Catching up with Stefan Hirniak
Former Cavalier Stefan Hirniak (2004-07) recently set the world record as a member of Canada’s 4×200 relay team at the British Grand Prix in Leeds, England. Hirniak swam the second leg of the relay and helped the team finish in 6:51.05, beating the previous mark of 6:52.66 set in 2007 by Australia. (Watch Canada’s record-setting swim). Hirniak recently caught up with VirginiaSports.com to talk about his exciting summer, his favorite moment as a Cavalier and what he’s up to next.
Question: Take us through what you have been up to since graduating from UVa in 2007.
Hirniak: I drove across the country and moved to Victoria, British Columbia. I spent pretty much the rest of 2007 and 2008 training for a chance to make the Olympic Team.
Question: When you didn’t make the Olympic Team, how did you stay motivated to keep training hard?
Hirniak: I put myself in great position to make the Olympic Team and a couple of things went wrong during the meet. I didn’t have great races. So I took some time off. But I wanted another shot. I knew I wasn’t swimming up to my potential. So I came back in the fall and trained pretty hard, really focusing on World Championships. I had a good season and really swam well at our short course nationals in Toronto in April.
Question: How did you end up making the World Championship team?
Hirniak: On the first day I swam in the 200 free and 200 fly and as it turned out I missed the team in both events. I was not really sure if I would be able to come back and make it the next day. But I ended up finishing fourth in the 100 free and made the team.
Question: How did it feel to reach your goal of making the team?
Hirniak: After I made the team, the pressure was off. We went to Verona, Italy, for a 10-day prep camp and were able to relax. At this point I was really focused on the freestyle, where in the past I was more focused on the butterfly. But the 4×100 relay got all of my attention.
Question: How were World Championships?
Hirniak: We got to World Championships and it was such an amazing facility with a great atmosphere and everyone was ready to swim fast. Our 4×100 relay finished fifth at the Olympics so we wanted to have a good showing, but ended up missing the finals by .18 seconds. I anchored and swam a great time – but with the relays, all four of the guys have to be on.
Two days later I swam the 200 fly and broke the Canadian record. It was my best time since 2005 when I finished second to Michael Phelps at the U.S. Nationals. That moment (in 2005) really put me on the scene, and it has been a long road since then, so I was happy to swim well.
So then I ended up swimming the 4×200 relay at Worlds and had the second-fastest split in Canadian history (1:46.6) but we again missed the final and ended up 11th. I think that fueled everyone for Leeds – we knew we could swim better.
Question: After swimming in Italy, it was off to England. Where you excited to keep swimming?
Hirniak: Absolutely. We arrived in Leeds on Monday and everybody was tired, and wanted to be home, but our relay guys wanted to have a great meet. We knew we were capable having a really good showing. I was nervous leading up to the swim; I had performed well at Worlds and knew I would need to keep it up. So that is what it came down to. We all swam so well and ended up breaking the world record by 1.6 seconds. It was such a surreal moment and a great experience.
Question: What is your favorite moment from swimming at Virginia?
Hirniak: I had so many great memories because I had an amazing four years at UVa. I learned so much from Mark (Bernardino) and that, of course, is invaluable. My favorite moment was probably the 2006 ACC Championships when we won by six points on the last day. And the day before that, our 400 medley relay team just barely out-touched Florida State to really cement that win.
Question: Do you still feel like you will always represent the ‘Hoos?
Hirniak: I am so grateful to be able to continue to represent UVa even after I have left Charlottesville. Fran (Crippen) and I continue to represent our school on the international scene.
Question: You and Fran have had similar experiences over the past year. Do you still keep in touch?
Hirniak: Oh, yes. Fran was a year older than me in school and I really looked up to him. He was such a role model because he was dedicated and passionate in addition to being a hard worker. In 2004, he had a great shot at the Olympics. I trained with him every day in 2003-04 leading up to Trials. He had an even better shot in 2008 in the open water events. You train four years for that moment, and you pretty much have to be great on that day.
Question: What can you learn from those experiences?
Hirniak: I think what that has taught both of us is we are able to prepare better, and just get past that barrier of not worrying about being a contender and making the team. We are mentally strong enough to focus on medaling now.
Question: What’s next for you?
Hirniak: I will be at the alumni meet in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait for that. Then I will be training again for the Pan Pacific Games next August in Los Angeles and then the Commonwealth Games next October in India. But after the alumni meet I will head back to British Columbia and get back to work.
Question: What advice would you give to the current first year team members?
Hirniak: I would say try not to get overwhelmed by anything. In practice you’ll be training with some really fast guys and you’ll feel there is big pressure on you. But you need to trust your coaches and take their advice. Be able to learn, change, work hard, and have fun. That is the best advice I can give.