Connor Black: He has that feeling

Connor Black: He has that feeling
March 27, 2013, 12:15 pm
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Do you know when you are doing something that nobody else has ever done?

It is a feeling. You can't define it. But you can feel it. John Kinsella and Tom Jager said they felt it. Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps probably felt it, too. And Mundelein's Connor Black said he felt it last month when he shattered the national high school record in the 100-yard butterfly.

Kinsella, an Olympic silver medalist as a Hinsdale Central sophomore in 1968, and Jager, a Collinsville product who won five Olympic gold medals and once was the world record-holder in the 50-meter freestyle, said they could feel when they were swimming at a record-breaking pace.

They didn't need to look at a clock. They didn't need someone to shout out splits from the end of the pool. They could feel it. They could feel they were stroking at a record pace and when they weren't. And when they were, it was the most exhilarating feeling they had ever experienced.

Black felt it when he won the 100-yard butterfly in 46.71 seconds at the state high school meet, eclipsing the time of 47.08 set by Sean Fletcher of Vienna, Virginia, in 2009.

For good measure, Black also won the 50-yard freestyle after breaking a state record (19.80 seconds) in the preliminaries that was established by Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers in 2003.

"You know you are going fast because this is what you are training for," he said. "At the state meet, in the last 15 yards or so, when I was coming home, I'm at speed at the end of the race. I'm not dying, not feeling like a dead weight with a piano on my back. I knew I was going a best time.

"On the day before, during the preliminaries, I had beaten the state record (in the 100-yard butterfly) and was only two/tenths of a second off the national record. I knew I had a shot at it in the finals.

"I felt I was swimming the race just as good. Take it out faster, try to make it faster. I was going for it. In the last 15 yards, I knew I had it. It was a feeling. I was still racing. I never hit a point where the goal was to complete the race. I was just trying to do it as fast as I can."

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Black, a 6-foot-5 senior with size 13 feet, has the physical tools and mental approach to excel in the butterfly, his favorite event. He made the initial cut at the Olympic trials. But he doesn't have 49.82 (Phelps' world record for the 100-meter butterfly) taped to his refrigerator door.

"My goal is to win and swim as fast as I can," he said. "I never have been about specific goals or times. If you put in the work and swim your race, what good comes from it just kind of happens."

He always answers the bell. But he has a reputation for never answering his cell phone.

"It's Connor. That's just him," said Mundelein swimming coach Rahul Sethna. "He forgets his cell phone or he's the last guy to show up for the bus because he's always late. Of course, we always wait for Connor."

On this day, however, he picks up the phone faster than you can say: "On your block, get set, go!"

"I've been watching the NCAA basketball tournament games a little bit, mostly in the last 30 seconds. I saw the end of the Ohio State game," he said, referring to Aaron Craft's game-winning shot. "I've never been into basketball. But I filled out the brackets. I'm tied for third in our pool. I picked Kansas to beat Louisville in the final."

He is devoted to swimming, water polo, academics (he has a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 30 on his ACT), preparing to study management science at Stanford and his steady girlfriend. On Sundays, he and other swimmers coach youngsters at the Libertyville Special Olympics. "I don't have too much time for anything else," he said.

Black is the last guy to board the bus and the first guy to reach the wall. However, he'd prefer that you didn't notice. If he could have set a national high school record without anyone taking notice, that would have been his choice.

But he did and everybody noticed, from the Chicago media to USA Swimming magazine to Sports Illustrated. He even had to endure an all-school assembly to celebrated his unprecedented achievement. He probably would have preferred to be playing water polo with his friends.

But he is what he is, perhaps the best swimmer in Illinois high school history since Hinsdale Central's John Kinsella in 1968-70.

Seven Illinois products have won Olympic medals--Kinsella, Lake Forest's Matt Grevers and Erik Maurer, Loyola's Connor Dwyer, Hinsdale South's Brian Kurza, Hinsdale Central's John Murphy and Collinsville's Tom Jager.

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But only Black set a national record in high school. And he was the first high school swimmer ever to eclipsed the 47-second barrier in the 100-yard butterfly.

In 1978, Prospect's Tom Cole became the first Illinois swimmer to break the 50-second barrier, an indication of how far the sport has come, how far the event has come and how far Black has come since he was a 10-year-old setting age-group records as a member of the Mundelein Mustangs Swim Club.

Until recently, Black didn't know who John Kinsella was. Last January, at the Red Devil Invitational at Hinsdale Central, he looked at the big board on the wall and saw that the pool record for the 200-yard freestyle was held by somebody named John Kinsella. But what was most intriguing to him was that the record had been set in 1970. That's a long time for any swimming record to last by today's standards.

