Powering along at a torrid pace into the final stretch of the 500-yard freestyle, Staples' Jonathan Blansfield stared down a record as the audience at the FCIAC championships stood poolside, awestruck.
As the junior closed in, on pace to break the conference's benchmark time of 4:38.97, the crowd at Greenwich High on Feb. 28 turned partisan, collectively cheering him on.
"To see him just get faster, faster, faster, you saw people as the race went on look at their heat sheet and go, `What's the conference record? Is this guy on pace for it?' Staples head coach Frisk Driscoll recalled. "Toward that last 50, the place was deafening.
"It didn't matter what team you were on, you were cheering for him because you were seeing something special."
Blansfield, to his own surprise, ultimately clocked in at 4:35.98 -- shattering the conference record by nearly three full seconds.
"It's definitely not the way I envisioned it. I was hopeful, but it was definitely a pleasant surprise," said Blansfield, who entered the race seeded third behind Greenwich's Thomas Dillinger and Wilton's Stephen Holmquist. "To not only win, but to also set the record, it was the cherry on top. I couldn't have asked for anything better."
Blansfield also took second in the 200-meter freestyle in 1:43.08 -- a mere half-second behind Dillinger -- and shared MVP honors with Alex Lewis, who won the 100 backstroke and propelled Greenwich to first in a pair of relays (200 medley, 400 freestyle).
"I've been working hard all season," Blansfield said. "FCIACs have been the goal since Day One. It was game time and I was ready to go."
TRAINING TO BE ELITE
Blansfield has taken an arduous path developing into an elite swimmer. Balancing training between Staples High and his club team, the Westport-Weston Y Water Rats, he estimated that he spends close to 10 hours a week in the pool.
He admits that his practice routine -- before and after school, three days a week -- can be tiring, but he believes it's necessary to progress in the distance events.
"Staying at the highest volume and also having to do long, grueling distance races is definitely tiring," he said. "But my training regimen is that I'm able to swim through those really long races. That's what I train for all year."
Blansfield's primary events for Staples -- the 200- and 500-yard freestyle -- represent two of the longest individual events in high school swimming. He also competes in the 1,000 and one-mile races for the Water Rats.
Driscoll, who has coached Blansfield for the last three years -- first with the Water Rats, then last year as an assistant with the Wreckers -- explained that the junior's training routine is against the norm. Most swimmers decrease the intensity of their workouts as the season progresses, whereas Blansfield has maintained an aggressive regimen, Driscoll said.
"With most swimmers, as we get deeper into championships, the yardage tends to come down a little bit," Driscoll said. "The bigger the meet, the most rest for the swimmer and the sharper that they can swim -- the goal is to peak. Right now, we're not even trying to peak Jonathan. He's got so many more meets this season."
Blansfield doesn't intend to slow down anytime soon. He plans to keep his training consistent heading into the LL state finals on March 12 and the State Open on March 16 before slowing down, albeit lightly, heading into the YMCA Nationals in April.
"It's the biggest meet out of all four," Blansfield said of the Nationals, which will be held in Greensboro, N.C. "That's the one where I'll really back off (on training). Now, I'm just focusing on swimming fast."
Staples sophomore Ethan Hunter, a fifth-place finisher in the 100 breaststroke (1:01.07) at FCIACs, praised his teammate's work ethic.
"He works really hard in practice. He never gives up during sets," Hunter said. "When you look over at him, he's always trying his best."
A MOTOR LIKE NO OTHER
Of all the talents Blansfield has, Driscoll said there's one that stands out most.
"He has the best kick I have ever seen," the coach said, adding, "I remember the first day I stepped on deck, I went, `Woah, who is this kid with the engine that never quits?' It's something that you don't see in distance swimmers, a kick like that. Distance swimmers tend to be more upper-body oriented."
Driscoll said that Blansfield's non-stop motor sets him apart from others in that his legs move at an exceedingly faster rate than his competitors.'
"For every two arm-strokes, the average swimmer -- if you're swimming in the shorter events -- tends to have a six-beat kick. So six kicks to every two arm strokes," Driscoll explained. "Basically, his legs move twice as fast as everybody elses. He just rises up on top of the water, and it makes for a clean ride for him. He's not sitting as low in the water as everyone else is."
Blansfield, who started swimming at age 7, said that he's gradually improved his kick through training both in and out of the water. He said that he's helped build leg strength by running.
"I think it's one of my strengths," he said. "You're supposed to play to your strengths in your races, so that's something that I definitely rely on."
As a result, Blansfield's times have improved drastically over his three years at Staples. In his freshman year, he placed ninth in the 500 freestyle at FCIACs. Last year, he finished third in the 500 (4:45.19) and sixth in the 200 free (1:48.19).
His kick continues to be distinctive at all levels.
"It's certainly a driving force and an integral part of his racing," said Ellen Johnston, who coaches the senior-level swimmers with the Water Rats. "He has a nice fluid kick."
In January, four meets into the season, the Wreckers had two of their top swimmers depart. Senior Nathanial Boley (FCIAC champion in both the 100 free and 100 back as a junior) and junior Ian Rainey (transfer from Virginia) opted to swim the rest of the year with their club team, the Wilton Y Wahoos, to prepare for the Y Nationals.
The Wreckers needed someone to step forward as a leader, both emotionally and performance-wise. And Blansfield, who was known to be relatively mild-mannered in past years, filled the void.
"He would swim hard and he'd go out and he would do his races," Driscoll said, describing Blansfield earlier in his career. "But now, he's an overwhelmingly great teammate, cheering on his teammates, giving them high-fives. He has shown a lot of maturity during that time.
"It's not easy for a kid to go through a change like that, especially in the middle of the season. I think it trickled down to the rest of the team."
Blansfield has relished his leadership role and helped carry Staples to a fourth-place finish at FCIACs.
"The role was kind of gravitating toward me, and I was happy to take that role," he said. "We need people to step up. ... Someone had to do it."
And his teammates say it's been felt throughout the squad.
"He definitely stepped up after Nathaniel left, big-time," Hunter said. "He's really helping us fill the gap."
firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-255-4561 ext. 114; twitter.com/DougBonjour