The Indiana University men’s swimming team had finished third in the Feb. 29 Big 10 tournament at its own pool in Bloomington and was preparing for the NCAA Division 1 championship in Indianapolis when the COVID-19 pandemic began its stampede across the globe.
Sophomore swimmer and former Monona Grove athlete Ben McDade found himself returning to Wisconsin instead of being in one of his favorite places, a swimming pool.
“It was really tough to have this happen,” McDade said. “It was crazy how in 48 hours, things changed so abruptly.”
Yet, McDade certainly made progress in his second year as a collegiate swimmer as his times were significantly lower than in his freshman year. In the 2020 Big 10 championship, he finished 18th in the 1,650 freestyle with a time of 15:22.92 and ended up 20th as part of the Hoosiers 400 individual medley. He also managed a 31st-place finish in the 500 freestyle with a time of 4:27.22.
It’s been a long, glorious journey for McDade, who has had a loving relationship with water since age 3 when he first took up swimming.
“I swim because I like it. A lot of people like working out and being in shape. I do all those things,” McDade said. “I love being in the water, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
During his high school years at Monona Grove, McDade swam and trained all year long as his obsession with competition and winning constantly stayed inside of him.
In his freshman year, he was named the Wisconsin Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association swimmer of the year in WIAA Division 2 after winning the 200-freestyle and 500-freestyle at state in March 2015. McDade would go to win 15 times in state tournament competition, including individual and relay races.
Entering swimming mecca
It almost seemed natural for McDade to sign a letter of intent with Indiana, where swimming is like an organized religion. The university pool is wallpapered with banners honoring IU swimmers and their successes: NCAA All-Americans, Big 10 championships, and Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalists. One name remembered for his seven goal medals at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics is Mark Spitz, whose successes made him a worldwide celebrity.
“We as a team always strive to live up to our legacy,” McDade said.
But adjusting to the IU swim team’s regimen of training was not easy at first for McDade, especially when he also had classes to attend.
McDade trains with the team 20 hours a week, not just in the pool but also in the weight room.
Part of training includes the use of a weighted pulley while he is the water swimming. The contraption has improved McDade’s strength and lowered his swim times. Yet, he is also learning valuable lessons on how to be mentally tough when facing the pressure of competition.
“They are really big on teaching you to be mentally strong,” McDade said. “Sports in general are not just physical, they are mental, too. They teach us how to have grit and how to keep pushing when you don’t think you can.”
While balancing his studies with his demanding practice schedule has been difficult, McDade said he has learned how to better manage his time. He receives help from student athlete advisers.
“They help manage our time and make sure we are in the right classes,” McDade said. “They are the ones that hold us down and make sure we are on top of our studies. They are awesome.”
Chadesh fires him up
McDade said he would not have had the opportunity to swim at a Division 1 school without the help of Kelly Chadesh, his head coach at Monona Grove, who drove him to get better.
“I think Kelly Chadesh is the only person I ever met who is more competitive than I am. She was helpful at making sure I not settle at all,” McDade said. “If you had the best time of the season, she didn’t want you to be content. She was always pushing for greater and better things. That’s really helped me in college; to be able to have that competitive attitude has really helped me.”
COVID-19 cancelled the spring sports season at IU, but McDade is still striving to keep in shape and be ready when athletics are operating again.
“I don’t want to play this catchup game of spending two weeks to get back into shape,” he said. “I want to be ready to compete as soon as I get back in the water.”
McDade is double majoring in astronomy and physics, thinking about getting his master’s degree and PhD and perhaps one day settle down as a teacher. In the meantime, he has no regrets about attending classes at Indiana and enjoying the beauty of its campus.
“We have a really green campus. Every time someone takes down a tree to put a new building or a parking lot, you are required to plant two more,” McDade said. “There’s lots of room to walk. It’s nice to be outside. It’s a lot warmer.
“I’ve loved my two years there and I can’t wait for the next two. Our team is really like a family. It’s really a gift and an honor to be part of something so great.”