Jack Saunderson’s week began lazily. He slept in, enjoyed a relaxed dinner at Newport Beach, Calif., and dipped his feet in the Pacific Ocean.
It ended with the Towson University swimmer clinching a blazing time of 51.48 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly preliminaries July 27 at the Phillips 66 National Championships, where the 21-year-old Saunderson beat favorites such as Michael Andrew and Caeleb Dressel, often dubbed “the next Michael Phelps.”
It was a time that made Saunderson the fifth-fastest in the world in the men’s 100-meter fly this year, and the second quickest American.
“Honestly, I didn’t even see his reaction. I was too busy jumping down and screaming,” said Towson men’s swimming coach Jake Shrum, who accompanied Saunderson to Irvine. “I ran behind the blocks and gave him a big hug and told him that was amazing. He just kind of smiled. That’s par for the course, for the most part.”
Shrum knew his protégé was on pace for a swim like this during practice earlier in the week. Saunderson, wanting to get a feel for the water, ran 50-meter lengths, just trying to go wall-to-wall under 30 seconds.
He did it in 24.99. Double that, and there’s no faster time in the world.
“He did some things that were stupid fast. That’s when I kind of knew that Jack was going to have a special 100 fly,” Shrum said.
The Laurel native’s times qualify him for a spot on the U.S. team heading to the 2019 World University Games in Italy, the summer after his senior season at Towson, keeping him on track for the U.S. Olympic trials and maybe even the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On the path to greatness, though, Saunderson doesn’t know if he even wants to be a swimmer by then.
“It’s almost hitting me,” he said. “I did, before the meet, kind of feel like I would separate from the sport.”
Before his senior year at Reservoir, when he clinched the 100 fly at Maryland Long Course Championships and earned All-Maryland honors, he had considered quitting the sport by college. Then, after declaring for Towson, he had toyed with dropping the sport sporadically through his college years.
“Jack would say, not even really joking, that he was looking forward to be done with swimming and happy that NCAAs will be his last meet,” Shrum said.
Even now, with high-level accolades, national attention and a trajectory that few Olympic athletes find themselves on, Saunderson could easily imagine a life with swimming in the rearview mirror.
“I just feel like I haven’t made a decision as of now. It definitely is exciting for my future in swimming, but I don’t have a definitive answer in whether I’ll continue swimming,” he said. “I’m just focused on next year and my senior year of college, and we’ll just go from there.”
Saunderson isn’t grappling with a lack of interest; he’ll be the first to say he loves the sport. And his coach boasts his competitive nature and dedication to getting faster, which has, of course, paid off on a national stage.
But Saunderson said he’s not actively trying to chase the Olympics, even as those around him, including people he’s never met, are trying to do that for him.
NBC Sports swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines was impressed when he watched Saunderson outswim Dressel in the prelims. Nationals, mostly, was the playground of Olympians, current and all-but-certainly-future.
Saunderson was neither the former nor, in his own mind, the latter. And yet, there was his name on the board, above all the rest. Even when he struggled a bit in the final, adding four-tenths of a second onto his time (51.88) and finishing fourth, he had ascended to a new level.
“The USA desperately needs more Jack Saundersons. ... This country has been dominant in this sport for 62 years,” Gaines said. “A big part of that is that we have Jack Saundersons come along, and it pressures the bigger names to swim to a higher level.”
But without early Olympic dreams, Saunderson’s rise came gradually.
“It hasn’t been a light switch,” Shrum said. “He’s steadily taken big steps forward every six months or so.”
His freshman year was impressive, but not a breakout. He claimed the 200-yard butterfly title in his Colonial Athletic Association meet debut, netting a conference, school and freshman record (1:45.02), as well as a third-place finish in the 100 fly, also a school and freshman mark (47.60).
For that, Saunderson earned CAA Rookie of the Year honors.
