Asbury Park Press Article 10/16/96
Wilkens' future brighter than ever
Swimmer Tom Wilkens of Middletown Township works out at the Community YMCA, Red Bank.
To some swimmers who failed to make the U.S. Olympic team, at last March's Final Trials in Indianapolis, it meant devastation and desperation.
To Tom Wilkens, though, it merely represented temporary deprivation.
Seven months later, you'll hardly find Wilkens moaning over the star-spangled Speedo suit he never earned, or the Atlanta ticket that never arrived.
Sever months later, Tom Wilkens already has a leg up on his competition in the race to the Sydney Olympic Games of the year 2000. Seven months later, Wilkens has seen his status in the swimming world rise to major new heights. He must deal with an asthmatic condition on a daily basis, but considers it nothing more than another hurdle he's certain he can clear.
When the 20-year-old Christian Brothers Academy graduate headed west last month to start his junior year at Stanford University, his baggage included the three gold medals and the one silver he earned at United States Swimming's Phillips 66 National Championships in August at the International Swimming Hall of Fame pool in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They are the medals that gave him 77 points and clinched the Bob Kiphuth Memorial Award, named for the legendary Yale coach, as the high individual point-scorer in the entire meet.
It's the 400-meter individual medley gold, though, that represents the biggest item he took back to Stanford.
His triumph in the 400 IM at Fort Lauderdale took just four minutes and 18.76 seconds, and that made him the fourth fastest American swimmer in the history of the event, and ranks him eighth or ninth on the world charts.
Only the Michigan pair of Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik, who placed 1-2 at the Atlanta Olympics, along with Dave Wharton, now rank ahead of Wilkens on the all-time list. Dolan won the Atlanta gold in 4:14.90, just ahead of Namesnik's 4:15.25.
Few Olympians had the energy - or desire - to swim at Fort Lauderdale, just two weeks after the Games. Many of them, surely, will hang up their suits and fade away from the international scene. So the Nationals became a showcase for America's rising talent, and Wilkens proved himself the best of them all.
"I expected to swim faster (than many of his previous bests)...but not that fast," said Wilkens.
He'd placed fifth in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley finals at the Indy Olympic Trials, but there were no fifths for him in Fort Lauderdale.
He opened the Nationals by swimming the 200-meter breaststroke final in 2:15.82, beating out Nate Thompson's 2:16.71. It was the first senior Nationals title of his life, and just the beginning.
The big 4:18.76 400 IM triumph came on day two. He won it with at least three full body lengths to spare on second-place Matt Hooper, who did 4:24.28.
Instead of backing off his training after the Trials and the NCAA Championships, he'd stayed right with it, and it paid off. "I thought I'd gone under 4:20," he said, "maybe a 4:19.8."
But when they posted the 4:18.76, he was astounded. "I felt great, everything came together, but to win by 5 1/2 seconds over Matt Hooper, and that fast...wow."
It was a huge leap forward from the 4:23.11 that he'd done at the Trials.
On day three, Wilkens settled for a silver in the 100 breaststroke final, barely edged by Jarrod Marrs, 1:03.41 to 1:03.50. But he came back on day four to claim the 200 IM title in 2:03.19, beating out another New Jerseyan, 1992 Olympian Ron Karnaugh of Maplewood, who swam a 2:03.66.
"He (Karnaugh) was definitely coming fast (in the final 50 freestyle of the medley)," said Wilkens. But Karnaugh wasn't fast enough.
Wilkens also helped California's Santa Clara Swim Club, coached by Dick Jocums, place in two relay finals and, with just six swimmers at the meet, the Santa Clara squad was able to swim off with the Nationals men's team title, too, rolling up 248 points to the Mass. Bay Marlins' 203.
The Fort Lauderdale journey also represented a trip down memory lane. He hadn't been to the International Hall of Fame pool since the YMCA Nationals of 1994, his senior year at CBA.
His swimming career began at the Community YMCA in Red Bank, and he won three YMCA national titles for the "Y" team.
Even without an Olympic uniform, his collection of honors now includes an array of New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association medals, eight NCAA Division 1 All-American certificates, a 1995 World University Games gold medal, and the Junior National record in the 200 IM.
But it's Sydney that's really on his mind.
A pre-Olympic inspection tour would be just fine and that would happen with a top performance at the 1997 Nationals, the meet that will serve as the final qualifier for the American team going to the '98 World Championships which, fittingly enough, will take place in Sydney's Olympic pool.
Wilkens, a political science major at Stanford, will be a tri-captain of the powerful Cardinal team, and will have a world of options awaiting him after college.
He stayed at Stanford during the Games, often glued to a TV set, watching several of his Stanford teammates and friends swimming in Atlanta.
In September 2000, he hopes to taste the Olympic experience himself. Yes, indeed, "up close and personal."
Written by Elliott Denman for the Asbury Park Press. Wednesday, October 16, 1996. Community Sports Section.