A Local Leader
Jan. 23, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Bill Wadley knew he faced a challenge when recruiting Matt Voelker to swim at Ohio State. The Buckeyes head coach knew that often times local kids like the Columbus native would want to leave town and get as far away from home as possible. He also knew that with the addition of the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion, one of the nation's finest aquatic centers, and with being good friends with Voelker's high school coach and former Buckeye Kevin Chapman, he could have a shot at the young talent. But in the end, he knew that if he could convince a kid who didn't start swimming seriously until he was a sophomore in high school, he would have an individual with a work ethic to quickly improve.
Wadley points out that Voelker "came along quickly" in his high school years and eventually graduated as one of the top swimmers in the state of Ohio. For Voelker, knowing that the new venue on the OSU campus would provide him a top training environment and that his parents were going to give him as much distance as he needed from home, he committed to the Buckeyes as soon as he could.
"I signed early because I wanted to make up my mind and get it over with, and so all the coaches would stop calling me," laughed Voelker. "It was like there was always one (phone call) a night for 30 minutes and I had homework to do."
Rarely has Voelker let anything stand in the way of his work ethic. Described as a mild-mannered and quiet young man by Wadley, Voelker is often the first one to the pool and as Wadley continues, "the last one to take credit.
"He gives a good effort at practice, works hard, goes home, and gets after his studies," said Wadley.
Voelker responds by questioning that if you are going to take the time to be a Division I athlete, why not go all out and work as hard as you can?
In fact, one can look at Voelker's life as a constant improvement. As told above, he did not take his swimming career seriously until he was a sophomore in high school. He improved as a junior and flourished during his senior year. He was honored with "most improved" and "most valuable" awards in high school and has captured similar accolades while at OSU.
Wadley credits it to "natural evolution," and notes that while some swimmers are peaking during their senior year, Voelker may be far from that point right now in his career.
"I still think he is new at the sport," he said. "He qualified early in his career for the Olympic Trials and my guess is that he would probably get better over the next couple of years and could make nationals for USA Swimming."
An 11-time winner his freshman season, including three individual crowns in the 50-yard freestyle, Voelker set a pair of lifetime marks at the Big Ten meet with a time of 20.32 in the 50 free and the 45.25 in the 100 free. For his efforts, he was honored with the team's most promising freshman award.
As a sophomore, he bested those times with an eighth-place finish in the 50 free (20.14) and 20th-place result in the 100 free (45.20) at the conference championships. He was also a member of the school-record breaking 200-yard medley relay team, which helped earn him the coach's award at season's end.
This past year he earned OSU's most improved swimmer award after he earned a spot in the 50 and 100 freestyle events at the NCAA Championships. He was awarded All-America status as a member of the 200-medley relay, which again broke the school record.
Now as one of only two seniors on the Buckeye squad, Voelker has already claimed a total of five individual meet titles and helped OSU to an 8-0 start. And while team comes first with this talented local product, he admits that becoming All-America in the 50 and 100 free and establish individual school marks in both events as well as the 200, are top goals for him this year.
Voelker knows that his improvement over the years as been impressive, but he remains humbled when he hears things from Wadley such as, "I don't think you realize it, but you can be an Olympic swimmer."
"Sometimes I think it's weird that it's like, 'Holy crap, I'm going to the Olympic Trials,'" he said.
Luckily the soft-spoken senior has family support close by he can lean on if he so chooses. His grandfather, John Hlay, is a former Buckeye football standout, while his daughter, Voelker's mother Jill, was a world-class swimmer who captured the bronze medal in the 100-yard backstroke at the 1971 Pan-Am Games.
Voelker remembers talking to his mother one time after a meet in which he thought he swam poorly.
"I told my mom that I don't get to see myself swim like how she does from the stands," he said. "Sometimes I guess I don't realize my potential."
He admits that he also wanted to go to Ohio State for his mom so she would be able to see all of his meets. His grandmother followed his mother throughout her swimming career, so it is special for Voelker that both she and his grandmother can now watch him swim.
He says his mother has always been there by his side, offering motherly advice and tips on his technique. His father Phil and sister Lauren have also provided support, as well as his grandparents, whom Wadley has become acquainted with.
"I have gotten to know his grandparents as well," laughed Wadley. "They have been to every team banquet."
Voelker has given his entire support group something to cheer about this season as well. In November he swam a new personal best of 20.04 in the 50 free and is among the tops in the Big Ten in the event.
"With respect to my times, I have been pretty happy with them this year," he said. "I have been better this year than all my in-season times last year."
Following his time at Ohio State, Voelker hopes to continue his career in swimming, but is interested in getting his hands dirty if it does not work out. A self-described car junky, the consumer affairs major is interested in possibly attending a technical school and eventually pursuing a specialized program with a major automaker.
"I've always had a love of cars," he said. "Every time something went wrong with my car, I loved to fix it."
But knowing Voelker, not only did he fix it, he probably improved it as well.