Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 Athlete of the Month | Mundelein swimmer Connor Black

The text read, "He's faster today. It's going to happen."

It was one in a string of messages Mundelein coach Rahul Sethna sent to Scott Black the morning of last month's boys state swimming and diving finals. He was referencing the 100-yard butterfly warm-up work that Black's son, Connor Black, was in the midst of.

That Black was swimming faster was newsworthy because it came only hours after the Mundelein senior had set the state record in the event during the previous day's preliminaries.

Sethna's prediction — a national record — came to fruition that Saturday afternoon before a frenzied crowd at New Trier High School.

"There's always so much more pressure on Friday, so I told him that morning, 'It's just about racing today,' " Sethna said. "We knew he had the speed, so it was a matter of whether he could put together his race and hit all of his turns."

Black did, and his time of 46.71 seconds shaved almost a half-second off his preliminary mark of 47.20 and was almost a second-and-a-half faster than runner-up Andrew Jovanovic, a Loyola senior who had won the event the last two years.

Black also claimed the 50 freestyle title in convincing fashion (19.95 seconds) moments before the 100 butterfly masterpiece, helping earn him the Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 Preps Plus Athlete of the Month for February.

Black's first state record of the weekend came in the 50 freestyle preliminaries, with his time of 19.80 faring 0.03 seconds better than the standard set in 2003 by Lake Forest alum and Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers.

"I did what I wanted to do," Black said of his performance that weekend. "I wasn't that surprised because I had put in the work. It was more being nervous that everything went right during the races."

One of the other byproducts of everything going right was being honored at an all-school assembly four days later. Scott Black and his wife, Linda, were in attendance. Their son's on-stage reaction to all the hoopla didn't surprise them.

"He was up there with his lips pursed and his hands in his pockets and it looked like he was saying to himself, 'When is this thing going to be over?' " Scott Black said. "That's typical Connor. He does a great job of deflecting all of the adulation he receives."

Among Black's other achievements in the last year was setting a 100 butterfly meet record at junior nationals last summer in Indianapolis and accepting a scholarship to swim for national powerhouse Stanford.

Things haven't always been so perfectly aligned for Black, though. His father harkens back to his son's freshman year, when frustration was palpable for the then-5-foot-10, 135-pound Black.

"I saw other guys in the state who I thought I was just as fast as having success and I thought to myself, 'What am I doing wrong?' " the now-6-5 Black said. "I wasn't exactly a small kid, but I wasn't nearly as strong as I am now."

Black's perseverance also was tested when he broke his leg while performing a routine dry land conditioning drill the day after the 2011 school year let out. The mishap cost Black the entire summer before his junior year, an important period often reserved for showcasing one's skills at club events for college coaches.

Black calls those months spent in a cast watching from the side of the pool the low point of his career.

"He had really come off his sophomore (year) with some momentum (finishing second in the 100 butterfly)," Sethna said. "But it's funny, the injury may have actually helped in the long run because I think it made him miss swimming and he came away even more hungry."

Even as Black's national profile in the sport has heightened, he's remained down to earth.

As a friend and teammate of Black's on the CATS Aquatic club team, Lake Forest senior All-State swimmer Peter Grumhaus chuckled when recounting an episode at last summer's junior nationals when Black became infatuated with a weighted, toy water torpedo that a competing team from North Carolina had.

"It was a pretty intense environment and he kept saying, 'We need to get that torpedo,' " Grumhaus recalled. "Somehow he got his hands on it, and by the end of the day he had invited that team to come over and play with it with us. That's how Connor is — just a kid at heart. He's always trying to lighten the mood and make things enjoyable for everyone."

His demeanor doesn't go unnoticed at Mundelein, where he's a two-time National Honors Society recipient. The school's principal, Lauren Fagel, was in Black's cheering section at New Trier and saw his reaction at the assembly.

"What you see is what you get with Connor — he seems to have no ego," she said. "We were all going crazy in the stands; I had no voice for two days. But he was so even-keeled about it. You couldn't ask for a better role model for our students to look up to."

Black probably could earn more accolades on the club swimming circuit this spring, but he has other plans.

Aside from a week-long training session in Colorado Springs, Colo., with USA Swimming's Junior National team, he's opted to close out his high school career playing on the Mustangs' water polo team, which Sethna also coaches.

"It was an easy decision," Black said. "These are the same guys I've been with all throughout high school, and to finish without them wouldn't have been the same."

Connor Black file

High school: Mundelein.

Class: Senior.

Events: 100 butterfly, 50 freestyle.

College: Stanford.

Numbers: Won both events at last month's state meet. Set national record with finals time of 47.61 in the butterfly and set state record of 19.80 in freestyle in preliminaries.

He said it: "He's not the most coordinated guy outside of the pool. But when he sets his sights on something and gets into that zone, there's no stopping him." — Lake Forest senior and club teammate Peter Grumhaus.

'Instant Replay'

Mundelein's Connor Black will be featured during a segment on WGN-Ch. 9's "Instant Replay" at 9:40 p.m. Sunday. If you miss it, watch the video Monday at

2012-13 Athletes of the Month

September: Justin Jackson, Glenbard North, football.

October: Chris James, Notre Dame, football.

November: Olivia Smoliga, Glenbrook South, swimming.

December: Tyler Ulis, Marian Catholic, basketball.

January: Elliott Cole, Power House, basketball.

February: Connor Black, Mundelein, swimming.

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