Black set two pool records that day, in the 100-yard freestyle and the 100-yard butterfly. But he failed to surpass Kinsella's record of 1:41.30. Black won in 1:41.38.

"Black keeps coming. He isn't close to being physically mature. He's a tall little boy. He has a way to go. You can see the hunger in his eyes. His junior year was good. But he took off in his senior year," said Hinsdale Central coach Corky King, who has been developing and evaluating high school swimmers for 36 years.

"I think he will eat it up and have a ball at Stanford. He didn't even swim the event (100-yard butterfly) last year and didn't set any state records. So he is moving on. When you are really good, it is hard to maintain. But when you are continually getting better, positive enforcement is so important. It is hard to stay motivated when you are at the top. It isn't as much fun when you are leveling off. That is why is it so unusual and noteworthy to do what Black did from his junior to senior year."

Sethna, who has been coaching swimming and water polo at Mundelein for 16 years, noticed Black for the first time when the 6-year-old showed up at the Mundelein Mustangs Swim Club.

"I knew who he was. I knew his age group was setting records," Sethna said. "My name for him was 'The Franchise.' He didn't like it. But I knew he would be 'The Franchise' when he got to high school, that we would build our program around him.

"When he was 10, I saw him set an age-group state record in the 500-yard freestyle in a USA club meet at Brown Deer, Wisconsin. I knew then that he would be a great swimmer. Swimming isn't like basketball or other sports. I knew he would be good but he wasn't tall at that time. It was too early to project how good he would be."

Black started slowly. He is a butterflyer, his best event. But he is gifted in all four strokes -- freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. As a freshman, Sethna entered him in the individual medley. He qualified for the state meet in the 200 IM and 100 butterfly but didn't place in the top 12 in either event. But he did compete on two relays that placed in the top 12. He was on his way.

As a youngster, he participated in gymnastics, soccer and baseball. His father was his baseball coach. Once he began to experience success in swimming, then began to grow, the light bulb switched on and he realized where his future was.

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"When I was 10, I went to Quincy for the club state meet," Black recalled. "I won the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle in the 10-and-under class. Then, a week later, I went to Grand Forks, South Dakota, for a zone meet with other states and won the 100 butterfly.

"Man, I love swimming, I said to myself. When you do well, you really enjoy it. I thought I would definitely stick with this. I wasn't going to stop. I never thought too far ahead. But I knew I wanted to keep swimming and getting better and faster."

What separates Black from other swimmers?

"Two things," Sethna said. "He is built like a prototype swimmer, long arms, very tall, big feet. He has prototype size. And he holds water really well. When people swim, they fight the water. They aren't efficient in the water. Connor is very efficient in the water. He can make adjustments so he always has constant force/pressure on the water.

"He has one of the smoothest flys around. He is very powerful above the water. Coaches say the most impressive thing about his fly is he is so smooth and he flies above the water. When he is clicking on his fly, it is a pretty thing to watch. The most important thing to be a great flyer? Have good turns into the walls under water and be smooth and powerful above the water.

"His edge is he is very analytical. He is very good at breaking down his races. He is self-aware of what he feels he needs to get better. Before the state meet, he was fine-tuning how many strokes he needed for 25 yards, how many seconds from flag to flag, the most efficient amount of strokes. He hit all three turns and his start. I don't know how much better he could have been."

"Minimum strokes, maximum speed. Do the least amount of work for the fastest amount of output you can get," is how Black explains his strategy, typically using the fewest words to deliver his message.

Black doesn't crave attention. But he knows it is part of the territory because of his ability. "Did you see my picture in Sports Illustrated?" he asked his coach. He doesn't talk about his swimming accomplishments. How many people know he has had a huge poster of Michael Phelps covering one wall of his bedroom since he was 10? The fact is he'd rather talk about water polo.

"Swimming is my love," he said. "Water polo is an intense, brutal sport. But definitely for two months at the end of the year it is so much fun. I play with a lot of friends. It is a team sport, the coolest thing you get out of it that you can't get out of swimming. I can swim the first leg of a relay. But in water polo, I can throw a pass up high and a teammate can slam dunk and score a goal. It's more of a team aspect."

He doesn't set goals because goals set limits. At the state meet, his goal was to win two events and swim as fast as he could, which he did. If he wins but doesn't swim fast, he is a little let down. "It's more about swimming fast," he said.

"He is a once-in-a-lifetime swimmer for me, not only for his physical ability but also for the leadership that he brings," Sethna said. "He is a great student-athlete role model. He is one of the top high school swimmers in the nation but he also focuses on the water polo team with his friends, trying to get to the state meet. That explains a lot about him. He isn't a Mr. Individual Accolades guy."

But he still has a chance to win the NCAA pool. Rock Chalk, Jayhawk.