Jonathan Novinski will have choices when state rolls around

Grand Island’s Jonathan Novinski is the only returning boys individual champion in the state this season. Novinski won the 500-yard freestyle.

A fast first month of the swimming season has left Jonathan Novinski with some decisions to make.

The Grand Island sophomore has posted automatic qualifying times in all eight individual events for the Feb. 22-23 state swimming and diving championship meet at the Devaney Center in Lincoln.

But swimmers are allowed to participate in a maximum of two individual events and two relays. Before he and his coaches decide which races to enter, Novinski will work to go even faster and lower the times he posted as a freshman.

“What I’ve worked on most is strength and endurance in the water,” Novinski said. “I’ve been working on a lot of core things in practice. If I train hard, I can be where I want to be by the end of the season.”

Novinski is the lone returning individual gold medalist from the 2018 state championship meet. He won the 500-yard freestyle in 4:39.04 after posting a 4:38.63 in the prelims. That prelim time ranks him No. 10 on The World-Herald’s all-time chart.

With the 4:41.35 he swam Dec. 15 at Lincoln Southeast’s Knight Invitational, Novinski is the season leader in the 500 freestyle. He also is ranked second in the 200 freestyle, third in the 200 individual medley, fifth in the 100 breaststroke and eighth in the 100 freestyle.

With that time in the 500 free, Novinski is less than three seconds away from his best time as a freshman.

“At the Knight Invitational, I was eight, nine seconds faster than last year,” Novinski said. “I want to be 10 seconds faster than I was last year at state.’’

If Novinski accomplishes that goal, he would be the new state record holder in the 500 free. Caleb Schuermann of Omaha Creighton Prep has owned the state record for almost a decade, with a 4:34.76 at the 2009 state meet.

Owning a state swimming record would give Novinski a chance to walk with his head a little higher around the house. Older brother Matthew is the state record holder in the 100 backstroke at 48.72.

“I can’t talk to Matthew that much because he’ll come back and remind me what he did in high school,” said Jonathan of his brother, who now is a sophomore on Wisconsin’s swim team. “Until I get those times that will really impress him, I’m not going to poke at him. Until then I have no room to talk.”

Islanders coach Brian Jensen said Novinski’s improved work ethic is apparent after he had a rough showing in a fall meet before the start of the high school season.

“He didn’t do too many meets but the biggest one was at Millard West,” Jensen said. “He got his butt kicked in the 500 there. But we did pound him pretty hard in a practice the day before. Still, he realized he had some work to do.”

The competition won’t be forgiving of a subpar performance at state in the 500. All eight swimmers in last season’s championship final are back, including Creighton Prep’s Daniel Perry, who defeated Novinski in October.

Getting better is about more than just having a more dedicated effort in practice. Jensen said Novinski has had to do a lot of work to make his turns faster, especially in the 500 where there are 19 turns to execute in a 25-yard pool.

“He needs to attack those a little more and come out of them a little faster,” Jensen said. “We have to make sure he’s not getting lazy on those turns when he gets times. That hurt him at state in the 200 last year because his turns were really bad. His left arm is a little late on his rhythm, so we’re trying to speed that up.”

Jensen said similar things about Matthew Novinski’s turns when he was working on chipping away at the 100 backstroke record during his four seasons with the Islanders. Jonathan has been working with weights to increase his strength.

“With swimming you don’t want to get too big, especially as a distance swimmer,” Novinski said. “It’s important to work on the muscles important to swimming, getting those stronger to help me improve in the water.”

While he likely will pick the 500 free as one of his two events, the options are wide open for the second.

Jensen said if Novinski wanted to focus on the 100 breaststroke, he would be better at that event than anyone in his family.

“He’s certainly the most versatile of all his family so far, and especially the breaststroke,” Jensen said. “If he wanted to seriously train it, he could go 56 or even 55 (seconds) in it. But he’s better at endurance.”