by Keith Peters
Tom Wilkens didn't expect to be a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic swimming team. And he wasn't. The Stanford junior finished fifth in the 200-meter individual medley and fifth in the 400 IM, well back from the top two who qualified in each event and earned a trip to the Summer Games in Atlanta.
"I just wanted to gain experience and to be there," he explained of the '96 national meet in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
The next U.S. Olympic swim trials, however, will be different. Wilkens hopes to be one of the veterans by then and make the USA team that goes to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Games.
In order to accomplish that goal, Wilkens must first move among the world's elite swimmers. Right now, the Cardinal senior-to-be sees himself as a step away.
"I want to put myself up another level," he said. "I feel I'm only one more step away from that really elite level."
Those are the swimmers who make the international teams, something Wilkens can accomplish by finishing among the leaders at the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships, July 26-Aug. 1 at the Tracy Caulkins Competition Pool in Nashville, Tenn.
This meet will determine the U.S. teams for the 1997 World University Games, 1997 Pan Pacific Championships and 1998 World Championships (in Perth, Australia).
"Just getting that kind of (international) experience will help me," Wilkens said.
It was at last summer's national championship meet that Wilkens made quite a splash.
He won the 200-meter breaststroke in 2:15.82, won the 200 IM in 2:03.19), won the 400 IM in 4:18.76) and took second in the 100 breast in 1:03.50. Both IM times bettered what he had clocked at the Olympic trials.
For his effort, Wilkens won the Outstanding Performance Award and the Kiputh Award as the meet's high-point winner.
While his performance was tempered by the absence of Olympic team members like Tom Dolan and Eric Namesnik, Wilkens nonetheless swam times that were close to those who qualified for Atlanta.
"Others took last summer lightly," Wilkens said. "I trained hard."
That hard work has carried over into the 1996-97 school year, during which Wilkens continued to improve. He capped his junior season by setting a school record of 3:45.59 while winning the NCAA title in the 400-yard IM. That helped Stanford finish second at the meet.
"I didn't swim as well as I had hoped," Wilkens said of the NCAAs. "To be able to win that (400 IM) and not swim that well was great."
Wilkens used the recent Santa Clara International Invitational as a tuneup for Nashville. He was second in the 200 breast, third in the 400 IM, sixth in the 100 breast and seventh in the 200 IM.
"I was pretty tired," he explained. "We trained hard the day before the meet. My times were mediocre." But faster than last year's. That gives him hope for nationals.
Wilkens sees the 200 IM wide open since the retirement of Olympians like Namesnik. In the 200 breast, Wilkens will face former Stanford teammate Kurt Grote, a '96 Olympian in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes. Grote, who decided not to fully retire after the Atlanta Games, is rated as the nation's No. 1 performer in the 200 breast.
Wilkens also has a good shot in the 400 IM, even though Dolan is expected to swim off with the title and Chad Carvin should be in the hunt.
Wilkens has no designs on duplicating what he did at last summer's nationals. He'll be satisfied with swimming fast and making some international teams.
"Yeah, I'll be very satisfied," Wilkens said. "I just want to keep improving year by year. I think I have a couple more years to improve. As you get older, you learn more."
Tom Wilkens, for one, hopes to learn enough to get him that trip to Sydney three years from now.
Wilkens will be just one of many local swimmers competing in Nashville. Stanford will be represented, as usual, by a large group--including current members Sabir Muhammad, Dod Wales, Tate Blahnik, Glenn Counts, Scott Claypool; incoming freshmen Jeremy Kane from Los Gatos High and Steve Brown from Reno; and graduates like Grote and Brian Retterer.
On the women's side, Stanford graduate Jenny Thompson should swim her way onto the World Championship team in any number of events. Others to watch include incoming freshman Misty Hyman, a former world recordholder in the short course 100-meter butterfly. Palo Alto High seniors to be Jeff Hopwood and Caroline Kilian also will be in the meet.
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