CRAWFORD | Louisville swimming set to make its mark on the world
With two swimmers at the World Championships in Hungary, two in the World University Games in Taipei and a swimmer at the Junior World Championships in Indianapolis, plus coach Arthur Albiero working with the U.S. Women in Budapest, it's a busy summer for the Louisville swim program.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They kept coming, like waves, which wasn’t altogether inappropriate for a swimming program. The University of Louisville rolled out its most recent group of swimmers to gain international success on Monday, in a cramped room at the Ralph Wright Natatorium, filled with cameras and rearranged furniture.
“So do you guys come here often?” Zach Harting, who just qualified for the World University Games in the 100 meter butterfly by winning a swim-off in the U.S. Nationals and World Championships Trials in Indianapolis, called out to reporters before the start of a news conference.
The answer, of course, is no. Certainly not in the middle of summer. Not for swimming, as a general rule.
But also yes. I actually used to come here often. I used to come to this spot all the time, in fact. It was a parking lot. I would cut across it on my way to McDonald’s when I was a student here, and lived a couple of buildings over.
Swimming, as an intercollegiate activity at U of L in those days, existed, but not in the way it does now. It’s far from the program it was, when athletic director Tom Jurich recruited coach Arthur Albiero to take the job without ever showing him the pool – on purpose. The notion that students would vote themselves a fee to pay to build this natatorium, in fact, had barely been born, at that point.
“It’s a very exciting time for our program,” Albiero said Monday. “We continue to make history. That’s what we do here. Each year, we find a way to improve things a little bit. This summer has been no different. We kind of had a discussion coming into this, how cool would it be to have Louisville swimmers represented in all of these world championships. And the swimmers did the job. . . .
So U of L will send two swimmers to the World Championships in Budapest Hungary – Olympic gold medalist Kelsi Worrell in the 50 and 100 meter butterfly and the 4 x 100 relay and NCAA champion Mallory Comerford in the 100 freestyle and 4 x 200 freestyle relay. Albiero has been selected as a coach for that 21-member women’s World Championships team. U of L also will send two to the World University Games in Taipei, Harting and Andrea Cottrell, while Nick Albiero, a Louisville signee and son of the coach, will head to the junior world championships in Indianapolis.
“It’s good to have our name grow and improve in the swimming world,” Albiero said. “Hopefully when you think of top swimming programs in the country, the world Louisville is no longer Louie who? We’re starting to create a little tradition. It’s been a great journey so far.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find two more unassuming world-class athletes than Worrell and Comerford. Worrell has been on the national scene for years, but exemplified the “hungry and humble” attitude Albiero wants to permeate his program. Comerford came along behind her and splashed onto the national scene when she tied five-time Olympic Gold medalist Katie Ledecky for the NCAA title in the 200 freestyle last March, with the added bonus of doing it with athletic director Tom Jurich – without whom the swim program would not exist – in the stands watching.
Worrell has graduated, she’s engaged and has moved on to a professional swimming career, but she remains close to the U of L program and trains with Albiero.
And Comerford keeps coming. She set a U.S. National Championships record with a time of 52.81 seconds – the second-fastest time in American history -- to out-touch Olympic Gold medialist Simone Manuel in the 100 free in Indianapolis.
“Mallory now twice has kind of shocked the swimming world,” Albiero said. “First tying Katie Ledecky in the NCAA championships, with Mr. Tom Jurich in the stands, it was a fantastic moment for our sport and for our program, but then to come back and beat the Olympic gold medalist head-to-head, in the middle of the pool, no shenanigans, just swimming, it spoke volumes. People asked me if she would be intimidated. If you know anything about Mallory, she loves that moment. She just put herself in that position with great respect for her opponents.”
Worrell said she has turned “pro,” but quickly moved to qualify that statement, referencing the recent rookie contract signed by Louisville baseball player Brendan McKay.
“Well, the first year as a professional is a lot different, but I did not get signed for $7.2 million, so it’s definitely a different sport and a lot different world,” Worrell said. “It’s been a fast year, and a really enjoyable one. I’m just really thankful for this team. I’m not on the team anymore, but I just feel like I can still be real with these girls and they push me so hard in the pool. I got to do a lot more traveling this year. I went to the World Cups in the fall and got to do some traveling with my sponsors, so it’s just opened a lot of incredible doors.”
Without NCAA meets, Worrell has trained without tapering. And her goal at the trials in Indianapolis was just to qualify, so she hadn’t fully tapered for that, and she found herself nervous, having not faced a big meet like that in a while.
“I was a lot more nervous than I expected to be,” she said. “I was, like, ‘what is this butterfly situation going on in my stomach?’ I put more pressure on the 100 free. . . . It was totally different, but I was trusting in the process we have.”
