At last weekend’s Pac-12 swimming championships, junior Nick Soedel lined up behind his block in preparation for the 100-yard freestyle finals. As swimmers to the left and right of him jumped up and down and flexed their muscles, Soedel remained still, staring down his lane. He was completely focused.
That focus helped Soedel become the Pac-12 champion in the event and he hopes it will aid him to come out on top at this weekend’s NCAA Championships. That focus, however, hasn’t always been there — it’s something that has been learned.
Soedel’s father, Sven, swam at Purdue, but Nick was never pushed into the pool. He was, however, propelled to do “something” — no matter what it was.
“Our kids all had to swim or do a sport or something,” said Nick’s mother, Patty Soedel. “They weren’t allowed to sit around and do nothing.”
Instead of doing just ‘‘something,” Nick chose to do pretty much everything. At his junior high graduation, he collected top awards in every sport except for track and field, but the summer after his eighth grade year, he told his parents that he wanted to zero in on one. Drawn by the chance to immediately be a varsity member, Nick decided to join the swim team.
“When he was in high school, he went to one practice and he did it because he could do it,” Patty Soedel said. “He didn’t have to train for it.”
During his high school years, Soedel relied on his natural athleticism, never developing the training patterns that elite swimmers must have. Regardless of the lack of top-level training, Soedel’s body was still the picture-perfect swimmer’s frame: tall, big hands and long torso. Simply put, the man is meant to tear through the water.
In high school, he was a two-time California Interscholastic Federation Division One champion in the 100-yard freestyle, but his times weren’t fast enough to get the powerhouse schools knocking at his door.
When he chose to attend Utah, Soedel’s arrival coincided with the arrival of newly acquired sprint coach, Jonas Persson, who immediately saw the potential that Soedel had. From that point on, the match made in heaven was underway.
“When he came to Utah, he was very green to the sport,” Persson said. “He had always been involved in swimming, but not organized training. We started from scratch. We started teaching him how to do things, how to train and how to act. We don’t have to do that a lot with swimmers, but it was kind of nice because we could shape him into the swimmer that he could be.”
Persson runs a tight ship, having high expectations for all his athletes. He expects them to make the right decisions in the pool, in the classroom and in all other facets of their lives. Early on, Soedel didn’t always live up to those expectations.
“He never got in trouble, but he was a typical freshman his first year and didn’t always make the best choices,” Persson said. “He stopped doing that and started getting serious.”
According to Persson, the big change occurred following last season’s NCAA Championships. Soedel had finished 12th in the 100-yard freestyle at the meet and left with a different belief in himself.
“He came back that Monday [after the NCAA Championships] a different person,” Persson said. “He wanted to win, he knew he could win, he wanted to train hard and he knew he could step up his training and be more serious.”
The NCAA Championships is one of the fastest short-course meets in the world. When Soedel was able to go stroke-for-stroke with world champions and NCAA record holders, he left knowing that not only could he beat those guys, but that he could be the best.
“Last year he had some success and for the first time, really opened his eyes to the potential that he had to achieve at the highest level of our sport,” Persson said. “From that moment on, he dedicated himself to really focusing hard, really working hard every single day to get better. Doing the little things right all the time.”
Soedel has come from going to maybe a few practices a week in high school to an athlete that pushes himself twice a day in the pursuit of his goals.
“The hardest decision an athlete can make is that he wants to become a great athlete,” Persson said.
Soedel’s transformation hasn’t just come in the pool, but in all areas of his life — something his mother has seen clearly.
“In general, everything in his life is starting to make sense to him,” she said. “School, swim … he has a goal, he has a plan, and everything is coming together for this kid. He has come so far, especially in school. He has turned into an adult right before our eyes within the last two to three years.”
Persson said that he and Soedel talk about the NCAAs and realistic goals for the meet — becoming an All-American and being a national champion.
“We talk about winning and getting better and becoming that athlete,” Persson said. “We say, ‘Lets not be happy with being third or second, lets do it.’”
And Persson says Soedel is more than ready.
“He knows he’s going to swim fast, he knows he’s going to meet his goals, there is no doubt in his mind he is ready to go,” Persson said. “He is primed mentally, physically conditioned to do well. You see that in track and field with Usain Bolt, you saw it when Michael Jordan hit a game-winning shot, or when Michael Phelps won eight golds. He is not going to get second, he is going to win. That’s the only thought in his mind.”
The newly-focused version of Soedel presents itself every time he steps behind a block.
“When he walks up to the block and everyone is jumping around, Nick used to be the first guy doing that,” Patty Soedel said. “He would jump up and down, up and down and that’s how we would find him. At Pac-12’s, he just stared straight ahead, hands on his hips. He was so focused.”
That focus will continue to push Soedel forward. An NCAA title is not the end goal for the junior as he wants to become part of the United States national team and, eventually, an Olympian.
“Whatever this kid wants to do, he can,” Patty Soedel said. “He is always going further, nothing is stopping him and he doesn’t see anything in his way.”