If you’re like me, you’ve just spent an entire week watching the US Olympic Trials in Omaha. You watched 8 action packed days of fast swimming, with the excitement building and building for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics that start in just a few short weeks. Maybe you had your eye on your favorite swimmer to see if they made the team, maybe you have a favorite race you like to watch, or maybe you just like to see it all. I like to watch it all, I love the excitement and fanfare that comes with Trials. I mean, where else do you get to see a pool all done up like they do it in Omaha? This year, there was one race that I was really excited for and counting down the days to watch, and that was the men’s 200 Butterfly.
Before we get to Trials though, let me backup a bit and tell you a little bit about my friend, Zach Harting. I was in middle school when I met Zach. We swam together at the Huntsville Swim Association (HSA). Zach was the kind of person you wanted to be around at practice, and you could always count on him to be there. Our club coach Matt to this day will tell you that there are two types of people that can show up to a practice: those that are “energy vampires” and those that are “energy angels”. The people that come into practice all negative and kind of just bring everyone down and suck the life out of you are who our coach would consider an “energy vampire”. On the other hand, you have the people who come in and lift everyone up with their positive attitudes and their hard work. These are the “energy angels” and that’s what Zach is. He’s the kind of swimmer that can somehow make even the hardest test set practice fun.
In high school, Zach went to an international meet in Ireland. Of course, everyone was super excited for him, cheering for him here in the states. I think this meet may have even been one of the first times the batman mask was brought out, but, more on that later. Well, when he got back home from this meet, Zach had our lane backwards circle swim for a week. As goofy as it felt at the time, it was a great way to keep it fresh at practice. If you don’t seek ways to change it up and make things fun, then what’s the point?
Our team was on a travel meet once and it was a prelims-finals meet. I think it was the first long course meet of that season, and we had checked out of our hotel before prelims of the last day, so we had to figure out how to occupy ourselves in between sessions. Our team ended up sitting in the lobby at the pool for a while, well, most of us were sitting. I will never forget looking up and seeing Zach play the air guitar. He wasn’t just playing the air guitar, he was shredding on it. I know nothing about the guitar, but you’d think he was playing in a stadium tour, not just on an invisible guitar in the lobby of a pool. This went on for probably around an hour, his fingers never tiring as they plucked the invisible strings. It was an impressive feat if I do say so myself. I’m sure a lot of you know how tired you can be by the last session of a prelims-finals meet, so sometimes you just gotta do what it takes to carry your energy into the last session.
At the 2016 Olympic Trials, Zach did something that caught the eye of swimmers everywhere. He walked out onto the pool deck for the 200 Butterfly final wearing a batman onesie. Michael Phelps was in that heat, and people walked away talking about Zach, because he found a way to make things fun, at one of the biggest stages a swimmer can walk out on. This is just one of the many ways Zach has found a very tangible way to have fun on the pool deck. There’s the gas can he used as a water bottle for a while, the viking beard he rocked throughout most of 2020, and the Heely’s he would roll around the deck in. All of this started with a simple pair of yellow crocs. Those yellow crocs were well known around the Southeastern region because of who was wearing them. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t have fun on deck, and I know in my own case, the more fun I had, the faster I swam. Swimming is not easy, so you might as well do it with a smile across your face.
Zach graduated a year ahead of me, so I still had one year left at HSA when he went off to Louisville. He wasn’t the kind of person to miss practice, so when he went off to college, this was the first time in years his presence was no longer a fixture on the pool deck. And you know what? You really could feel the hole that was there when he was gone. Zach brings a sort of levity and joy to every practice and meet he’s at. I’ve mentioned all sorts of shenanigans and fun he gets into, but to back all of that up, Zach works hard every single day. Matt, our HSA head coach likes to say “today is a great day to get better at swimming,” and Zach works to do just that each and every day. He is going to work to be the very best he can, and that alone would make him the great leader and teammate he is. The fun and shenanigans are just a great bonus.
So, fast forward to Wednesday of what was supposed to be the 2020 Olympic Trials, now 2021. Zach Harting steps onto the block for the final of the 200 Butterfly. We watch the live stream at home, cheering so loud our dogs start to bark too. Zach touches the wall first. All of those years of training, hard work, and a whole heck of a lot of fun have led up to this one moment. In the week or so since, I have been ecstatic getting to tell people about Zach Harting, Olympian. Not only do I get to tell people about how Zach got his hand on the wall first, I get to tell them that he is one of the hardest workers I know. I get to tell them that he can make the hardest practices fun. I get to tell them how proud I am that he is going to represent the USA in Tokyo.