Indiana University Head Swim Coach Ray Looze isn’t a tattoo guy.
But he made a promise to the rest of the IU swim team: If any of them made it to the Olympics, he would get the Olympic rings tattooed on his body.
He has no choice but to follow through, with Cody Miller, Blake Pieroni and Lilly King winning medals for Team USA, and four others qualifying for other countries’ teams. King will take a shot at gold once again in the 400-meter medley relay Saturday.
Indiana hasn’t seen this kind of success in years and has suddenly found itself in the ranks of schools most known for their swimming programs. In the past 40 years, IU hasn’t sent any athlete to the Olympics for swimming.
The 1976 Montreal Olympics was the last time IU saw comparable success across the board. James “Doc” Counsilman was the head coach of Team USA at the time, when IU athletes took home four Olympic medals in swimming.
Since then, success has been more scattered, as most of the school’s swimmers have been sent to represent other Olympic teams.
“It’s been a long time coming for this program,” Looze said in a press conference prior to the Olympics. “It’s been since — I believe 1976 — since we’ve had such a comprehensive group, and a good group — a good group that has the chance to do very special things in Rio.”
Looze has also been spending his week as one of the assistant swimming coaches alongside people from schools known for their swimming success such as the University of Michigan, where Michael Phelps swam, and Georgia, whose women’s team won the NCAA Championship in the spring.
Only three schools have contributed more athletes to the U.S. Swim team: Georgia, the University of California Berkeley and the University of Texas.
And all three schools have been powerhouses for Olympic swimmers for years, making IU’s sudden success even more unique.
“Right now, the men’s team is the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here, hands down,” said Cody Miller, IU alumni and gold medal winner of Sunday’s 100 m breaststroke. “Now it’s just a matter of getting those guys to perform.”
While IU Women’s Swimming and Diving team has consistently finished in the top 15 at the NCAA Championships nearly every year since 2001, the Men’s team has been less consistent.
Looze attributes much of the recent success of the program to the swimming grads who have stuck around the IU Natatorium, helping to train the younger students. That includes Miller, who has been around for about seven years now, and several others who didn’t qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In the past, people didn’t return when they graduated.
“The very best universities have these older kids that have stuck around for three, four, five years beyond graduation,” Looze said. “And that’s why we have 19-year-olds on the Olympic team and 20-year-olds (this year), because (post-grads) can say things from the water that you can never say as a coach.”
Miller has been especially helpful to the younger swimmers, as the first to qualify for Team USA Swimming from IU. Looze said he rarely misses practices and is a perfect example of what steady progress can accomplish.
As a professional swimmer, he has insight into the sport that those still in college don’t have.
“He’s blazed a lot of trails for people here,” Looze said.
After Rio, Looze wants to continue keeping former IU swimmers around campus, like the team did prior to these Olympics.
A large part of the program’s success, however, hinges on bringing in high-level athletes.
Even just having athletes that made it to the Olympics will help draw in more and better people, Looze said. It took time to build up IU’s swimming program, and Looze is hopeful that momentum will continue as upcoming Division-l athletes learn about the Hoosiers’ success in the water.
“It’s already had a good impact,” Looze said. “I met with some kids at trials when the swimming was done, and they were talking to me when they hadn’t returned an email (before). They were like, ‘You guys swam pretty well. I want to talk to you guys.’
“…People want to swim with successful people.”
I’m Kaitlin Lange, a senior political science and journalism major at Ball State. I am finishing up an internship at the Indianapolis Star where I have focused much of my time on politics, education and breaking news. Last year I was the editor of the Ball State Daily News, our school’s student newspaper. I love telling people’s stories and also explaining complex issues in an easy to understand way. You can guarantee I’ll somehow find a way to bring up cats in one of my stories while in Rio.