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After Failing Swim Test, Jordan Wilimovsky Kept Swimming All The Way To Rio Olympics

By Scott McDonald | Sept. 23, 2015, 1:01 p.m. (ET)

Jordan Wilimovsky competes at the 2015 FINA World Championships on July 30, 2015 in Kazan, Russia. 

Jordan Wilimovsky simply wanted to attend lifeguard camp when he was 9 years old in Malibu, California. He wanted to spend his summers beach bumming with all of his pals. Because that’s what kids in Malibu do.

He had one problem, though — he couldn’t pass the swim test to get into camp. He couldn’t swim the 100-yard freestyle test in 1 minute, 50 seconds.

“All my friends swam it with no problem and I didn’t, so I joined a swim team,” Wilimovsky, now 21, said. “I qualified the next year no problem and did the camp every summer for six years.”

He eventually swam as fast as his friends. Now Wilimovsky is one of the fastest distance swimmers in the world.

Wilimovsky won the open water 10-kilometer at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, this summer. He was the first swimmer to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games and will represent Team USA in the event.

“There’s no place I’d rather be than Rio,” Wilimovsky said. “That last 1,000 meters when I was ahead, I just kept thinking to myself, ‘I hope I can hang on to this.’ It was awesome to win the 10K in Russia. It was a great feeling to cross the finish and see all my American teammates over there cheering for me.”

Wilimovsky, who’s a mere 5-foot-9, never took swimming as a sport seriously until his sophomore year in high school. At the time he trained five times a week and dabbled with surfing and water polo. Then he began training with Dave Kelsheimer at Team Santa Monica. His workouts doubled, and he gave up the other sports to focus solely on swimming for his club team. He became a much more prolific distance swimmer, shaving a minute and a half off his 1,500-meter mark from his sophomore year to his senior year.

“I swam 16:54 as a sophomore, then 15:55 as a junior,” Wilimovsky said. He trimmed it down to 15:23 by the time he was a senior.

He said Kelsheimer, who was on the Team USA staff for the world championships in Russia, worked with Wilimovsky on reps, forms, turns, techniques, reps, reps and more reps.

“It was just a matter of getting more and more time in the pool,” Wilimovsky said.

Wilimovsky decided to attend Northwestern because he liked the school and being part of a small, close-knit swim team. He’s a political science major who is scheduled to graduate in 2016.

Wilimovsky will continue to train for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in July in the 1,500, but his ticket is punched for Rio in the 10K, so the training will continue for that as well.

His training consists of swimming 16,000 meters a day in about four and a half hours. He trains six days a week — twice a day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and then once on Wednesday and once on Saturday.

He said he swims anywhere between 80,000-90,000 meters a week.

Note: The Panama Canal is 77,000 meters across and the English Channel is 33,000 meters across.

Jordan Wilimovsky stands on the podium after winning the 10-kilometer open water swim at the FINA World Championships on July 27, 2015 in Kazan, Russia.

Wilimovsky said he enjoys the long open water swims — his winning time in Kazan was a whopping 1 hour, 49 minutes, 48.2 seconds. He’s only the second American to win gold in the 10K at the world championships. Chip Peterson last accomplished the feat in 2005 in Montreal.

So what pushes someone to want to swim 10K, or 6.2 miles?

“I really have no idea to be honest with you,” he said with a chuckle. “I think it’s a cool way to get out of the pool and not be stuck at a meet all day. You’re outdoors swimming in the ocean and you get to see some of the nicest beaches all over the world.”

He’ll swim the open water event in Rio de Janeiro at the world famous Copacabana Beach.

“Oh yeah,” the Californian said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Swimming open water for distance is like a marathon runner when it comes to mentality. A lot can go through the athlete’s head while competing in a high-endurance event, Wilimovsky said.

As for encounters with animals in open water scenarios?

“You don’t see them and you don’t really think about them,” Wilimovsky said. “I remember we swam in Hawaii during Pan Pacs and the water was really clear, and it was cool because you could see all the sea turtles and lots of fish.”

Wilimovsky said he will continue to train and work on little things, like his turns in the 1,500. And he’ll spend more time in the open water to get ready for Rio.

He said when he was that 9-year-old boy, he could only dream of making it into lifeguard camp. And he said he never would have dreamed of being on Team USA until a couple of years ago when his times kept getting better and better. He now hopes to represent Team USA in more than one event, but at least he knows he’s already got a spot on the team.

“Now I just need to step up and race,” he said.

So if there’s a little boy with aspirations to make it to lifeguard camps, swim teams or maybe even the Olympic team, Wilimovsky has a little advice.

“Stick with it. Don’t notice huge gains day by day, but keep working and you’ll see them over time,” Wilimovsky said. “Have fun and just try to get better every day.”

And if Wilimovsky keeps getting better, the little kid who couldn’t swim his way into lifeguard camp could have a golden moment on the world’s biggest stage next year.

Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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