanding of the value of team unity is Cobe Garcia.
The team’s Most Improved Swimmer, Garcia has already been heralded by Jorgensen as being a future leader at UK because of his team-first mentality. The Burlington, Kan., native fresh off his rookie season at UK is one of 25 athletes that will represent Kentucky swimming at the 2016 US Olympic Swim Trials, which run June 26-July 3 in Omaha, Neb.
The feat of qualifying to the Trials is certainly a tremendous individual accomplishment, but when Garcia pinpoints the moment in which he started to break through a time barrier, he goes back to that team-first mentality.
Garcia, a sprinter for the Wildcats, just started swimming full-time this past year, having been a multi-sport athlete throughout his life who dutifully designated each season to playing a different sport. So when he came to Lexington and doubled his training hours compared to what he had been doing in Kansas, the transition was rough.
“At the beginning of the year, I was not very good because I was just so tired,” he remarked. “Those first two months were just really hard.”
But then January rolled around, and he felt more in sync with his training and the shock of intense hours started to wane. In the beginning of the year, Garcia was posting modest times of low-to-mid 21-second marks in the 50 free, his highest finish being a fifth-place performance against Southeastern Conference foe Texas A&M. During the mid-season tapered meet at Ohio State in November, he went 20.72 for what was then the fastest time of his college career.
The moment that Garcia vividly remembers when he started swimming faster was on Jan. 9, when UK hosted LSU and Virginia Tech for a tri-meet. The Wildcats had not won an SEC dual meet in nearly seven years, and Kentucky was in position to snap its losing skid with a close tally against LSU.
Garcia swam a 20.73 leadoff in the 200 free relay, just off his collegiate best. But his mindset got locked in three events later for his specialty race, the 50 free. “I kind of had that drive to go for it because it was such a close meet. All our others had been more spread apart on performance between teams, but that one was really close between all of us,” he recalled.
When Garcia got on the blocks for the 50 free, he wanted to put on an impactful performance and didn’t expect to hit a lifetime best. “I was just like, ‘I’m gonna go for it. I really don’t know why I shouldn’t.’” In setting his mind toward helping the team reach its goal, Garcia won against LSU in a lifetime-best 20.45 seconds. What made that performance more impressive is he was not rested, suited or shaved for the meet.
Kentucky ended up winning that day, taking down the Tigers in a 198-188 decision.
That meet truly was a turning point for Garcia, who went from being a role player to Kentucky’s primary sprint specialist and anchor in the 200 free and medley relays. In the remaining three duals, Garcia was the top finisher for UK in the 50 free, picking up wins against Ohio State and Cincinnati with another PR of 20.21 seconds in his win against the Buckeyes.
At the SEC Championships, Garcia was the only freshman to make a swimming B final for the Wildcat men and swam three sub-20-second 50s with a top time of 19.81. His mark was good for an NCAA Championship consideration mark, and sits just outside the UK all-time top 10 list by a mere hundredth of a second. He also swam a B cut in the 100 free in 44.22 seconds, another time that is knocking at the door of Kentucky’s top-10 swims as the 11th-fastest in program history.
With his rookie collegiate season over following the conference meet, Garcia switched his focus to long course meters and the goal of making Olympic Trials, something that had been on his mind for nearly two years.
“Almost two years ago, I saw times that were the idea for what Olympic Trials (standards) were going to be. And I saw that I was a second and a half off in the 50. I was like, ‘you know, I’ve got two years to cut a second and a half. I can do that.’ So by the end of my senior year in high school, I swam a time in the 50 that was just half a second off, and I had cut a full second in just, like, six months. And I thought, ‘wow, that’s a lot.’ Then I thought, ‘I’ve got a year and a half to cut half a second. Plus I’m going to college, I’m going to get stronger in every way. So I’ll be able to do this, I just have to do it.’”
While the collegiate season was still going on and athletes were trying to shave enough time to make the NCAA Championships, Garcia was after his first Olympic Trials cut. He went to Ohio State for a LCM race on Feb. 28 and swam a personal best of 23.33 that was painfully close to the Trials standard – four hundredths of a second off the mark.
“That really made me mad,” he said with a smile. “I knew the one point in that race where I could have gotten it. It was on the finish. So I kind of tried to work my finishes better.”
Though his opportunities to make a qualifying time were becoming fewer and fewer, Garcia was unfettered and used the race and knowledge that he could have done better as motivation for the coming months. His determination paid off three months later at the Atlanta Classic, where he not only made the cut, but went under the 23-second mark for the first time in his life with a 22.98. That time made him the eighth-fastest 50 free swimmer at the meet in a field that was topped by three Olympians.
With Olympic Trials on the horizon, Garcia keeps a positive outlook. “It’ll help me know that there are people that are bigger, faster and stronger than me…It can let me know that I’m getting to that point where they are, but I’m also still keeping a mindset of being a younger, less experienced guy. I can just go in and not have anything to lose, and just go for it.”
It was that attitude of “just go for it” that helped Garcia have a breakout swim in January, but he continues to revisit the importance of the team. He will be swimming as an individual, but will be representing Kentucky with his cap.
The young UK swimmer is impressive not only with his freshman success, but also in the thoughtfulness and eloquence with which he speaks about his team.
“If you can’t learn to do something for someone else so that everybody can achieve more, then you’re just not going to go anywhere.”
With UK emblazoned on his cap and his spirit, Garcia’s journey at Olympic Trials and his remaining three years at Kentucky should prove to be an enjoyable one to follow.