Rob Miecznikowski is a patient man. The West High swimming coach has to be to manage two jobs, a farm, five kids and a couple of swimming teams. But even Miecznikowski says senior Savannah Butler exhausts him.
“I’ll get a text at 2 a.m. and I’m like, ‘What are you doing? You should be sleeping,’ and (she responds), ‘Oh, I will as soon as I’m done studying,'” Miecznikowski said. “Everything she does is 110 percent; she wears me out.”
Butler has not only been a year-round swimmer since age 9, but she’s a National Merit semifinalist who has taken a number of college classes already. She’s also worked with University of Iowa engineers to fund a project to provide devices for clean water in developing areas of the world.
Butler will be one of two varsity seniors who will compete for West High in Saturday’s regional swimming meet at Mercer Park. Butler is the reigning MVC champion in the 100 breaststroke, her second conference title in the event during her career. She also earned all-conference honors in the 200 individual medley and the 200 medley relay. Last year at the state meet, she was seventh in the 100 breaststroke and was 10th the year before.
Swimming seems to attract hardworking, focused kids, and that’s Butler. Swimmers spend countless exhausting hours in the pool and then are expected to hop out, towel off and do the rest of the things that teenagers do such as homework and socialize. To succeed, you have to be fit, driven, bright and organized.
Her parents capitulated when she was 9 and let her join a swim club. Her debut was inauspicious.
“My very first meet that I ever did, my coach told me that I wouldn’t have to swim all the events but I did,” she said. “It was a pentathlon; you swim a 50 of every single stroke as well as the 100 IM. But he told me I only had to do the breaststroke and freestyle, and I’m like, ‘I can do that.’ But got there and I was in all five events.”
To start, she was disqualified in the 50 butterfly because she used the wrong (breaststroke) kick. The 50 backstroke wasn’t much better.
“I miscounted my strokes to the wall and when I turned over the wall was like three or four feet away,” Butler said.
So she just flipped anyway and was of course disqualified in that event, too. She made it through the individual medley.
“She didn’t back down,” her mother, Audrey Butler, said.
“She had tears in her eyes under her goggles and she still swam that (third) race. That’s her personality. She doesn’t want to give up.”
“It was not the best experience though because I was actually on the block next to (future West teammate) Lilian (Zhu) who was probably the best swimmer in the state at that point,” Butler said. “I was so worried that she would lap me and be done and be out of the water talking to her parents by the time I was halfway.”
Despite all that and the indignity of having 6-year olds lap her in practice, she was undeterred.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she said.
“My mom had been watching it and she was surprised when I said, ‘Oh my gosh this is so much fun; I really like it.'”
What might have saved her, besides her own indomitable spirit, was her ability in what is now her signature sport.
“Breaststroke is really one of those strokes where you have it or you don’t,” Butler said. “The kick is one of those things that 50 percent of the American population can do and the other half can pretty much never learn. Breaststroke always came naturally to me.”
Miecznikowski says he can spot a breaststroker a mile away just by the way they stand.
“They are kind of a duck … their feet are out,” he said. “I think breaststroke is the hardest stroke because it’s all timing and how you swim. With freestyle, butterfly and backstroke, there’s pretty much one or two ways to do it correctly. In breaststroke, if you watch the Olympics, you’ll see three or four or five different styles. Where the other strokes are all upper body, breaststroke is all kick.”
Basketball, soccer and multiple musical instruments went by the wayside, casualties of her passion for swimming and the limitations of a 24-hour day. Why swimming?
“I kind of like that (swimming) is something that can be both an individual and a team sport,” Butler said. “Especially in high school. It absolutely is a team sport and that’s why I love West swimming.”
Her mother cites an example from last year’s state meet. Bulter finished a disappointing seventh in the 100 breaststroke even though her personal-best time was second-best in the state.
“Yet she turned around right after that and had to swim the anchor leg of the 400 free relay, and she swam the best she’d ever done in that,” Audrey Butler said. “It’s because it’s all about team for her.”
A parent of one of the other relay members later emailed Audrey to thank Savannah for refocusing her efforts so quickly despite the personal disappointment of the individual event.
Miecznikowski said Butler has improved every year, and she’s moved up to the next tier as a college-bound, Division I-type swimmer.
Butler, who wants to follow her parents into chemical engineering, wants to swim in college, and Miecznikowski believes her potential will be better mined in a setting with like-minded teammates and a narrowed focus of academics and swimming.
“She’ll take off even more,” Miecznikowski said. “They’ll get her on a weight program, too.”
Audrey Butler, a lecturer at UI in engineering, has had experience with successful female student-athletes in her classes and thinks Savannah will be able to handle the academic and athletic load. Her day will actually have less “clutter” than it does now.
“I don’t think it has to be a huge difference in how she has to balance all of those,” Audrey Butler said.
She’ll get a chance to wear out a different coach.