“I just wanted to have fun. Last summer there was a lot of pressure with the trials and I learned from that. Just the experience of the past year and the experience of racing some amazing people all helped me in this meet. I really had nothing to defend or lose. Mindset next. Arthur uses that a lot. It’s weird. Sometimes I kind of forget. It’s weird to talk about it or think about it that I swam that fast. I’m just excited for worlds and excited to learn from people on team USA. We’re going to train for a week in Croatia. It’s so crazy and amazing to have the opportunity to race with the best people in the entire world.”
Cottrell and Harting qualified for the World University Games not by time, but by finishing position. For them, Albiero stressed competitiveness as the key.
Cottrell, a team captain, ACC breaststroke champion and the recipient of an ACC scholarship for her academic excellence in the field of nursing, expected to qualify for the World University Games in the 200 breaststroke, but when that didn’t happen dug deep to make the team in the 100 free, and will also swim relay.
“The 200 just didn’t happen, and at first I was kind of bummed, but then I realized I like sprinting a lot better than I like the 200, even though I made the World University Games in the 200 two years ago,” Cottrell said. “So I was excited. The 50 was the next day, and I knew that would get me ready for the 100. I knew there were two girls in my heat that I needed to beat, and those last 15 meters it was in my head, and I was able to finish really well. . . . ”
Harting, who has competed for U.S. junior national teams, tied for eighth in his qualifying heat in the 100 butterfly, which sent him into a swim-off. With the entire U of L team cheering him on, he shaved a half-second off his qualifying time to touch the wall first. Known at U of L – and increasingly nationally – for his wearing of Batman costume items before meets, Harting has found a way to achieve beyond expectations, and has made an adult national team for the first time.
“I’ve seen swimoffs before,” he said. “They don’t have to be the fastest time you’ve ever done, you just have to be faster than the other guy. There were two of us in there, and one of us was going to win. Why couldn’t that be me? . . . It brings some legitimacy. Being able to say I’m on a national team with people like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, people like that. It means a little more to people outside the swimming world, and is a lot more impactful, and meaningful, to me.”
Harting also is drawing plenty of attention for his alter-ego. He starts meets wearing yellow crocs with Batman depictions. When he advances to semifinals and trials, he adds a Batman mask and towel. Before the finals in Indianapolis, he went to Albeiro with an even more extensive get-up.
“That moment at trials, I’ve never seen the full Batman,” Albiero said. “He makes it into the semis and wants to show me something, and he says, “Coach I’m wearing this tonight.’ And how can you say no to that, right? Because at that point, I’m thinking he’s got a mojo, he’s got a flow, he’s thought through this, he has a plan. The only thing I said is if you’re going to wear it, you make sure you deliver. And he did, twice.”
Asked why he chose Batman instead of the, perhaps, more obvious, Aquaman, a groan came from Cottrell, sitting next to him.
“Oh no, here we go,” she said.
“You went there,” Harting responded. “Perfect. When I grew up I watched the Batman and Beyond cartoon with my dad when my mom would go to work, so I guess Batman has always been kind of special to me that way -- plus his suits are the coolest. Batman and Beyond is my favorite. Then you have Christian Bale coming in and he did a bang-up job. The Joker, just the whole franchise that they did there was absolutely phenomenal. I couldn’t think of another super hero, at that point in time, when I was making that important choice of who my favorite super hero was going to be, he’s got the best suit, great actor, great bad guys, great storyline, you can’t top that. Plus, he’s got that, he doesn’t have any super powers other than he’s rich and he knows how to fight everyone. But he’s really smart, so that gives him the edge over everyone, even Superman. So, I’m not the biggest guy in the pool, I’m just trying to be the fastest. He’s not the biggest guy out there, he’s just trying to be the smartest. So, a little correlation there.”
You have to give a guy this – if he’ll throw shade at Superman, he’ll go at anyone. Albiero said they heard after the Indianapolis meet that Michael Phelps, in the ready room, was asking, “Who’s this crazy kid wearing the Batman costume?”
Finally, for Nick Albiero, the U of L journey is only beginning, but his background with the sport and in the program – given his parents – has been a lifestyle. Still, his father wanted him to look around before picking a school, until one afternoon last year.
“We talked about this in the recruiting process,” Arthur Albiero said. “I was OK with him exploring, and one day he gets in my car and says, ‘This is silly. I love everything about this place. I love these people. I don’t want to go up against them. These are my friends. This is my family. I want to be a part of this.’ So it was kind of a verbal commitment in the car. And I told him to just hang onto it, and I held him back for probably a good five or six months. I just wanted him to really feel this is what he wanted to do. I didn’t want it to be just because I work here.”
He’s grown up watching Worrell and the others achieve at a high level. He knows what it’s about. And he knows the expectations.
He won the 18 and under national championship in the long course 100-meter butterfly with a time of 53.05 seconds, and will compete in the 200 fly at the junior world championships.
He came out of the ranks of the Cardinal Aquatics club program that Albiero and his wife, Amy, have built, which is another community benefit of the growth of U of L’s swim program.
This has long been a community with a rich heritage in the sport of swimming. It now has a collegiate program that reflects that.
Copyright 2017 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.