For the past four years, Good Counsel senior Jack Conger has wowed crowds at swim meets with record-breaking performances and heroic relay swims. But more than at any other meet, Conger has shined at the Washington Metro Interscholastic Swimming & Diving Championships, regarded by many as the fastest high school championship meet in the country.
Conger hopes to cement his legacy Saturday in his final high school meet, his last appearance at Metros, by breaking national records in both of his individual events at Germantown Indoor Swim Center. (High school swimmers may enter two individual events and two relays per meet.)
“I want people to walk out the door [on Saturday] and think ‘He’s the real deal,’” said Conger, 18, who in six previous Metros appearances has set six meet records. “I want people to think ‘He’s a contender for the Olympic team in 2016,’ that I’m serious about what I do, and that, maybe, I’m one of the best high school swimmers that ever swam.”
Conger will first take aim at the 500-yard freestyle record, the oldest in the books, set 30 years ago by two-time Olympian Jeff Kostoff. A year ago at Metros, Conger missed the mark by 1.12 seconds, the third-fastest time ever by a high school swimmer.
Next he will chase the 100 backstroke mark set in November by his rival, Ryan Murphy of Florida, with whom he has traded national age group records the past four years. Like Conger, Murphy is widely considered a cornerstone in the future of American swimming. If Conger can break both Saturday, he would stand alone on top.
Last Saturday at the Washington Metropolitan Prep School Swim and Dive League championship meet, Conger fell short in the 100 butterfly after misjudging his finish, taking an extra stroke at the last moment instead of kicking into the finish. It cost him the national high school record by two-tenths of a second.
“I looked up at the clock and I was filled with disappointment,” Conger said. “I knew that was my last shot at that record. I know I’ll do more 100 flys, just not in high school.”
Where others may have been rattled by such a narrow miss, Conger learned from the experience — like he did after last year’s 500 free finish — and added it to a long list of highs and lows that contribute to what his coach, Sue Chen, calls “the process.”
“He didn’t love the process when he came in, he just loved the results,” Chen said. “He came in like any other ninth grader thinking he was good. And he was, because he was 6-2, which allowed him to be really good without putting the process together. And then he just made a decision after he had a poor performance at nationals [in 2010] to be the best.”
The catalyst for that decision was a talk with three-time Olympian Aaron Peirsol on deck at the USA Swimming National Championships in August 2010 — a casual introduction that has led to a special ongoing relationship between Conger and Peirsol. “I saw a lot of myself in Jack,” Peirsol said. “He really cared. He takes the sport seriously. It means something to him.”
He returned to his practices with Chen and the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club with a renewed focus and determination. “Anyone can be good at a practice a week,” Chen said. “But Jack started doing five practices great, then six practices great, and now they’re all great.”
“He wanted to see the fastest times from the best swimmers we’ve had in the past. He wants to be faster than everyone, not just in finals, but in practice and prelims,” said David Kraft, Conger’s age group coach who works alongside Chen on deck. “He’s made it a lifestyle. He’s as dedicated as he could possibly be.”
At the Junior Pan Pacific championship meet in August, Conger set a national age group record in the boys’ 100-meter backstroke. The previous record holder was Peirsol, who was in Honolulu as the junior national team mentor and once again took Conger under his wing as they worked on technique and race strategy.
“[After setting the record] Jack got out of the water and immediately came up to me and asked what he could improve on,” Peirsol said. “He wanted to talk about the race, his turns. He didn’t say a word about beating my record. Someone else told me later.
“He’s incredibly humble. He finds a lot of intrinsic reward in what he does. He enjoys it. He wants to be the best, but he knows it’s a long project.”
Next year Conger will head to the University of Texas to swim for Peirsol’s former mentor, Coach Eddie Reese, where he will be expected immediately to compete for both individual and team NCAA titles. There, many expect the tall, lanky junior national champion to grow into an Olympic champion.
“He has a determination. It makes you believe if he keeps that focus he’ll go a long way in this sport,” said Jack Roach, the junior national team director.
For the last year, Conger’s focus has triggered his rise on the sport’s biggest stages. He collected five gold medals at the Junior Pan Pacific championships in August and appeared in two finals at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha last June as he went toe-to-toe with Olympic champions Ryan Lochte, Matt Grevers and Tyler Clary.
With a bright future ahead, Conger will dive off the blocks for Good Counsel one final time on Saturday night, determined to add a fitting coda to his illustrious high school career.
“When the stakes are high, the best athletes don’t let opportunities slip by,” said Frank Busch, the U.S. National Team Director who coached Conger at the 2011 junior world championships in Lima, Peru. “He wants to be a history maker. He wants to make history with what he does in the pool, and he has the opportunity right in front of him.”
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