It had been yet another tough race for Jack Conger at the 2010 USA Swimming National Championships in August, where the then-15-year-old was competing against Olympians like Michael Phelps and Aaron Peirsol, and the Good Counsel sophomore did not want to speak to anyone.
The talk Conger had minutes later in Irvine, Calif., however, would become perhaps the most important of his promising young career.
Conger was introduced to Peirsol, a three-time Olympian and seven-time medalist known as one of the best ever in Conger’s preferred backstroke. For the next 30 minutes, the two chatted about Peirsol’s own first nationals, about what it takes to get to the next level, about how one meet does not make a swimmer.
For Conger, it was about how to become the next Peirsol.
“It flipped a switch in Jack,” said Sue Chen, Conger’s coach.
Conger, 16, had burst onto the high school swimming scene as a freshman for Good Counsel at the Washington Metro Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championships the previous winter, breaking records in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle — the first freshman, male or female, to do so in recent memory at the prestigious 47-year-old high school meet.
Since the national championships, however, the 6-foot-4 prospect has increased his presence on a grander scope, breaking a short course yards national age-group record in the 200-yard backstroke at a meet this fall and ranking in the top four in five events nationally for his age group.
“I definitely feel like that changed me,” Conger said of nationals. “I felt like that was the big icebreaker for me in swimming. I was a good swimmer and I thought to myself, ‘Now I know what it takes to be a great swimmer.’ ”
On Saturday, Conger will attempt to break two more Metros records in two events: the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle.
It is not out of the reach for Conger, who several local swim coaches said is ahead in his development of many former greats that have come through the metropolitan area, including several Olympians.
It is a comparison from which Conger and his coaches do not shy away, but one they approach with a careful temperament.
“We don’t want to hide the fact that that’s where he wants to be,” said Chen, who coaches Conger at the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club. “There is nothing wrong with shooting for those goals. If you fail to make the goal, it doesn’t make you a failure. . . . It’s not like ‘You need to become Michael Phelps or else.’ What we want to do is hit goal times at every practice, do what you’re supposed to do off the walls every time. And we challenge for him to become that great.”
The question Conger says he faces every day is obvious: Are you going to swim in the Olympics?
It seems a simple enough query. He is the best in his sport in an area rich with talent. He is among the top in the country in his age group. But there is a long path between 16-year-old greatness and donning a USA cap on the sport’s ultimate stage.
Tom Dolan has done both.
One of the country’s top teenage swimmers while growing up in Arlington, Dolan eventually won two gold medals and one silver at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He also held the world record in the 400 individual medley for nearly eight years until it was broken by Phelps in 2002.
Largely known as one of the hardest workers in the sport during his development and in his prime, Dolan said the key to Conger’s ability to maintain his success would come through several stages.
“The [thing] for young swimmers that are talented to keep in mind as they progress through rungs in sports and through their high schools years as they prepare for college, is to realize and accept and appreciate that it is a long road,” said Dolan, who is friends with Conger’s father and has know the teenager since he was a child. “It doesn’t happen in one year or even two years and certainly not overnight. There should be a level of patience that goes along with any level of success.”
While success at this age group can be an indicator of success — Phelps still holds four age-group records in the 15-16 age group and six at the 17-18 level, while other youth records remain in the hands of Olympians such as Ian Crocker, Peirsol, and Larsen Jensen — it does not necessarily serve as a direct indicator to success.
Dolan pointed to one swimmer, Chas Morton, who held age group records in several events growing up in the early 1980s. Morton, who still holds 11-12-year-old records in the 100-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley, went on to swim at Stanford and have a very successful college career, but never made a national or Olympic team.
“That’s not to dump on anyone, but it’s a good lesson for everyone,” Dolan said. “The world can change quickly. . . . It’s always good to remind everyone that the landscape does change. There are 16-year-olds that have had records that stood the test of time and also by people that never made Olympic teams. It’s a nice thing I still love about swimming: It does keep most everyone grounded. A year in swimming is a very long time.”
Conger’s development has continued on the right path, however.
His 6-4 frame, big hands and big feet are perfectly suited for the sport, but Conger will need to put more muscle on his 150-pound frame. Work in the weight room, especially in college, likely will be critical to continued success.
After his performance at — fittingly — the Tom Dolan Invitational this fall, Conger earned a trip to the USA Swimming National Select Camp at the Olympic training facilities in Colorado Springs, where he worked with some of the nation’s top young swimmers.
Swimming each day with the best in his age group helped Conger recognize that he is not always going to be the big fish in the pond.
“It really made me realize there are a lot of other guys that are just as fast as me or maybe even faster,” Conger said. “I really got to push myself harder.”
Conger’s renewed outlook on the sport, his increased work rate and desire to be the best, has those around him believing that the top goals are not by any means out of reach.
Conger, however, isn’t ready to proclaim anything yet.
“It’s in the reach in college,” Conger said. “But I don’t know if I can. I haven’t looked that far forward yet.”