By Wynne Kirchner
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Jack Saunderson was in a place he never expected.
Standing behind the starting blocks at the IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis, the Towson University sophomore was waiting to swim the biggest race of his career.
It had been a long season of racing – and he was tired – but Saunderson had one more challenge ahead of him. And as he glided through the water in the 200 butterfly at the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships on March 25, he fought hard through the pool and placed in the top 16 in the meeting, the highest finish for a Towson swimmer in history.
“It was awesome to go and swim against swimmers from the best schools in the country,” said Saunderson, who qualified for the meet by swimming a top 30 time in the country, a feat only one other male swimmer has accomplished in Towson history.
Jake Shrum, his coach, says Saunderson’s build as a tall and slender man with long limbs helps him immensely in his preferred butterfly stroke.
“Jack makes the 200 fly look easy, which should never happen,” Shrum said.
Saunderson is quick to counter: “Maybe it looks easy to some, but I am dying at the end of that race. Oh my god, it hurts so bad.”
Saunderson, a native of Laurel, began swimming for the Columbia Clippers swim team when he was 7 years old. He said it was not exactly a love at first stroke. While he enjoyed the water, his club coach, Jeff Scrivener, said that he was “nothing special” when he was younger.
Scrivener said Saunderson was shy early on and it took years before he started to get more comfortable with himself. His shyness also led to getting nervous before races, which Scrivener said continues to this day.
“I make sure he doesn’t know where he is seeded in a meet,” Scrivener said.
Over time, Saunderson improved and was being recruited by colleges his senior year. He knew he wanted to swim at the Division I level and thought that the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) had the right balance of competition and proximity to home.
When he visited Towson, he knew it was the place for him. He fell in love with the campus and loved the friendly environment of the team, so he committed to the Tigers.
However, things at Towson turned sour early in Saunderson’s freshman year.
The team was rocked by a scandal when a cell phone belonging to the former diving coach was found in the women’s team locker room recording them. One coach was terminated. Two other coaches resigned. (See correction below).
Saunderson said there were some difficult months in the aftermath. Morale was low, practices were different, and attendance was declining, he said.
He said he was looking into transferring like many other swimmers had done, but he realized he had already made many good friends at Towson and wanted to ride it out.
“I did, (consider transferring) honestly, but just looking where I am now, with the people surrounding me, especially my friends and teammates, it’s just the support they’re giving me, I don’t think I could ask for any more,” he said.
Saunderson is also quick to give credit to Shrum, who he said was a big reason for the turnaround.
When the scandal hit, Shrum was an assistant coach for the Tigers, but was elevated to the interim head coach for the remainder of the season in November 2015, a title that became permanent in April last year.
Shrum’s consistency and positivity through the tough times led Saunderson to having an outstanding freshman year. He placed third in the 100-yard butterfly, and won the 200 butterfly in a meet, Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and Towson school record. His success led him to being conference rookie of the year.
That summer, he was able to swim at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, where he placed 42nd overall. Saunderson said it was one of the coolest experiences of his career.
He followed that up later in the summer with an outstanding swim at the U.S. Open, where he placed fifth in the 200 butterfly with the best time of his career. Riding a high from the summer success, Saunderson hit the ground running early in his sophomore season.
Shrum said that there was finally a stability in the program that was not there the year before.
Shrum said Saunderson’s work ethic is exceptional and that he is a master at not limiting himself mentally.
“Jack is kind of oblivious to what he is doing,” Shrum said. “He just goes in and gets the work done.”
When Saunderson came into the CAA championship this year, he had lofty goals and was thinking about NCAA’s in the back of his mind. He stepped up huge for the team, winning both the 100 and 200 butterfly in meet, conference and school record times.
His time in the 200-fly put him close to qualifying for NCAA’s, but Shrum knew it was not enough.
“As soon as I saw the time, I was excited and happy that he won, but I knew based on what I’d seen from some of the other conferences that he was going to be on the wrong side of the bubble,” he said.
Shrum quickly got Saunderson into another meet that would give him one last chance to qualify. It was at that meet where Saunderson improved just enough to make it to NCAA’s, or so he thought.
The drama was far from over. Shortly after the last chance meet, the NCAA announced that the times from that meet would not count, which devastated both Saunderson and Shrum.
“It was really frustrating for me…I was disappointed, but I was just trying to get over it,” Saunderson said.
However, after some back and forth, the time was approved and Saunderson was cleared to compete at the NCAA meet.
“Once the great news came back, it was an awesome feeling and I was very happy,” Saunderson said.
Shrum said that Saunderson is a pretty relaxed swimmer who knows how to handle pressure well. But he could tell the nerves were getting to Saunderson before his first race at NCAA’s.
Saunderson said that the noise of the crowd and the energy was crazy, adding that he realized he was truly a small fish in a big pond at the meet.
His first swim, the 100-yard butterfly, was not the greatest, but both Shrum and Saunderson knew that getting the first nerves out were huge and expected a better swim the next day in his best event.
Shrum hoped that Saunderson could go 1:42.5 or better in the 200 butterfly, which would be his best time. However, Saunderson had bigger plans. When Saunderson got out fast and held his form the whole way through, Shrum knew something special was going to happen.
“When Jack turned with two lengths to go, I realized he was going to under 1:42 and I started to shake,” Shrum said.
Shrum was right.
Saunderson touched in a time of 1:41.84, which was a new school and league record. Saunderson also placed 12th overall after the swim, which meant he was going to swim again that night. Saunderson was now among the nation’s elite 200 butterfly swimmers.
While Saunderson did not have the best swim that night, he still finished 16th overall and garnered an Honorable All-American honor. Perhaps even more significantly, he became the first Towson male swimmer to ever score at the NCAA meet.
Saunderson said this has been the best year of swimming ever for him and he cannot wait to see what lies ahead in his future. He admits he has not thought much about his individual goals going forward, but knows that he wants to bring a conference team title back to Towson before his career is over.
“Going into college, NCAA’s was a goal in the back of my mind, but I never thought it was a goal I could actually accomplish,” Saunderson said. “For it to actually happen was a truly special experience.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that three coaches associated with Towson’s swimming and diving team had been terminated. Only one coach was terminated. Two others resigned.