Former Georgia Tech swimming star aims to make Swiss Olympic team
By Adam Van Brimmer | BUZZ Magazine (Winter 2015 edition)
Competitive swimmers are in constant search of tenths of seconds.
Tenths are the difference between winning and losing, qualifying or not, and, in the case of soon-to-be Georgia Tech graduate Nico van Duijn, swimming for fun or racing for Olympic glory. The Yellow Jacket star and school record-holder in the butterfly is training for the 2016 Olympic Games. The Switzerland native will attempt to make his home country's Olympic team beginning with events early next year.
Swiss Olympians qualify on time rather than via the winner-take-all trials format employed by the United States team. Van Duijn's personal-best time is just two-tenths of a second off the so-called "A cut," a time that would all but assure him a spot. Even if he can't find those extra few tenths, posting a time at or near his personal record would put him in position to make the team should Switzerland be awarded additional qualifiers.
"I'm right there on time and will have plenty of chances with meets like the Swiss Nationals and the European Championships," van Duijn said. "I need to get the A cut and seal the deal."
Count his Georgia Tech coach – a former Olympian herself – among those who predict van Duijn will be swimming in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil next year. Courtney Shealy-Hart cites van Duijn's dedication to his training and penchant for grabbing those elusive tenths of seconds.
INGENUITY AT WORK
Van Duijn is the swimmer, after all, who devised a training device used in practice to measure relay takeoffs – the swimmer's leap off the starting block at the start of his leg.
Swimmers strive to start their leap from the platform before the swimmer in the pool touches the wall. As long as one foot is still in contact with the block when his teammate touches, the takeoff is legal.
Those who can perform precision takeoffs will save several tenths of a second. But to practice relay takeoffs normally requires teams to set up the entire meet timing system. Van Duijn created a shortcut, wiring a microprocessor to one touch pad and one platform.
"That saved us time in several ways: setting up and tearing down at practice and in improving our relay takeoffs at meets," Shealy-Hart said. "He's the type to see a challenge and find a solution."
Van Duijn downplays his ingenuity in the timing device. He can't patent or market it, as the timing system manufacturer, Omega, sells a similar product.
"It's just terribly overpriced," he said.
GOAL WITHIN REACH
Van Duijn is willing to pay the price for another Olympic opportunity.
He missed the cut for the 2012 Olympics by, naturally, few tenths of a second. A week after the qualifying deadline, he swam the required time at the U.S. Open Championships.
"That was great, but it also made me question whether it was worth all the work," van Duijn said. "Fortunately, I was able to channel that into positive motivation. I was swimming for Georgia Tech at the time and the mix of success and disappointment pushed me to get faster."
That shift in mindset marked a milestone for van Duijn. He started swimming at age 10, joining a club team in Zurich that focused more on the social aspects of swimming than competition. He became more competitive as his skills improved, but it wasn't until his Olympic near-miss that he found the motivation to reach his peak. He ranks first or second in the Georgia Tech record books in seven events, twice competed in the NCAA Championships, and swam for Switzerland at the 2013 World University Games and the 2015 World Championships.
"I try not to make everything about the Olympics, because too much pressure is detrimental," he said. "But obviously the Olympics is a big goal of mine."
Van Duijn will soon shift his training site from the Georgia Tech campus to Zurich. He graduates with a degree in electrical engineering in December and starts post-graduate work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology early next year. He'll study robotics and control while making his Olympic push from his club team home.
"The timing is right for me because working out with the club, practices are individualized," said van Duijn. "It's a good spot to go back to as I try to squeeze those last few tenths of a second out of my time."
Nico van Duijn is one of 36 student-athletes graduating from Georgia Tech during the 250th Commencement Exercises this weekend at McCamish Pavilion.