Looking for a NU Environment
Dec. 13, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Sometimes it just takes a change in scenery for a man to realize his potential. A new environment, a new coach, and new teammates can often bring a sense of normalcy to a transfer who could not quite find the right chemistry at his previous school. As it turned out, the move to Northwestern last season was just what Wildcat swimmer Bruno Barbic needed.
A native of Zagreb, Croatia, Barbic initially attended the University of Washington with hopes of training and competing at a high level that would eventually prepare him for qualifying for his homeland's Olympic squad.
Having longed to attend college in the United States and swim on a scholarship, Barbic was thrilled when the opportunity arose to venture to America to swim for the Huskies. While he was there, Barbic competed in three events - the 50- and 100-yard freestyle and the 400-yard medley relay.
His freshman season was a promising one. He placed first on 12 occasions during the 2004-05 season and broke the school record with in both the 50 (19.81) and 100 (43.48) free. He also helped his team set a new school best in the 200 (1:21.22) and 400 (2:58.14) freestyle relays as well. Several of Barbic's times also qualified him for NCAA competition.
But following his freshman season, something changed.
"Initially I was looking for a school with good academics and good swimming and Washington appeared to have that at that time," Barbic said. "Something just changed my sophomore year and the atmosphere wasn't quite the same."
Barbic would again qualify for the NCAA meet and again broke the school record in the 50 free with a time of 19.52 in the preliminary event at nationals. He finished 13th in the finals with a time of 19.78 and 20th overall in the 100 free in 43.66.
Still, his sophomore season was far from what he had hoped.
"I was really disappointed with my sophomore year," Barbic said. "I thought I should have done better and that then made me try to see the extent of my swimming ability. Now I wasn't so much looking for a big school or a big swimming program."
In fact, they only place he was looking was down the pool deck at the NCAA meet at Northwestern head coach Bob Groseth. Barbic said he saw a spirit and a spark in the Wildcats that ultimately peaked his interest in Northwestern. He said Groseth looked like a fairly friendly guy, so he thought he would shoot him an e-mail following NCAAs.
Barbic did just that and upon receiving the intrigued transfer's note, Groseth immediately contacted Washington head coach Mickey Wender. Groseth knew that Wender was being courted to take over the swimming program at Army, so he figured Barbic's release would not be an issue.
"It was a matter of getting clearance from (Washington's) athletic department, and it took quite a while," Groseth said. "Once Bruno got through that process, he was still looking at two or three other schools. He went through another recruiting process like he was a senior in high school."
Barbic points to his "relaxed and easy going" visit to Evanston that eventually sold him on Northwestern.
Yet the question remained. Would a change of scenery, coaching philosophies and a whole new batch of teammates prove beneficial to him?
The answer was yes.
Having only earned one All-America distinction in his two years at Washington, Barbic picked up five All-America awards last season and swam the anchor leg of the Wildcats' 400 medley relay squad that won the NCAA Championship in an NCAA record time of 3:04.40. In addition to the team's success, Barbic also qualified individually in the 100 free for the first time in his career, placing seventh overall in a personal-best time of 42.79. On the conference level, he captured the Big Ten title in the 100 free in 43.14, was runner-up to teammate Matt Grevers in the 50 free (19.40) and was part of three winning relay teams.
"It was a mix of changing the environment and getting used to the new conditions, new teammates and a new coach," Barbic said of his impressive junior season. "I thought I gained a competitive edge last year and stepped up my game to a higher level as well. I was swimming those relays with some of the most talented swimmers I have ever competed with."
"The environment here with the other swimmers and the two guys (Grevers and Mike Alexandrov) that graduated last year were NCAA champions, we are all trying to achieve at a high level," he said. "There was a great group of guys here and Bruno responded to that and elevated his game. He did a lot more at the NCAA level last year than he did in two years at Washington."
Barbic refers to last season as one of the most unique and exciting experiences he has had in his life. He points to the NCAA Championship relay team and his fellow teammates as reasons why his swimming improved such a great deal in just one year.
"Swimming was a joy again and I really appreciated their company," he said. "I think we did something really amazing last year, having come from such a small environment."
And coming from a small country back home, Barbic has his eyes set on not only a few Northwestern school records and an NCAA title this year, but also on Olympic qualifications that will occur after the season. Barbic plans to compete in a few international meets following the 2007-08 campaign with hopes of obtaining an Olympic cut in both the 50 and 100 free, which would earn him a spot on the Croatian Olympic team.
In the meantime, Groseth says that there are a few personal goals that Barbic would like to accomplish in his relatively new environment. The economics major is looking to break the impressive school records established by Grevers and leave Evanston with his name on the records board as the Wildcats' top swimmer in the 50 and 100 free.
"I think some obtainable goals would be a top-three finish in the 100 free and making the finals in the 50 free at NCAAs," Groseth said. "Our goals for him in the relays is to continue scoring in the top eight at NCAAs. We are trying to achieve very high goals at the NCAA meet and to do that, Bruno will need to be a big part of that."
Perhaps Barbic is also now a big part of that spirit and spark that he once observed as an outsider on the pool deck at the NCAA Championships two years ago.
While he admits the initial move from his homeland in Croatia to Washington was "not that much of a cultural change," Barbic's move from the Pacific Northwest to Northwestern has certainly been a major change in his career.
A change that has brought him comfort, camaraderie, and championships.