Off the Blocks

Off the Blocks

Member Miguel Ortiz-Cañavate reflects on a swimming career that took him to the Olympics.

My parents never forced me to do swimming, but in high school, I knew that having sports on top of your academics helps your case when applying to college.

My high school didn’t really have the counselors who knew how to go through a recruiting process in sports, so my only way was to e-mail the coaches of the schools I was interested in.

In the summer of my senior year in 2009, my brother went to swim camp at the University of Michigan. It was the first camp for the new coach, Mike Bottom. I had mailed him, and I guess he made the connection to another Ortiz. All of a sudden, I got a call from him. When I told him my times, he said, “OK, you’re coming to Michigan. I’ll see you in September.”

I had heard about the money they put into college sports in the US, but until you see it, you can’t believe it. As a sprinter, I had more dryland and weight training. I was at the bottom of our 20-person class as a freshman. By the end of the first year, I was at the top and became the fastest guy in the team in my sophomore year. I guess I was a product of Mike Bottom’s coaching.

In my freshman year, we lost the Big Ten Conference to our No 1 rival, Ohio State. But I think the bitterness of that loss fueled us, and we won the NCAA Division I Championships in my senior year.

I had been competing in Spain with a club team over the summer since about 2008. At the trials for the 2012 London Olympics, I realized I might be able to make the next one. Michigan had its own pro team with Olympians and so on, so I wanted to join that group until at least 2016.

For Olympic relays, only the top 16 countries are selected. The top 12 teams are selected from the world championships and the remaining four teams are selected based on the rankings.

Spain decided not to send a relay team to the worlds, so we had to qualify as one of those four teams. We got the 14th spot, but at the European championships, three teams beat us. It was devastating, but then the British team decided not to take their spot.

I couldn’t believe I was going to Rio until I got the accreditation. Our 100-meter freestyle relay was on the second day. I did one of my best swims, and we beat the Spanish record. After China was disqualified, we finished 13th.

The Olympic dream only came about at college. I decided I wanted to make the Olympic finals with my brother in a relay. I guess I accomplished 80 percent of it. But I was satisfied and decided to retire that year.

My final competition was the world championships in Windsor, Canada. My last race was my favorite, 50-meter backstroke, and I got sixth. It felt like ending on a high note.

Swimming gave me a lot, from the mental strength to the discipline to the teamwork. The biggest thing I took from it was understanding that even in bad times, there is something good you can focus on.

As told to INTOUCH’s Nick Jones.
Image: Yuuki Ide