Groomed for Success
Feb. 24, 2009
By Larry Watts
Patrick Schirk should be easy to spot when Purdue University hosts the Big Ten's men's swimming and diving championships starting Thursday. While most swimmers have already shaved as they prepare for the postseason competition, the Penn State backstroker will still be sporting a beard, measuring four to five inches in length.
"It's almost disgusting, I can't wait to get rid of it," says the Nittany Lions senior. "I don't want it to be my trademark, but we have always had a tradition here at Penn State where everyone who can grow facial hair does on the men's team.
"Everyone shaves it off for the Big Tens, but I'm not. I'm going right through to the NCAA meet so when everyone else is looking fresh, I'm going to be raggedy. I haven't even cut my hair and I'm still wearing a cap."
Schirk's facial growth was so long before the holidays that he was asked to play Santa Claus at an event. "But I graciously turned them down," he says.
Swimmers often shave their body hair in hopes of cutting a whisker of a second at the end of the season. But while Schirk has never won a Big Ten title, he admits he has bigger fish to fry.
"Repeating the NCAA title (in the 200 backstroke) is my primary goal, but I would hate to be a two-time national champion without having won a Big Ten title," he says. "I got touched out by .02 of a second (by Indiana's Ben Hessen) last year and that got me angry because I lost by such a slim margin. It motivated me to swim real fast because I knew I would be facing him again in the NCAAs."
At the NCAA finals, Hessen ruled the 100 backstroke while Schirk took eighth. But that eighth place was enough to make Schirk the first All-American individual swimmer, men or women, in Penn State history.
In the 200, Schirk swam a prelim best of 1:41.02. Then in the finals, he shaved nearly a full second off that mark, posting a winning time of 1:40.22, which stands as the sixth-fastest swim in NCAA history.
Schirk didn't like the idea of being the No. 1 seed.
"I never have been a big fan of having the target on my back while I was growing up," he says. "I always like being No. 2 or 3, but it didn't hurt me too badly in the finals. I had a body length over the entire field and my only disappointment is I didn't break 1:40, which was my goal.
"But I was just excited to be part of Penn State history. My major focus wasn't winning the title; it was mostly to just get the ball rolling because Penn State had never had an individual All-American. I was real pumped for that 100 back and the NCAA title in the 200 was just icing on the cake."
Schirk used that success to catapult into the Olympic Trials, where he finished eighth in both the 100 and 200 back events. He finished nearly a full second over his prelim time in the 200 and was .8 of a second slower than his 100 semifinal time.
"I was happy with what I did in the 100, but not so in the 200," he says. "My best times wouldn't have put me in the Olympics (top two finishers), but it would have put me in a better situation. I was just disappointed my times were not where I wanted them to be."
The finals of the 200 backstroke at the Olympic Trials grew quite of bit of attention in Schirk's hometown of Pottstown, Pa. On that same day, Schirk's former club team was facing the club team that fed into his high school. The entire meet came to a stop so all the participants could watch the race on televisions and a big screen.
"I was pretty excited when I heard about that," he says.
Thus far this season, Schirk hasn't been anywhere close to the marks he swam at the end of last year, hitting a best of 1:43 three times. He is seeded second for the Big Ten meet this week.
"We have a new coaching staff (led by John Hargis) this year and my workouts have changed dramatically," he says. "I'm now training with the middle distance group, which I should be doing, instead of the sprinters and we're doing a lot more yardage.
"I used to swim 11,000 to 12,000 yards a day and now I'm swimming 15,000, which means I'm doing an extra 15,000 per week. That's had an impact on me."
Schirk just started cutting down his yardage as he begins his taper for the postseason. But he's not sure if he has made a big enough cut to have an effect in the Big Ten meet.
"If I had it my way, I'd be doing nothing at all, but I think the coaching staff is tired of hearing my opinion," he says with a laugh. "I guess you could say I'm keeping an egg in the basket for the NCAAs.
"I am a little nervous because I don't feel like I'm swimming at the level I should be. I'm two seconds off where I was heading into the Big Ten meet last year."
Schirk had offers from swimming powerhouses like Texas, Georgia, Michigan and Indiana, but elected to come to University Park because "I've always been a Penn State kid."
"I grew up outside Philadelphia and several of my family members attended Penn State," he says. "I was always a Joe Paterno fan. I knew there were other schools in the Big Ten with a better swimming tradition and out natatorium isn't about to make the cover of any magazine, but the overall campus, academic support and the way I fit in with the guys on my recruiting trip was too good to pass up.
"There are times in December, January and February when I think of how I could be wearing shorts and sandals down in Texas and Georgia, but I've always been a home body and my family is only two and one-half hours away. It's always been blue and white for me."
Although he achieved a historical first for Penn State last year, Schirk never saw himself as a trailblazer.
"I was just trying to survive as a freshman because I was getting pretty beat up between workouts and classes," he says. "I had never done any types of doubles workouts before I got here.
"I hope my title has fired up this program. We have a great group of young coaches who are extremely excited and passionate about the sport and they are bringing in a great recruiting class next year."
Concentrating on supply chain management in Penn State's business school, Schirk plans on returning to Penn State as a volunteer coach next year. That's part of a plan he hopes will eventually lead to the 2012 Olympics.
"I've got too many questions about the outside world, whereas I can figure out the answers pretty quickly in swimming," he says. "Maybe I'll keep swimming forever. I know if I join the coaching staff, I'll have to keep all those comments about the extra yardage to myself."