Jan. 18, 2011
Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Friday, Aug. 13, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2010-11 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
By MICHELE DANNO
IOWA CITY, Iowa — University of Iowa swimmer Paul Gordon’s career didn’t start in a swimming pool, but rather in his gene pool.
The son of two collegiate athletes, Gordon followed his parent’s footsteps and took up swimming at the ripe age of nine for the Sioux Falls Snowfox Swim Team, where his mom coached him and his two younger siblings. His sister, Haley Gordon, followed suit and now swims with her brother as a freshman on the Iowa team.
As a native of South Dakota — a state without competitive high school-level swimming — Gordon said his options for clubs were limited and he had to travel far distances to meet the highest levels of competition. Still, he said swimming was always his only sport, and he never considered playing anything easier or more convenient.
“I wasn’t very athletic when I was little,” Gordon said. “I’m not very coordinated or fast on my feet, so I knew I couldn’t play basketball or football. Even now, my teammates make fun of me for how bad I am at running, but I guess swimming just came naturally.”
It was this natural potential over his notoriety that first got him recognized by Iowa. Gordon considers himself “fortunate” for getting discovered by Division I schools. Since South Dakota swimmers don’t have the opportunity to win state titles or compete in renowned prep tournaments, some universities overlook them in search of athletes from powerhouse high school programs. Yet, Iowa head coach Marc Long took note of Gordon’s club success, and began recruiting him early.
“Paul seemed to be a kid who was just starting to develop,” Long said. “I went to one of his practices, and I think the pool he worked out in was a converted meeting room. It was warm, crowded, and not the best facility, but he still showed leadership in the pool. That was the kind of kid we were looking for when rebuilding our program.”
Noting Gordon’s “raw potential,” Long pursued making him a Hawkeye even before he posted top times or qualified for the 2007 U.S. Junior National Team. It wasn’t until after contact with Iowa that Gordon set 25 state records and swam the 200 individual medley at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials.
These national achievements garnered Gordon a lot of Division I attention by the end of his prep career, but he stayed faithful to schools that recruited him before he made a national name for himself. Although he had a number of offers from universities including Ohio State, Missouri and Wyoming, Gordon felt most comfortable becoming a Hawkeye.
“Iowa was my favorite all-around,” the engineering major said. “The swimmers here just seemed like a positive, driven bunch of guys who had unachieved goals to work for. It kind of went with what I wanted to do as a developing athlete — to be part of something up and coming.”
“We’re making this historic new dynasty here. Coming at the end of the old pool’s history and welcoming the new pool, I really feel like I had a lot to do with the history of this team. We’ve accomplished so much already, and the only way we’re looking is up.”
UI junior Paul Gordon
And as Gordon developed individually, he also contributed greatly to the developing Hawkeye program.
Long said Iowa swimming didn’t seem to have “much to offer” at the time it first contacted Gordon. The two seemed like the perfect fit — Long took a chance on an emerging athlete, while Gordon took a chance on a developing program.
When Gordon visited Iowa in 2007, the team was ranked low in the Big Ten, it had a new coaching staff, and the swimmers used the inadequate Field House pool. Still, he had faith in Long and the University, so he took a gamble on Iowa — a decision that proved to be the right one.
With a new, state-of-the-art facility, one of the most talented recruiting classes in school history, and the best conference ranking in 14 years, it is safe to say the Hawkeye swimming and diving program has come a long way since Gordon’s first visit.
In 2010, Iowa finished sixth in the Big Ten – its highest place since 1996. Gordon contributed to that milestone with a fifth-place finish in the 200 freestyle and sixth-place finish in the 100 freestyle at last year’s conference championship.
UI assistant coach Nathan Mundt, who joined the Aquahawks the same year as Gordon, said he has watched Gordon evolve right along with the Iowa program, and he is proud to have taken part in that development.
“Paul’s come a long way since freshman year,” Mundt said. “He’s become a man, for lack of better words. His strength has really improved, and he’s getting more confident every time he races. He has high goals for himself, and I think they’re very achievable.”
While Gordon has already made a splash on both the conference and national levels, he still feels a long way from meeting his full potential. Although he is the only Hawkeye swimmer to have already qualified for the 2012 Olympic trials and is ranked 22nd nationally in the 100 butterfly, Gordon insists on working hard to improve and remaining humble about his achievements.
Showing true leadership, Gordon has not abandoned his commitment to Iowa in pursuit of his own individual success. He said his ultimate goal is for this squad to qualify for the NCAA championship — an achievement the Hawkeyes narrowly missed last season. Two-a-day practice and spending extra time on the starting blocks will hopefully bring Gordon and the rest of the Hawkeyes closer to the feat this year.
Yet, as Gordon spends time-and-a-half in the Campus Recreation & Wellness Center pool, he has not forgotten the ultimate reason he came to Iowa — to obtain a degree and find a successful job after graduation. The electrical and computer engineering major (with a minor in business) admitted his biggest struggle is juggling school and swimming, and he sometimes finds himself making up missed practices alone because of class scheduling conflicts.
With a time-consuming major and high academic and athletic standards, 24 hour days don’t seem enough to accommodate everything Gordon wishes to accomplish. He has often considered switching majors to something less demanding, but instead of giving up, the persistent swimmer has found ways to balance his priorities.
This admirable quality makes Gordon an example in the pool and in the classroom, and Mundt considers him a “true student athlete” who is committed to his sport, his studies, his team, his family, and even his musical talent (somehow, he finds time to play guitar!)
While this Renaissance-man resume makes Gordon shine as a student and a swimmer, it is his modesty and fun-loving persona that make him stand out as an individual. As the Hawkeyes’ highest point-scorer, his relationship with the University is reciprocal — Iowa is fortunate to boast such an upstanding athlete, while Gordon said he is grateful for the opportunity to revitalize Iowa swimming.
“We’re making this historic new dynasty here,” Gordon said. “Coming at the end of the old pool’s history and welcoming the new pool, I really feel like I had a lot to do with the history of this team. We’ve accomplished so much already, and the only way we’re looking is up.”