By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Michael Klueh swims on. He lives and trains in Ann Arbor, Michigan, pursuing a dream that nearly came true last summer.
Klueh, an ace freestyler who was a multiple Big 12 Champion and American record-holder at Texas, just missed making the Olympic team not once, but twice. He finished 3rd in the 400m freestyle. Then, just a few days later, he finished 8th in the 200m freestyle.
“I got 3rd the first night in the 400. Then two days later I was 8th in the 200 free, and with Phelps pulling out [of the 200m individual freestyle], I was 3rd and 7th,” Klueh says. “It was a heartbreaking few days.”
Klueh is now twenty-five years old. Looking back at Trials, he felt positive about the experience because he did swim well. But he’s not looking backwards; he’s looking forwards to the future. While Klueh is not a young buck anymore, he also has plenty of fast swimming ahead of him. He’s a veteran now, maturing, becoming physically and mentally stronger. But being a twenty-five year old professional swimmer is tough these days and in this economy. If you graduated college and you did not qualify for the Olympics, there are few big sponsorships or endorsement opportunities available. And if you just miss qualifying for the Athlete Partnership Agreement stipend (USA Swimming’s financial support system for those U.S. athletes who qualify) training expenses and living expenses can add up. Many swimmers retire.
Not Klueh. After taking only five days off after Trials, Klueh hit the water training, even though he wasn’t completely sure how he would afford it. But now, the Indiana native is able to keep swimming because of a Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation “Work The Dream Grant” he received in January. The grant provides much of the necessary costs for training and traveling. Though he receives some money for traveling as part of being on the National Team, Klueh says that oftentimes, it’s not enough to make ends meet. So now he can afford to swim on.
“[The grant] is used to help me pay for training expenses and traveling to meets,” Klueh says. “I’m just on the outside of making the APA stipend. Something like this is huge in keeping me in the sport. It’s been a huge blessing that alleviates a lot of stress, how I could justify doing this when I can’t really afford it.”
But what people don’t know is that this grant was actually passed on to him by another post-graduate swimmer. This grant was actually first awarded to Bobby Bollier, a former Stanford swimmer. And the story of how this grant was passed on, and the spirit behind it, is a touching story about two swimmers connected by the memory of another.
Passing It On
Bobby Bollier, 23-years-old, could have taken the money. He was originally awarded it. He applied for the Work The Dream Grant last October and he was awarded the monthly financial award (which is around $1,000 a month) to help with his own goals and dreams and training expenses. But when Bobby first applied for the grant, he thought he had not qualified for the Athlete Partnership Agreement stipend.
To qualify for the stipend, you must be Top-16 in the world. Which Bollier was in 2012. Bollier, like Klueh, had also just missed his dream at the 2012 Olympic Trials, finishing 3rd in the 200m butterfly. But he thought he had originally qualified for the stipend. After Trials, Bollier took two months off. He moved back to Palo Alto to resume training. Then he was told that he had not qualified for the stipend, despite being ranked in the Top-16. Apparently there were so many U.S. swimmers who qualified for the stipend, he was on the bottom end, and he just missed the cut.
“I was ranked top 16 in the world, except it ended up that too many people had qualified,” Bollier says. “Because I was the lowest ranked of all those people, I got bumped off the list.”
Bollier, who, like Klueh, had already committed to another year of swimming after Trials no matter what happened, scrambled for money. He was supported by his family, but he still wanted to be sure he could afford to keep swimming another year. So he applied for the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation Work the Dream Grant, which he was awarded. He felt relieved.
“I had already committed to an extra year,” Bollier says, who studied mechanical engineering at Stanford. “I started moving out to CA which is an expensive place. I was really freaking out the last week of August. I was stressed and didn’t know what was going on, or what would happen. I found this Fran Crippen Elevation grant, and that looked like a great opportunity to secure some money.”
Then he got a call: Turns out, he got the APA stipend. Enough athletes ahead of him retired, he was put back on the list. So, where just a few months prior he was financially stressed, now he had more than enough support through both the Athlete Partnership Agreement stipend and the Fran Crippen Elevation grant that he was more than comfortable. He had enough money. He didn’t need it all. And he felt that another swimmer, whoever finished runner-up in the application process, should receive the grant.
So he decided to pass it on.
“Maybe one person, some people in the Athlete partnership program announced their retirement. I got moved into that category. Which means starting in January, I got the full stipend. Because that happened, the entire rational for applying for the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation grant was gone,” Bollier says. “The situation had changed, and I needed to terminate the grant because the purpose is to help people who are in need.”
Bollier added: “I never knew Fran personally, but I knew he would be looking for as many ways to get people swimming and reaching their goals to the best of their ability. He wouldn’t be keeping resources for himself at the cost of other people. That’s not something he would have done.”
The Spirit of Fran Lives On
Two swimmers. Two near-misses at the Olympic Trials. Two athletes who had committed to swimming another year through 2013, despite whatever happened at Trials. Two people who needed some money to keep the dream alive in this tough economy.
Michael Klueh and Bobby Bollier once trained together in Fullerton a few seasons ago, but they have not discussed the grant. Now and forever, they are connected by the spirit of Fran Crippen. Crippen, whom the grant is named after and who tragically passed away during an open water race in 2010, was an advocate of swimming. He loved the sport of swimming and would want nothing more than to see his Foundation helping other swimmers to keep on enjoying the sport as long as possible.
“I contacted the Crippens, and I said, ‘I am relinquishing this,’” Bollier says. “Please consider giving this to whoever was the runner up.”
It couldn’t have happened to a better, more deserving candidate than Michael Klueh. This is a guy who grew up in a swimming family in Indiana and then moved to Carmel in high school to train. Seeking an even more challenging atmosphere, Klueh then moved hundreds of miles away to Texas, to swim under Randy Reese, to pursue his dreams even further. He just missed the Texas NCAA Championship title (he graduated the year prior). He just missed making the Olympic team twice in 2012 and once in 2008. He gave up high school friendships and family relationships and lived in total pursuit of a dream. He has come so agonizingly close to the Olympics. And now, because of the kindness and spirit of another, the 25-year-old gets another chance.
“My ultimate goal would be an Olympic medal,” Klueh says. “That’s what I always grew up dreaming about. (Not making the Olympics) didn’t really kill my dream but it made the fire for that drive bigger and made me want that even more.
Bollier adds: “I just want to acknowledge how extraordinary the Crippen family is. They make the swimming community as a whole a closer place. They deserve all the credit they can get. They are an extraordinary family and do so much for USA Swimming and swimming in general.”
Now, Bollier trains in Palo Alto with a post-graduate Stanford training group of seven people. Klueh trains in Ann Arbor with a post-graduate Michigan training group consisting of around the same number. These are two athletes who experienced the heartache of just missing an Olympic dream. But, in the aftermath of that miss, something wonderful has resulted: One athlete passing along financial support to another. One swimmer helping another to keep swimming.
It’s exactly what Fran would have wanted.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.