Tom Wilkens was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 metre breaststroke for 1998. Yet, two years before, he didn't even qualify to swim the event at the U.S. Olympic trials.
"My breaststroke hadn't come along that well yet," explains Wilkens. "That sort of shows how new the 200 breaststroke event is to me. I am still learning to swim it."
His main focus in 1996 was the individual medley. He placed fifth in both IMs at the trials. During his first season at Stanford in 1995, he finished fourth in the 200 yard IM and sixth in the 400 IM but just 15th in the 200 breast at the NCAA Championships.
"I wish I had a video of what his breaststroke looked like as a freshman and what it looks like now," says Stanford coach Skip Kenney. "If you have any videos of John Moffet, that's what Tommy looked like. He had the old-fashioned breaststroke where there were no hips involved and his head never connected with his body. It was like he was still swimming under the rules of you can't get your head underwater."
Wilkens had an explanation for this.
"When you teach breaststroke to age groupers, it's a lot easier to teach them the traditional style of breaststroke," he says. "The over-the-water recovery is very hard to teach youngsters. They aren't coordinated fully in their body movement."
At Stanford, Wilkens changed not only his recovery but also every part of his breaststroke.
"With the recovery goes the timing, your head position, how you ride off your stroke, your kick," he says. "A lot of it is timing and has to do with your hip movement."
He made tremendous progress in the event in a short time. At the NCAAs, he improved all the way to fourth in the 200 breast as a sophomore and to third his junior year when he won the 400 IM. He won both IMs and the 200 breast his final season to lead Stanford to the 1998 team title.
"I'd say he's probably the most improved of any swimmer I've had that's gone to the world championship level," says Kenney. "I've never seen anyone work at a stroke change like him. Most guys are pretty good when they get to college. You have to make some small adjustments. But Tommy had to make major changes. He was just so patient."
|Tom Wilkens, USA|
|BIRTHDATE||25 NOV 1975|
|HEIGHT||185 cm (6' 2")|
|WEIGHT||82 kg (180 lbs.)|
|CLUB||Santa Clara Swim Club|
|Year||200 BR||200 IM||400 IM|
|1998||2:12.39 ( 1)||2:01.80 ( 7)||4:18.38 ( 6)|
|1997||2:14.80 (10)||2:04.49 (33)||4:20.47 (10)|
|1996||2:15.82 (23)||2:03.19 (21)||4:18.76 ( 9)|
|1995||2:02.96 (14)||4:26.19 (34)|
|1994||2:05.31 (39)||4:27.85 (47)|
|1993||2:06.34 (53)||4:30.41 (72)|
|Number in ( ) indicates world ranking|
Wilkens also learned a lot from Stanford teammate Kurt Grote, who became the world champion in the 200 breast last January.
"At the end of that summer (1995), I told myself no matter how much it hurts, whatever, I'm going to commit myself to try and change my stroke," Wilkens remembers. "I watched Kurt go up and down the pool and tried to pattern myself after his stroke. I also played tapes of (Mike) Barrowman and listened to some talks from other coaches on breaststroke and worked with Skip."
"You have kids that are talented," says Kenney. "Then you have kids that are good kids and are talented. Then you have Tommy. He is a good kid, talented, and focused. He just thinks all the time about how he can get better. He came in with a great work ethic. Somebody had done a good job as far as his approach to training. It's amazing. Everything we did in practice he's winning or competing with the guys who are winning."
Wilkens grew up in New Jersey and remained with a small club team, Red Bank YMCA, throughout his age group career.
"I always had a great relationship with my coach (Marc Riker)," says Wilkens. "I thought he taught me the right kind of foundations for swimming. He always taught technique first and having fun with swimming. We didn't swim tons of yardage. But whatever we did was high-intensity."
Since using up his eligibility at Stanford, Wilkens is a teammate of Grote again at the Santa Clara club. They are now on more equal terms after Wilkens' upset victory at last summer's U.S. nationals in a world-leading 2:12.39. However, Grote, who finished second in 2:12.66 to rank second in the world, had suffered a stress fracture in one of his legs and didn't kick a lot the last six weeks of the season.
"Kurt's going to be real tough to beat," says Santa Clara coach Dick Jochums. "I can tell you he didn't enjoy losing. Since Tom has learned he can beat Kurt, it's going to be a hell of a rivalry."
"It's a great situation for both of us," says Wilkens. "We are making each other faster. We'll be raising the bar in breaststroke and getting our times down to the world record."
Nonetheless, Grote and Wilkens train differently and, much of the time, not together. Kurt, the only breaststroker to rank in the Top 10 this year in both the 100 and 200, does middle distance freestyle and breaststroke sets. Tom trains with the distance swimmers in the mornings and works mostly on his IM in the afternoon.
"He's an IMer," says coach Jochums of Wilkens. "His breaststroke comes out of IM training. I think it's to his advantage. If we train him straight breaststroke, his knees get real sore. So the IM training has worked perfect for him. I think he's fitter than a lot of breaststrokers that just train one stroke. It's tough to do the same amount of work in breaststroke that you can in other strokes because the body breaks down. He's the best breaststroker coming back I've ever seen in my life."
Moreover, Jochums believes the IM is still the best event for Wilkens. "I don't think he's close to his potential there," says the coach. "I expect him to get considerably better in the IM. He doesn't have a good feel for the water in three of his strokes. Breaststroke is his natural stroke. There's no question about that."
At the nationals, Wilkens also bested Olympians Ron Karnaugh and Tom Dolan in taking the 200 IM in 2:01.80. He was second behind Dolan in the 400 IM in 4:18.38. His IM times ranked Wilkens eighth (200) and sixth (400) in the world for 1998.
"I have to consider the 200 breaststroke my best event, being No. 1 in the world," says Wilkens. "It's a dream I never thought would happen. But I'd like the 400 IM to be my best event. I feel if I get fast in the 400 IM, my other races will be strong. It seems for me at each meet a different race is my fastest."
Wilkens, who is training full-time for the Olympic trials with the help of a Speedo contract, may not try to make the U.S. team in all three events, though. With semifinals being reintroduced to the Olympics, the 200 breaststroke final and 200 IM semifinals are on the same evening. "I may have to make a choice of which event I'll swim," he says. "I think most people would agree they'd rather win one gold than two silver."
Wilkens is another swimmer that has overcome an asthma problem. He has used nose clips (like the nose clips synchronized swimmers wear) since his sophomore year in high school. If he doesn't, he gets a sinus infection.
"I'm not sure having asthma affects me because I've never felt any other way," he says. "I don't know if I'm out of breath from working hard or from the asthma. I've had difficulty breathing in some races. But it hasn't happened often. I don't think the condition can prevent me from winning a medal."
Kenney thinks Wilkens' chances of making the Olympic team are outstanding because of his work ethic and the confidence he has gained from a successful season the past year. "I just think Tommy has come of age and realized he was good enough to be a winner," says Kenney.
Wilkens agrees that his outlook has changed. "I never put myself into the mindset that I could be one of the fastest swimmers," he says. "I went to the World Championships just happy to be there. I came back with a different attitude and approach to my races.
In the summer, I was confident enough in my stroke and training to take the race out and swim it as my race rather than worrying about keeping up with someone else."