Monday, January 25, 2016

Profile: Oliver Wyeth, UMass Swimming

Sophomore Oliver Wyeth’s swimming career began with his face being soaked from salty tears rather than chlorine water.

At his first swim competition, the little boy’s fair skin was flushed the same color as the faded red lane lines that divided the pool. He threw a tantrum and refused to get in the water.

His parents, Shona McIntosh and John Wyeth, signed him up for swim lessons around the age of four. According to his mother, there's a strong emphasis to learn to swim at an early age in their native country of New Zealand given that it's surrounded by ocean.

Eventually, and after a few trials, he was willing to get in the water. With that decision would come a wave-pool of opportunity.

Early on, his natural talent was obvious. He was a much better swimmer than any kid his age, and kept progressing through every skill group, eventually until he was at the level where you could compete.

“For whatever reason I never quit, and the first time I did finally compete, I won. Once I got a taste of winning, and more of my friends started to do swimming, I began to enjoy it,” he admits.

Today Wyeth is 6’1’’ and a lean 175 pounds. He wears thick-rimmed glasses and his strawberry-blonde hair is cut relatively short, except for the longer top that’s swept to the side. He’s still swimming, but now at  the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he holds two school records and a pool record for his impressive backstroke.

His thick New Zealand accent remains, but don’t confuse him for an Australian or he’ll impatiently correct you. His close “mates” on the swim team are each capable of translating for others who aren’t used to some of the southern hemisphere slang he uses. 

His roommate and teammate, Alex D’Anna, teasingly points out that the only sweatpants he owns are jogger styles that are tighter at the ankle and that of his pants are tapered to his leg as well so he can roll up the hem.

Wyeth just rolls his eyes and mentions, in a matter-of-fact sarcasm, that it’s called “having style.”

His demeanor is cool and relaxed, with a dry sense of humor and a laid back confidence.

He casually rattles off a list of his swimming accomplishments, and talks about being the National Individual Champion back home in the 100-meter backstroke in 2009, 2010, and 2013, along with the 200-back in 2009 and 2010. 

In doing so, he mentions that he started playing underwater hockey with his god-brother as a joke, but ended up being good enough to make New Zealand’s U-19 National Team.
A team that, went on to win the silver medal at the world championship in Hungary in 2013.

Wyeth excelled at the sport, which is similar ice hockey, aside from the fact that players use snorkels, goggles, and a much shorter stick to try to move the puck around the bottom of the pool and score in the opponent’s net. 

“I never took underwater hockey too seriously because it was more just for fun. The world championships was a totally different experience,” said Wyeth. “I’d never competed at a stage that big in a team sport, and even though we did well, it was actually frustrating.”

“I enjoyed the team aspect of the sport up until that final. The team just let me down at times and it was really frustrating because I knew I was working my butt off but could feel that in the last 60 seconds, being down 1-0, other guys were giving up,” he continued.

At that point, his focus went back to swimming, where the outcome is completely up to him.

Wyeth was unable to defend his titles in 2011, when, after finishing in the top 15 in New Zealand Olympic Trials, he was infected with mononucleosis just before nationals. After underwater hockey, he set his sights on training to win them back and swim at a U.S. university.

In 2014 he finished in the top 10 in the world championship trials. Around the same time, he gave head coach of UMass Swimming Russ Yarworth a call.

“I started looking [at U.S. universities] way too late. I didn’t get my SAT scores or any of my visa stuff done until February, I’m pretty sure admissions had closed already when I reached out to Russ,” Wyeth explained.

Yarworth didn’t reply. He said that he receives many emails from foreign athletes and determining which ones are really interested, and can actually attend, is difficult. The 13-time Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year said that Wyeth was “lost in the shuffle” the first time he reached out.

“Once I responded, we seemed to develop a good electronic rapport. Then we had a great conversation via telephone,” said Yarworth, crediting them getting along so well to his own English background. Some expressions Wyeth used during their initial contact were very familiar to him.

Both Wyeth and Yarworth agree that they’ve developed a great friendship as well as coach-to-athlete relationship.

Yarworth said that in addition to Wyeth’s great sense of humor, he’s a very hard worker.

“Ollie enjoys being around his teammates, and he’s developing into a solid team leader,” he said.

Wyeth already broke school records this past year, and he’s only a sophomore. He said that he is doing exactly what he came here to do, thanks to his work ethic and support from him team and family.

“It is an amazing opportunity for him to attend college and swim in the United States. Of course we miss him but it is easy to communicate in today’s world,” his mother said. “We felt he should pursue his dreams and we saw it as the obvious next step in swimming.”

Wyeth has settled into American life and really enjoys living here, but still misses New Zealand from time to time. He added that he could never see himself living permanently anywhere other than his home country.

“I miss the relaxed vibe in New Zealand. Everyone is way more chill and there’s nothing to worry about. People are a lot more uptight here,” he explained.

When he does return home, he’ll always be reminded of his time here at UMass -  he has the Minuteman logo permanently tattooed on the upper right side of his back.

And the sport he initially hated will be a part of him forever.

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