Jan. 16, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On his recruiting visit to the University of Virginia in the spring of 2012, Yannick Kaeser spotted the record board on the wall next to the pool inside the Aquatic and Fitness Center.
Among those who held school records at UVa was Ed Moses, a legendary breaststroker whom Kaeser, as a young swimmer, had admired. Maybe one day, it occurred to Kaeser, his name would be on the board, too.
“That was definitely one of my goals,” recalled Kaeser, who enrolled at UVa that summer, “but it was also hard to tell, since I’d never swum in a yards pool. So I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how fast I would be able to go.”
Growing up in Switzerland, in the small town of Mumpf, Kaeser swam primarily in 50-meter pools. As a Cavalier, he competes mainly in 25-yard pools, and the transition hasn’t always been easy for Kaeser, whose specialty is the breaststroke.
In a short-course pool (25 yards or meters), he must turn twice as often as in a long-course pool (50 yards or meters). When he arrived at UVa, Kaeser said this week, “My turns were just not good at all. They’re still not good, but they’re a little better.”
The record board at the AFC attests to that. In a preliminary at last year’s NCAA championships in Austin, Texas, Kaeser broke the UVa record in the 200-yard breast, finishing in 1:53.71. The previous mark (1:53.93) had been set by Ryan Hurley in 2009.
Then last month, at the Georgia Fall Invitational in Athens, Ga., Kaeser swam the 100 breast in 52.47. That broke the oldest school record at Virginia, the 52.60 swum by Moses in 2000. (Moses also won two NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal that year.) Moreover, Kaeser swam on the relay team that holds the school record in the 200 medley.
Just imagine what Kaeser, a 6-foot-2 junior, might accomplish as he adds strength and improves his technique in short-course pool. He weighed only about 155 pounds when he enrolled at UVa. He’s up to 172 now.
“Ten more would do him really good,” Virginia head coach Augie Busch said.
“I’m working harder in the weight room, because I’m still one of the weakest guys on the team,” said Kaeser, who’s ranked fifth nationally in the 200 breast and sixth in the 100 breast.
“I feel like I’ve constantly been improving over the last two-and-a-half years, so I just hope that it will continue.”
Fans can catch Kaeser in action this weekend at the AFC, where UVa hosts Virginia Tech in an ACC dual meet. Virginia’s women are ranked sixth nationally and its men 21st. The diving competition starts at 1:30 p.m. Friday. There will be two sessions of swimming, starting at 5 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday, respectively.
Kaeser, who’s fluent in German, French and English and also has studied Spanish, is in the global commerce track in UVa’s McIntire School of Commerce. Ask Busch about Kaeser, and the response is effusive.
“He’s awesome. He’s the best,” Busch said. “He’s really, really smart, and he’s a great guy, the most coachable guy.”
In the pool, Busch said, Kaeser’s “only glaring weakness — and it is pretty glaring — is his underwater pullouts.”
In the breaststroke, Busch explained, “after the dive and after each push-off of a turn, you get what’s called an underwater pull and an underwater kick.”
Kaeser has made some strides in his technique, Busch said, “but he still gets beat pretty solidly [underwater]. I wish — and he wishes, I’m sure — that he had had a chance to just focus more on turns [growing up in Switzerland].
“If this were a long-course meet, or NCAAs were long-course, he would be the champion. There’s no doubt about it.”
The good news for Kaeser, Busch said, is that “he’s nowhere near his full strength. He can be a lot better. He’s not going to be a real muscular guy no matter hard he lifts, but he’s just got to continue to try to put on a little bit of weight. That’s only going to help his pullouts.”
Because Kaeser is so slight, Busch added, his frame “doesn’t move very well through the resistant water, when you’re talking about doing an underwater pull and kick. So he needs to put on some more weight, which means more strength. To me, that will actually improve his turn a lot and his pullouts a lot, and once that happens, the guy’s going to be right there for the [NCAA] title next year in [the 100 and 200 breast].”
This year, Kaeser said, he hopes to place in the top eight in the 100 and 200 breast at the NCAA championships, scheduled for late March in Iowa City, Iowa, “and obviously I’ll try to lower the school records again.”
In a program stocked with talented swimmers, Kaeser, 22, is the only Olympian. He represented Switzerland in 2012 at the Summer Games in London.
“That was pretty awesome,” Kaeser said. “I finished high school in the summer of 2011, so I focused a whole year just on swimming, and it turned out to be a great decision. It’s not just the swimming part itself at the Olympics, but you meet all these people. You take pictures with [Olympians] like Usain Bolt. You see Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps, and you get to see other sports too.”
Yes, Kaeser said with a smile, he has a photo of himself with Bolt, “and obviously I took pictures with Roger Federer … The opening ceremony and just living in the Olympic Village, all that kind of stuff is really special, because that’s what you’re kind of dreaming about when you’re a kid.”
In the pool, he placed 24th in the 200-meter breaststroke in London.
“I was kind of overwhelmed by the whole thing, and I didn’t perform well at the Olympics,” Kaeser said. “I was a little bit more than a second over my best time. But I feel like if I qualify again in 2016, I will definitely be better prepared.”
At home, Kaeser swims for the Limmat Sharks, a club whose members include former UVa standout David Karasek, who also represented Switzerland at the 2012 Olympics.
When he learned Kaeser was interested in attending college in the United States, Karasek recommended Virginia.
“Swimming back home is not very big, and it’s hard to combine swimming and studying at the same place,” Kaeser said. “It’s completely different. You don’t swim for a college back home. So I was looking for a different experience, and obviously the U.S. has great facilities and great teams to do it. And so I asked a few swimmers from Switzerland that I knew that went to the U.S., to different colleges.”
He’s thrilled to be at UVa. Still, Kaeser’s college experience wasn’t always so positive.
“I would say it was kind of hard my first year, even the first one-and-a-half years, because just having to adjust to the whole new life,” Kaesier said. “I didn’t know anybody when I came here, so it takes time to build these relationships with the coaches and the teammates, to kind of feel like home again.”
Moreover, his English was not great when he arrived in Charlottesville, Kaeser said, so it “was hard for me also in classes to understand most of it, especially if there were complicated terms or words that I just didn’t know and I needed to translate them. So it took me longer to read easy assignments, but it’s better now.”
He spent two weeks home in Switzerland over the holiday break, enjoying time with his family and savoring the chocolate and the cheese, neither of which the United States can match, Kaeser said. “I don’t know why they call it Swiss cheese [in America],” he said, smiling. “It’s not really Swiss cheese.”
From Switzerland, he flew to Florida and joined the rest of the UVa team for training in Boca Raton. As always, the Cavaliers’ coaches were delighted to see Kaeser.
“His body language and everything are always in a good place,” Busch said. “He’s really soft-spoken, so he’s not going to be super-vocal and cheering a lot, but that’s all right. He races as hard as anyone.
“He’s made a lot of days a lot better.”