LINCOLN — The summer before his freshman year at Omaha Creighton Prep, Rush Clark faced a tough choice.
Basketball and swimming are winter sports, so he couldn’t participate in both.
Then his performance at a pair of USA Swimming events in August 2016 convinced him that swimming was the way to go.
“That’s when I said to myself ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” Clark said. “I was ready to put in the work to become a really good swimmer.”
Clark made the right choice and will proudly dive into the Devaney Center pool Friday and Saturday to represent Prep at the 83rd edition of the boys state swimming and diving championship meet.
A big reason Clark decided to stick with swimming was to continue working with Tom Beck and be a part of Prep’s winning tradition. The Junior Jays will be aiming for their 13th consecutive state swimming team championship and 21st overall as the meet begins Thursday.
“Just knowing how he coached me and helped me grow before I got to Prep, that’s something I wanted to keep doing,” Clark said. “If your stroke and technique are technically sound, everything else will be fine. He instills that need to do the hard work.”
Beck is one of the most low-key coaches on the deck, but Clark and many teammates have figured out when the coach thinks things have gone well.
“If someone has a really good swim, you’ll see a little smile on his face,” Clark said. “If you get a (personal record), you’ll get a handshake. That’s when you know you did Tom proud.”
Clark has had plenty of those moments this season. At the Maroon and Gold Invitational at the University of Minnesota on Jan. 5, Clark set the state record in the 100-yard butterfly in 48.51 seconds.
“That was my goal for that meet, to get that off my chest,” Clark said. “We barely tapered for that. I had a junior meet three weeks earlier where I went 47.96. I’ve worked a lot more on my underwaters and breathing, because I need to keep a steady breathing pattern throughout the race.”
It was the first of six state records to fall that were set by former Prep star and North Carolina State senior Jacob Molacek before he graduated in 2014.
Molacek is someone Clark has looked up to. He hosted Clark during his recruiting trip to the campus in Raleigh, and advised him on spending extra time in the weight room.
“Everything he does, he does it at full tilt,” Beck said of Clark. “He’s been working with Prep’s strength and conditioning coach year-round.”
Hard work helped Clark elevate to a higher level this winter. At the 2018 state meet, Clark was sixth in the 200 individual medley and second behind teammate Colin LaFave in the 100 fly.
This year, Clark is attempting one of the most difficult doubles — back-to-back races in the 100 fly and 100 freestyle. Friday’s prelims will be the most difficult because Clark will have less than five minutes between races.
If he makes it to Saturday’s finals in both events, he’ll have more time — as there will be two girls races, the boys 100 free consolation final and a medal presentation between the events.
“The 100 free might be Rush’s second-best event,” Beck said. “He’s in such good shape that he recovers quickly. ... If I can convince him to relax a little on the butterfly, but sometimes that’s hard for him to do.”
But Clark has been mentally preparing for the challenge.
For a few weeks, Clark was on The World-Herald’s all-time chart in the 100 free in a three-way tie for 10th at 45.91 before Papillion-La Vista/Papillion-La Vista’s Luke Barr posted a 45.33 at the Metro Conference meet.
“I wanted to swim this double since the beginning of the season,” Clark said. “Even though they’re back-to-back, I can train for both of them. My goal is to be No. 1 on that list (100 free) as well.”
In doing that, Clark would become the second swimmer in state history to swim the event in under 44 seconds — and top Molacek. There are three other Junior Jays on the all-time 100 free list — Sean Tate (2015), Billy Kunkel (2009) and Coley Stickels (1996).
That’s what Clark came to Prep to do — put his name up there with some of the state’s all-time greats. Stickels is recruiting Clark now as the associate coach for sprinting at Indiana University. Clark also is pondering visits to Florida State, Texas, California and Arizona State.
But for now, Clark is focused on having a memorable weekend in Lincoln.
“The seniors remind us every year that we still need to be down to earth and do our very best in each and every event,” Clark said. “We want our hard work to pay off and win another state championship.”
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