For Ballard High School senior Todd Owen, the past year has featured a crash course in big-time swimming, including a lesson in the sport’s lexicon.
Turns out not all swim meets are held in 25-yard pools, known as “short course” meets. There also are 50-meter pools, known as “long course.”
It’s a lesson Owen learned the hard way.
“It didn’t hit me until I came to practice one day and it was the whole length of the pool,” Owen said. “People were like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know what long course is?’ “
In basketball terms Owen might be considered a “project.” But in swimming circles he’s already one of the elite. He’ll get a chance to showcase his talents during the State Swimming and Diving Championships this weekend at the University of Louisville’s Ralph Wright Natatorium.
Owen probably will swim on Ballard’s 200-yard medley and 400 freestyle relay teams and in the 100 butterfly, but his big moment will come in the 100 breaststroke.
During the Region Two meet on Feb. 15, Owen posted a time of 56.53 seconds in that event to break the regional record of 57.09 set in 2006 by St. Xavier’s Clark Burckle, who went on to swim in the 2012 Olympics. This week Owen, who has signed with the University of Louisville, will try to break Burckle’s State Championships record of 55.83, also set in 2006.
“If you break an Olympian’s record, that’s a special thing to acknowledge,” said Chris Lindauer, Owen’s club coach at Cardinal Aquatics and also an assistant coach at U of L. “It’s just another step to look at in his overall development. His talent level is tremendous.”
Considering his background, Owen’s current standing among the state’s top swimmers is fairly remarkable.
He grew up in Cleveland before moving to Louisville at age 12 and began swimming for Brownsboro Farm, a recreational summer team. For a kid who played baseball, football, basketball and soccer, swimming was practically an afterthought.
“I didn’t like swimming,” Owen said. “It was just miserable, getting up and going to the pool at 8 o’clock in the summer when you should be sleeping in.”
He joined the Ballard swim team as a freshman and reached the state meet as part of the school’s 400 free relay team, finishing 15th. As a sophomore he wanted to focus on football, but a broken collarbone forced him to miss that season and the swimming season.
He played junior-varsity football as a junior before friends encouraged him to rejoin the swim team. After finishing fifth in the 100 breaststroke in 58.61 at the State Championships, Owen figured it was time to start taking the sport seriously.
“People were starting to tell me I could get a scholarship to a small school,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Maybe I could walk on at U of L.’ It made sense.”
After his success at last year’s state meet, Owen joined Cardinal Aquatics and started becoming what he called “a student of the sport.” Practices went from one hour to three hours. He learned the difference between “short course” and “long course.” He learned to channel his natural athleticism into becoming a better technical swimmer.
U of L head coach Arthur Albiero took notice and eventually offered him a scholarship.
“He struggled mightily when he first started training because it’s an aerobic-based sport and the practices are aerobic-based practices,” Albiero said. “When you’re in there two hours, there’s no way to hide it. You have to be a swimmer. …
“But he’s been a sponge. As a coach, you want to be with people who are driven and motivated and aren’t afraid to think big.”
Owen hit a high note in December when he finished seventh in the 200 breaststroke in the Winter Junior National Championships in Greensboro, N.C. He hopes to hit another high note Saturday in the 100 breaststroke, where Albiero said he has “a great shot” to break Burckle’s record.
Whether he gets the record or not, both Albiero and Lindauer are excited about Owen’s future at U of L and beyond. He admits the 2020 Summer Olympics are on his radar, even if they’re “nothing more than a dream.”
Yes, it took a while for Owen to find his place in the sports world. But it was worth the wait.
“When you find what you’re best at, you go with it,” he said. “This is it. It doesn’t matter when you find it. Once you do, it will propel you. … I love it. The people have accepted me and helped me learn as I go along.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and on Twitter @kyhighs.