The legend of Bill Pilczuk grows.
Sports Illustrated reported the world champion in the 50 m freestyle didn't make the Auburn University team for the Southeastern Conference Championships as a senior. But that had nothing to do with his ability in the 50. He just wasn't as versatile as the team's other sprinters who could swim the 100 and 200 free better than him. Pilczuk made the team for the NCAA Championships later that season and tied for fourth in the 50 free (19.74).
Otherwise, though, the swimmer's story reads like one of those melodramatic movies, such as Rocky, where the hero overcomes tremendous odds to become a champion.
The 26-year-old from Cape May Point, New Jersey, received no college scholarship offers coming out of high school. Besides his lack of swimming prowess, he wasn't eligible to compete at a major college because of a poor college test score under the NCAA's Proposition 48 rule. But that didn't stop the soft-spoken Pilczuk, although not because of any drive to make it to the top. He says simply, "I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I just kept swimming."
Pilczuk chose to swim at Miami Dade Junior College in Florida, bypassing the more powerful Indian River team because he was told he'd get lost there. At Miami Dade, he improved enough to get his tuition paid for his sophomore year and that season won the 50 freestyle at the national junior college championships.
"I hadn't done much yardage before junior college, so just the increase in yardage made a difference," explains Pilczuk. Still, the only scholarship offer he attracted from a four-year school was a half-scholarship to Florida Atlantic, a Division II school. He decided to attend Auburn, which had one of the top swimming teams, and paid for his education by taking out a student loan for $16,000. He began, in his own words, "as the seventh-fastest 50 freestyler on the team." His first season he made the NCAA team only as an alternate. His primary duty at the championships was to dry the starting blocks for the Auburn competitors.
In a year's time, though, he developed into a fourth-place finisher in the 50 at the NCAAs. Coincidentally, he tied teammate Dean Hutchinson for fourth. Under assistant coach Mike Bottom, the sprint duo worked endlessly to explode off the blocks.
"They must have done thousands of starts together," Auburn coach Dave Marsh recalls.
"Far too often, swimmers sell themselves short in what they can accomplish. Bill was committed to seeing just how good he could be. He is competitive, and in the atmosphere of having as many good sprinters as we had here, he competed to be in the upper echelon of the team."
In the summer, Pilczuk tied for third at the nationals and won a spot on the U.S. team for the 1994 World Championships by beating Olympian Jon Olsen in a swimoff in 22.62. (A spot opened up when winner Tom Jager declined a berth.) Although Pilczuk only placed 12th in the heats in Rome, just making the World Championship team motivated him to remain in swimming past graduation.
Pilczuk also improved dramatically as a student. The former Prop 48 student graduated magna cum laude in health education with a grade point average of 3.63.
"A friend of mine told me, 'If you have good grades, your swimming will get better,' so I started focussing on academics as much as swimming," relates Pilczuk.
Once he graduated, Pilczuk faced the challenge of supporting himself for the next year and a half as he trained for the Olympic trials. He no longer had a student loan. For the first season he received a stipend of $500 a month from U.S. Swimming for being in the top eight in the world in the 50 free. However, in 1995, he slipped to 12th in the world and missed out on a stipend for the next season. In late 1995, his mother came to the rescue with the idea to hold a fundraiser in his hometown. A hall, food and beer were donated. A band played. Pilczuk talked to the crowd and signed autographs. At $10 apiece, the event attracted several hundred people. Then at the trials, he missed the Olympic team by 5-hundredths of a second, finishing third in a then personal-best 22.55. Pilczuk nonetheless decided to continue swimming.
"I used it as a motivating force," he says. "Some people told me I should quit. I had nothing else to do. I didn't have a career choice. So I kept swimming and going to school."
Pilczuk had begun working on a master's degree in exercise physiology and got a scholarship at Auburn as a graduate assistant swimming coach.
He took no break after the trials and lowered his personal best to 22.49 in a meet at Canet in June. Preparing for the Olympic trials, Pilczuk had started changing his technique. He used to keep his head very high and rely on a quick turnover for speed. With a lower head position and a longer stroke, his time steadily dropped. At last year's summer nationals, he won in 22.45. He went on to tie for first with Puerto Rico's Ricky Busquets at the Pan Pacs in 22.42 after a 22.39 swim in the prelims. Pilczuk doesn't breathe during his races. He hasn't since his junior year at Auburn, following the lead of teammate Hutchinson. "My stroke when I breathe is terrible," says Pilczuk, adding that's why he's stuck to the 50. He believes he's the only top swimmer currently that doesn't take a breath during the 50. And he's gotten to the point where he can go underwater for a lap in the Auburn pool that is 74 yards long.
Although he was getting faster, Pilczuk went into the World Championships hoping just to make the finals. Once he saw how the other contenders were swimming, he thought he had a chance to medal despite qualifying for the final in a pedestrian 22.70. Watching a tape of his heat, he had noticed he hadn't swum in the centre of his lane and a swimmer in the next lane drafted off him. In the final, the American underdog thought he got a break by getting lane six. Thus, favorite Alexander Popov, undefeated in the event for the last six years at major meets, couldn't see him during the race from lane four. Pilczuk exploded out of the blocks like never before and took a huge lead by 25 metres. He began to die 15 metres from the wall. But being so far ahead, no one could catch him. He won in 22.29. Popov was second in 22.43.
While a world title doesn't get the same attention as an Olympic berth, Pilczuk believes it's more significant. He explains, "To be a world champion, you have to win the race. To be an Olympian, you just have to go to the meet. It's a lot harder to be a world champion than to be an Olympian. A lot of people don't get that difference.
|Bill Pilczuk, USA|
|BIRTHDATE||Semtember 14, 1971|
|HEIGHT||6 ft. 4 in. / 193 cm|
|WEIGHT||180 lbs / 82 kg|
|Long Course Progression|
|Year||50 Free||World Rank|
"It's a good feeling to know I beat everybody, all these Olympians." What makes the Pilczuk story sound more improbable is that he's been battling shoulder soreness the last two years. His shoulder bothered him so much this season that he took two months off after the World Championships. He rehabs it before practice and rehabs and ices it afterward daily, turning a two-hour workout into three and a half hours.
Pilczuk thinks his impingement syndrome came from not having good balance in his stroke over the years. He's optimistic the shoulders will not be a problem in the future with his improved stroke under the tutelage of U.S. resident team coach Jonty Skinner, with whom he works out on a part-time basis, and Marsh.
"Through video, we've been trying to create a more powerful stroke using the body core as a power generator," says Skinner. "We both believe that he needs to go 22.0 to 22.1 to win in 2000, and he's trying to find a way to get there. So Dave (Marsh) trusts me to work with him from time to time to help him get to this more efficient-type stroke."
A strength of Pilczuk is his meticulous nature. Besides taking advantage of the technology at the USA Swimming's International Center for Aquatic Research, he works with weights, does ball throws, jumping, situps, bounding, leaping, and hopping. He utilizies a wave pool at Auburn and, because the university's pool is often set up for short course, travels to Columbus, Ga., to train long course. He tries to take 40 strokes for the 50 meters.
"It hasn't been easy for Bill," says Marsh. "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 champion swimmer. If he doesn't accomplish anything beyond winning a world title, he's already beaten the odds."
Pilczuk realizes he can no longer sneak up on the competition.
"I feel more pressure because everybody wants to beat me, to say they've beaten the world champion," he says. "But it doesn't matter if I win or lose meets now. I'm training to be "on" one day, the day of the (2000) Olympic trials."