USA Olympic Swimming: Remembering Eric Namesnik's Quiet 20-Year Olympic Legacy

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USA Olympic Swimming: Remembering Eric Namesnik's Quiet 20-Year Olympic Legacy
Photo from annarbor.com

A statue rests outside the YMCA in Butler, Pennsylvania.

Three figures: a man sitting down with a young girl beside him and a boy standing before him, hand resting on his shoulder. Swimmers with their coach. To outsiders or passersby, it's just a nice little scene.

To the residents of Butler, the man sitting down is John "Pump" McLaughlin, his niece, Alice Ann, the girl beside him. And standing before McLaughlin is the seven-year-old form of future Olympian Eric Namesnik.

As a swimmer myself during the 90's, the name rang a bell. I remembered vaguely seeing him race in the 1996 Olympics. But that was about it. Swimming doesn't exactly garner the year-round coverage that other sports do, and many of its stars become an afterthought not long after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

As my girlfriend and I watch the 2012 Olympics from London, I can tell there's a bittersweet feeling watching the swimming, particularly during the 400 individual medley; the first showdown between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

Of course I am overly exuberant about the competition; American titans going head to head. Her reaction is the opposite.

Silence. Mostly silence.

To her, it's something different; something more than a rivalry between two of America's pin-up stars of the 2012 games.

Men's 400 IM, 1992 Olympics Barcelona

To her, it's about remembering her cousin Eric.

Growing up in Butler, Namesnik took to swimming as early as three years old at the local YMCA. He and his sister Leesa.

From the age of three all the way through high school, it was "Pump" McLaughlin who taught him, trained him, mentored him as he did so many who grew up in the area. Namesnik, though, was something of a prodigy. He excelled at swimming.

In fact, his efforts were so celebrated and noticed that he earned a scholarship to swim for the University of Michigan, beginning in 1989. But the collegiate level was merely a training ground for what Namesnik would find to be the ultimate stage for his swimming talents.

He qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona in the 400 IM, the second-fastest ever in the event. As he stood on the blocks in lane four, next to him in five was Tamas Darnyi from Hungary, defending gold medalist in not only the 400 but the 200 IM as well. And just to add a little more intimidation to it, Darnyi held the world record in the event as well.

After keeping it close in the butterfly, Namesnik moved ahead in backstroke, clinging to a small lead over Darnyi at the turn going into the breaststroke. Darnyi pulled ahead as the last leg, the freestyle, began.

As good a race as Namesnik had swam, Darnyi's freestyle was too overpowering, and he easily out-touched the American. But it was no small feat for the Butler-native to walk away with the Silver medal.

If anything, it became motivation for 1996.

Four years later, Namesnik returned to challenge for the gold in the 400 IM at the Atlanta games. This time it wasn't Darnyi in Namesnik's path to Olympic glory, but fellow college and USA teammate Tom Dolan.

With the games being in Atlanta, Namesnik's family made the journey from Butler, including my girlfriend. There they were at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, gathered to see Namesnik duel with Dolan for Olympic Gold.

If there was any extra motivation for Namesnik to go all the way, the recent passing of his grandfather provided the final spark of determination he needed to chase the medal that eluded him in Barcelona. How better to pay tribute to the passing of his grandfather than to win it all in his home country?

The deja vu was a cruel callback to Barcelona, however. Just as Namesnik had kept the race close with Darnyi to the end of their race in 1992, the same was the case with his duel with Dolan, with the latter touching him out by less than a half a second to take gold.

Two Olympic appearances had yielded two silver medals for Namesnik.

Regardless of gold, silver, or bronze, Namesnik was a hero in Butler, and the coronation upon his return was the small town equivalent of the Steelers winning the Super Bowl in nearby Pittsburgh.

Namesnik settled down after the Olympics with his wife Kirsten and had two children, Austin and Madison. He returned to the University of Michigan and for the next seven years serving as an assistant coach. He even volunteered for two years at Eastern Michigan University.

For as much as the sport had given him, Namesnik was giving back and helping develop the next generation of great American swimmers. Much like "Pump" had done for so many years in Butler, Namesnik was assuming the mantle of mentor to many.

But then on January 11, 2006, Namenik was driving in Pittsfield Township, Michigan when he lost control of his vehicle due to black ice on the road. The accident took Eric Namesnik's life at the young age of 35.

As large as the celebration was for Namesnik's triumph in the Olympics, so also was his funeral, as practically all of Butler gathered to say goodbye to one of its most famous and well liked residents.

Soon after, the University of Michigan began the annual Namesnik Memorial Grand Prix, a meet organized in memory of their fallen coach that takes place every spring.

By 2008, the statue of "Pump," his niece and Namesnik was erected and continues to stand outside of the Butler YMCA; a fitting tribute to both student and coach and the endless cycle that drives not only swimming and all sports.

Photo from The Butler, Pennsylvania Blog

After Lochte and Phelps' race, my girlfriend starts to open up more about Namesnik; talking about the things you can't find in resources when trying to write a story. About what he was like as a man, a very giving man, who did so much for others whether it was within the sport of swimming or outside of it.

That is what also makes his monument so special in Butler. It is not some construction of him in the midst of his Olympic glory or anything purely centered around his achievements alone. In fact, it is the opposite. A remembrance to how it all started for Namesnik and others, like "Pump," the mentor he grew into himself after his Olympic career. 

The Olympics nowadays, in the boom of social media and 24/7 coverage, lives and dies by the hot button topics. Phelps and the twilight of his career of 20 (and still counting) Olympic medals; Lochte and the ascension of a new face of American swimming. Nothing can take away from what both have done. Phenomenal athletes they are.

But if there is any other purpose the Olympics should hold besides celebrating the peak of athletics today, it is also to remember the competitors of the past who so suddenly and quietly exited life well before their time.

Eric Namesnik: August 7, 1970 – January 11, 2006

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