One of Luke Schwenk’s earliest memories involves a game he played with his father, Dirk, in which the former — as a 3-year-old — tried to touch the bottom of the 7-foot-deep pool in the backyard of the family’s home in Annapolis.
“I was so buoyant that I couldn’t get down to the bottom,” he recalled with a laugh. “So I’d have my dad throw me into the pool. So I’ve always loved swimming.”
Schwenk, now 19, has continued to draw from that passion. He will be the first male swimmer to represent St. Mary’s College at the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships that begin Wednesday at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Schwenk’s time of 44.44 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle that he swam at the Atlantic East Championships on Feb. 10 ranks as the ninth-fastest time among qualifiers. His time of 20.35 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle ranks 26th.
The Seahawks have sent eight female swimmers to the NCAA Championships, with Kelly Heyde in 2012 last representing the program. But Schwenk will be the first from the men’s team — a responsibility the sophomore doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s super meaningful,” the Broadneck graduate said. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this to happen when I was going into college swimming. So it’s almost surreal that this is happening to me because I never really swam that seriously. But now that I am taking it seriously and putting up these really good times, it’s really special to me.”
St. Mary’s coach Casey Brandt noted that Andrew Scott qualified for the 1,650-yard freestyle in 2018, but was not invited. So Schwenk’s participation is groundbreaking.
“It’s fantastic,” Brandt said. “It’s always great to get through a barrier like that.”
Schwenk wasn’t always a water bug. He said he actually picked up soccer first, but when he began winning races and setting records at his community pool at the age of 5, he concentrated on swimming.
“It was just very exciting to be good at something and just put up good times and have people cheer for you,” he said.
Colleen Winans has known Schwenk for years through club swimming circles in and around Anne Arundel County. When he joined the Broadneck swim team of which she is the coach, Winans said she realized Schwenk’s potential.
“He’s one of three kids that I can think of that are naturals where they just had a really great feel for the water,” she said. “If you watch swimmers, sometimes you see that it almost looks effortless. They dive in, and they’re just like a sideways fish. He just would dive in, and he’s nice and long and gangly, but you could just see it. He went smoothly right through the water.”
A growth spurt during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years helped Schwenk gain 5 inches in height to 6 feet, 1 inch. He added an inch before he graduated from Broadneck in 2021.
Schwenk wasn’t planning on swimming in college until the coronavirus pandemic wiped out most of his senior season. While the shutdown discouraged others, it had the opposite effect on him.
“It actually motivated me to swim in college,” he said. “I felt like there was more for me to do with swimming. I just wasn’t really at my full potential, and that turned out to be true. I know it was really awful in a lot of ways, but it did inspire me to go onto the next level and pursue more.”
Schwenk reached out to Brandt, who invited Schwenk to join the team. Like Winans, the Broadneck coach, Brandt discovered he had a unique talent on the roster.
“I knew his times coming in, and they were pretty fast,” he said. “But when I saw him in the pool, I was like, ‘He’s going to be way faster than that.’ He had a good feel for the water and had a lot of talent.”
After earning Atlantic East Rookie of the Year honors, Schwenk continued to develop as a swimmer, crediting an extended team training session in Florida with increasing his stamina and strength. He put on a show at the conference championships where he collected four gold medals and set meet records in the 50 and 100 free and 100 butterfly and league and school marks in the 50 and 100 free.
Schwenk, who was named Atlantic East Swimmer of the Year four days later, said he had a good feeling during the championship meet.
“Hitting that second wall in the 50, I was like, ‘This is going to be fast,’” he said. “After that, I kind of just blacked out through the race, and I kind of don’t really remember it. When I hit the wall at the 100, I looked up at my time, and I slammed the water because the time that I had gotten in that race was exactly what I had been striving for.”
Although this will be Schwenk’s first time at the NCAA championships, Brandt said he anticipates Schwenk won’t swim just for the sheer experience.
“I think if he had kind of squeaked in, we might have that approach,” he said. “And I’m sure we will have lessons to learn from it being our first time. However, we’re definitely going to compete. He’s in a good spot as far as the times he has put up, and I’m confident in his ability to find a performance that’s even better than what he’s done in the past.”
Schwenk has even bolder objectives: finishing in the top three in the 50 and 100 free. Lofty aspirations, sure, but he said he won’t be shy.
“I think I will be nervous, but I’m not going to let that get to me,” he said. “I’m just going to go for it.”