Only the second person in the school’s men’s program to qualify for the NCAA championships, Saunderson reached the finals for the 100- and 200-yard butterflies — the first Tiger to do so in any event — and placed 16th overall. He clinched the 200-yard butterfly Eastern College Athletic Conference title — becoming the second male Towson athlete to win an individual event at an ECAC championships — and secured seven medals and five school records at the 2017 CAA championships, piloting his team to the bronze.
For all that, the conference named Saunderson its Swimmer of the Year. No CAA athlete had ever earned that honor just a year after becoming Rookie of the Year.
This spring, he claimed three straight gold medals at CAAs and another Swimmer of the Year nod. On a more micro level, Shrum noticed Saunderson with a “smooth and relaxed stroke” was swimming 25-, 50-yard legs quicker than he ever had.
They’re modest achievements compared with Dressel, who earned four NCAA records this spring. But since then, Saunderson has only gotten faster.
On June 9, Saunderson posted a 54.21 at the state Long Course Championship, three seconds slower than his prelims mark at nationals at the end of July — less than two months.
“With Jack, I’m not even sure if he understands — even now — how fast he actually is, and what kind of progression and track he’s on. That’s what makes him such a special swimmer,” Shrum said. “He doesn’t really have any inhibitions when it comes to holding certain times. We can give him times that he might think sounds ridiculous but he doesn’t let that mentality hold him back at all.”
Said Saunderson: “It is surprising to myself, too. I feel like practices have been changing a little bit. My technique has started to click a little bit, and I think our hard work has started to pay off in exponential improvement.”
Coming to Towson, he wanted to be a swimmer, but also a business management major, with aspirations to become an accountant.
Rather than diving into the deep-end and training all summer, Saunderson is a management-trainee intern at Enterprise, the car-rental service, at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. It keeps him busy during the days, unable to train in the afternoon, though he still rises early to practice around 5 a.m. every morning.
“That’s the really interesting thing about Jack. He needs his breaks. From never really being fully invested in swimming, he doesn’t have that, I don’t know, a mental thing of being able to grind out that yardage in practice,” Shrum said. “Being a little bit more of a late bloomer has definitely suited his swimming. You can pinpoint all these other guys who will make noise in 2020, but the way Jack’s going, he’s leaning in that direction also.”
If Saunderson marches with hundreds of other Olympians donning Team USA gear in two years for the Tokyo Games’ opening ceremony, it might have happened under his nose.
That is, at least, what his coach hopes.
“[Towson assistant coach Matt Lowe and I] were joking about how we had to make Jack go fast enough to make these international rosters for next summer, so we can force him to compete in 2019,” Shrum said. “So that he’ll get his trial cut probably, and we can force him to keep training for Olympic trials in 2020.”
Shrum tries not to worry about Saunderson’s graduation, though he’s already mapping out the next stage. One of the coaching staff’s primary concerns is what will happen when Saunderson doesn’t have a team atmosphere anymore.
“A lot of his drive and motivation comes from wanting the team to be successful. … It makes it a little harder at these higher level meets when we don’t have that,” Shrum said.
For the NCAA championships in Minnesota, a little under a dozen Towson swimmers flew out to be in attendance for Saunderson. Even at nationals, Saunderson had the company of Towson swimmer Jacki Schoening and Drexel’s Alexa Kutch, another CAA swimmer, to soothe his stress before his events.
“It does help a lot with my teammates there, I have to agree,” Saunderson said. “But having the opportunity to compete with these top swimmers motivates me as well. And knowing that [my teammates] will be there for the whole thing, watching the livestream back home, it means a lot.”
Shrum has gotten in contact with coaches to see if Saunderson would be eligible for postgraduate eligibility, to maintain a group environment.
That is, again, if there is swimming after college. But Shrum has big hopes for Saunderson.
“If he does have another really good year, and finds a way to get under 51 [seconds] in the 100 fly,” Shrum said, “I gotta think that anyone who’s been under 51 has always made the Olympic team.”