Jan. 22, 2010
By Larry Watts
When he first hit the pool at Michigan State back in 2006, Jonathan LaRocque's goal was to help turn around the Spartans' men's swim program. That goal hasn't changed, but time is running out for the senior backstroke specialist from Bay City, Mich.
The Spartans finished fifth in the Big Ten race back in 1994. Since then, they have been at the bottom of the conference standings 13 times, including the last four tries, and have been ninth on the other two occasions. Meanwhile, their instate rival over in Ann Arbor has splashed its way to six titles and six runner-up finishes during that same span.
"It's frustrating," says LaRocque, "especially when you swim your best and can't even place in the top eight in a race. But there is the happy medium where you know you have worked hard and done your best. It just so happens the others are a little bit better, but you just have to keep working at it."
LaRocque certainly knows what it is like to be on the short end of the stick. After struggling for his first two seasons, he finally had a breakthrough last year and set a school record in the 100 backstroke (48.33) at the Big Ten Championships. But it was only good for 12th place. As part of the 200 medley, he also clocked the team's fastest time in the 50 back (22.92) and his time in the 200 backstroke (1:47.66) at the Big Ten Championships was the third fastest in school history.
"I think my first couple of years at Michigan State were rough because I was still trying to learn to get the balance between athletics and academics," says LaRocque, who is a packaging major. "It just took be awhile to figure out what I needed to do to get good grades and swim fast.
"It all came down to experience. I learned how to schedule classes at the right times and doing research on the professors, like seeing how they were rated by other students."
In the pool, LaRocque attributes the start of his breakthrough by remaining in East Lansing during the summer following his sophomore year.
"I was able to work out with a few of the guys on the team and other club swimmers," he says. "Everything sort of clicked together and it carried over to the next season. That led me to stay here again this past summer and I think it's working out well now."
Although he did not qualify for the NCAA Championships last winter, LaRocque did receive an invitation to the USA National Championships in Indianapolis this past summer. With Olympians Aaron Peirsol and Matt Grevers in the talented field for the 100-yard backstroke, LaRocque clocked a 59.03 in the prelims, placing him 43rd overall.
"That was a great experience," he says. "I have swum in big meets with Olympians before, but that was by far the biggest met I have ever been to. Just to watch some of those people swim was pretty amazing."
Among the Olympians LaRocque has competed against is Michael Phelps.
"It's fun just to say you've done it," he says about that experience in the Grand Prix at the University of Michigan. "I competed against him in the 50 freestyle and the 100 back. I remember diving in for the 50 free and peeking over to see where he was and he was already a body length ahead of me three seconds into the race."
In addition to swimming, LaRocque also played three years of baseball at John Glenn High School. The outfielder/pitcher batted over .300 and figures he could have played baseball in college, but he decided to concentrate only on swimming for his senior year.
"It was a tough decision because I really liked baseball, but I thought I had a better shot at doing well in swimming," he says. "The phone calls (from swimming coaches) started coming on July 1 and I decided to visit Pittsburgh, Indiana and Michigan State.
"Pitt was a little too urban for me, right in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh. I really liked the packaging program at Michigan State; it's supposed to be the best in the nation. And the campus at Michigan State is like a city unto itself, except it's all students and faculty without outside distractions."
LaRocque strongly believes better days are ahead for the Spartans. He sees his role as a captain and one of the six seniors on the squad to set the example for a promising freshman class.
"There were only two seniors on the squad when I came here, so it was difficult for them to give enough time to everyone," he says. "This is a great freshman class and we have some guys in the middle two classes who are very good. Whether it's academics, things outside the pool or matters with the team, the six seniors have to make sure these guys are ready to roll. We have to be ready to show them the way in order to get this program going again."
LaRocque figures this will be the end to his competitive swimming career, something he has been doing since he was 6 years old. And he can think of no better way to take his swan song than at the NCAA Championships.
"That's my ultimate goal and to also be in the top eight in the 100 back at the Big Ten Championships," he says. "I would also like to see one of our relays place in the top three. We've been at the bottom of the ladder for too long and I hope this is the year we can move up."