by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here.
It had been another warm day in Perth, Australia.
Not as hot as the record setting 42 degrees (107 Fahrenheit) the week before, but still warm. It was the evening of Saturday, January 17, 1998, and the world championship finalists for the 50m freestyle strode out on the deck under a blue, Perth late afternoon.
Australian Michael Klim, more known for his 100m butterfly speed, and the towering Russian Alexander Popov waved to what was essentially a hometown crowd. Both trained together at the Australian Institute of Sport under Gennadi Touretski.
Among the rest of the field included future Olympian and world record holder Neil Walker, a surging Pieter van den Hoogenband, South Africa’s Brandon Dedekind, and Brazil’s Fernando Scherer.
And in lane six there was a soft-spoken 26 year old from Auburn, Alabama, named Bill Pilczuk. When introduced the six-foot four Pilczuk stood, waved, and gave an “aw, shucks” smile that belied the raging performance he was about to unleash on a largely unsuspecting field.
The talk leading up to the splash and dash was whether Klim could challenge Popov at an event that the Russian had not lost in six years in international competition, including back-to-back Olympic titles in Barcelona and Atlanta in 1992, and 1996, respectively.
Pilczuk, for the most part, seemed simply happy to be there.
Just Keep Swimming
Pilczuk’s trajectory to the pinnacle of swimming doesn’t read like the typical script of an elite athlete. He wasn’t an early prodigy, wasn’t an age group star, didn’t break any NAG records during his teenage years, and perhaps most notably, he wasn’t recruited out of high school.
Not even a little bit.
The only reason Pilczuk stayed in the pool past high school—at the time he harbored no ambitions of chasing the top of a podium—was because he “didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I just kept swimming.”
It wasn’t until Junior College that he began to find traction in the water. Pilczuk attended Florida’s Miami Dade Junior College, and by his sophomore year was performing well enough to get his tuition paid for, while also taking home first place at the national junior college championships.
Deciding to transfer up, he chose Auburn, and not the other way around. Despite his national junior champs win, the only scholarship offer he’d received was a half-ride from Florida Atlantic. Meaning that to attend Auburn and swim under Dave Marsh he would have to pay his way.
He would take out a $16,000 loan, and in his first year with the Tigers qualified as an alternate for the team going to NCAA champs, where he spent more time drying the blocks for his teammates than swimming. Within a year, however, and after working with Auburn assistant coach Mike Bottom endlessly on developing an explosive start, Pilczuk climbed to place 4th at NCAA champs in the 50 free in 1994.
Later that summer Pilczuk would make his first splash internationally, qualifying for the ’94 worlds team by winning a swim-off against Jon Olsen. Despite not qualifying for the final in Rome, Pilczuk had seen the mountain-top, and was motivated to swim past graduation and continue to see where his swimming could take him.
Using the old-school version of crowd-funding in order to support himself post-graduation– his mom helped organize a fundraiser at a hall in his hometown of Cape May Point, New Jersey, where he signed autographs, a band played and donated beer and food were sold—Pilczuk went to the 1996 US Olympic Trials ranked among the top ten 50 freestylers in the world.
Pilczuk placed a disappointing third, ahead of national team members Tom Jager and Jon Olsen, but behind Raleigh’s David Fox, and a 21-year old shadow boxer from Phoenix, Gary Hall Jr.
Now aged 24, most swimmers would have pushed aside the rigors of full time training for other pursuits. Instead, Pilczuk used the unpleasant result from trials as motivation to push on. While he had begun his masters in exercise physiology he was still far from decided in terms of a career choice.
So he kept swimming.
Pilczuk’s morning swim of 22.70 had been a little slower than he would have liked, but it had been good enough to get him a spot in the middle of the pool, swimming out of lane six.
Popov, the defending world champion, Olympic champion, who’d held an iron grip on the sprint freestyle events for over half a decade, would be two lanes below him in lane four.
All of the hours working with Bottom on developing that fast and furious start would pay off in Perth. Pilczuk was first off the blocks, breaking out to a sizable lead. By the 25m mark Pilczuk had nearly half a body length on the field.
The furious start cost him in the last 10 metres of the race, where Pilczuk began to fade, the rest of the field, lead by a charging Popov, closed furiously. In the end, the thousands of starts would overcome the last-moment attack by the defending champion.
Pilczuk touched first in 22.29. Popov would place second in 22.43, with training partner Klim 3rd in 22.57.
Pilczuk smiled wide and threw his fist in the air. He would later tell the Associated Press, “I didn’t even know how to react at the finish. The furthest thing from my mind was winning it.”
The soft-spoken swimmer who wasn’t recruited, who hadn’t followed the typical path, who hadn’t quit where others would have, was the fastest swimmer on the planet.
Beating the Odds
With a world title under his belt, Pilczuk continued training with an eye on the 2000 Sydney Games, looking to add Olympic champion to the resume.
At the 2000 US Trials he would come up short again. Gary Hall Jr. would again take top spot, swimming an American record of 21.76. A different up-and-comer would place second, a 19-year old phenom training with Cal and with Hall in Phoenix, Anthony Ervin.
Pilczuk would place 4th behind his 1998 worlds teammate Neil Walker, swimming a 22.21.
These days you can find Pilczuk still on deck, although now he has traded the suit for a stopwatch. Since retiring Pilczuk has worked with Great Britain’s sprint and national youth programs, as well as doing some assistant coaching with his alma matter, Auburn University. Presently he is the head coach at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia.
Perhaps the most fitting summary of Pilczuk’s unlikely rise to the top of the swimming world was courtesy of former Auburn coach David Marsh, who when talking to SwimNews in the summer of 1998 said, “It hasn’t been easy for Bill. It’s been something he’s had to work very hard at. He didn’t have the financial support and raw talent of the typical championship swimmer. If he doesn’t accomplish anything beyond winning a world title, he’s already beaten the odds.”
ABOUT OLIVIER POIRIER-LEROY
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.
It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.
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