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A Relay 10 Years in the Making

5/9/2013

Boland, Ehrman, Bundas, Whitener (large)

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

They’ve been swimming together since they were eight years old. They started with Washtenaw Area Swimming Hornets. It lasted a year. Then they moved to Ann Arbor Swim Club. Then they merged with Wolverine Aquatics. Then they merged with Club Wolverine.

Then they made history.

This is a story of friends who swam together since they were kids. Since before they knew about national records or age group rankings. Before they cared about first place medals or college scholarships. This is a story about a group of friends coming together, training together, pushing each other, and ultimately, achieving the highest level of high school sports:

Breaking a national high school record.

Together.

Meet David Boland, Josh Ehrman, Michael Bundas, and Adam Whitener of Saline High School in Michigan. Three of them have been training together practically their entire careers. Michael, the (relatively) late bloomer, began training with the other three by the time they arrived at Saline High School as freshmen. But anyone who knows swimming knows that it isn’t just about lapping up and down a concrete pool. It’s about chemistry. It’s about your teammates. About friendships. When I asked the foursome one afternoon in April if they were all friends, unanimously, they agreed:

“Oh yeah.”

“Yes.”

“Definitely.”

“It’s a friendship that’s not just for high school. We’re going to stay in touch in college, too.”

In the beginning of the season, these Club Wolverine-trained swimmers didn’t expect to break the national record. They were just trying to figure out a relay order. But by the end of the season – in the first preliminary race of high school states – they broke the national record. Which wasn’t even necessarily their priority.

“I don’t think the relays were a priority,” Ehrman told me. “Going for four straight state titles was more of a priority than doing individual things.”

State Championships Over State Records Saline High School Banners
They had never lost, this Saline foursome. They had never tasted the depths of defeat. They had never hoisted a runner-up state trophy. Their entire careers, they had won team state championships. Though they swim for Club Wolverine throughout the year, they train with Saline High School during the high school season. Heading into their senior years, they did not want Saline’s streak of state titles to end. They wanted to close out their senior years having never lost, having become legends in their own right – a class that conquered the state of Michigan, again and again.

“We talked about national records, but the main goal was to make everyone get better and win states. We were short on depth. We wanted to make sure everyone was doing their part,” Bundas said.

Still, expectations were high. It’s tough to lose, but some might argue that it’s even more difficult to continue to win. You have the target on your back. You have the weight of the expectations. You have pressures. Their high school season began just after Thanksgiving, and a few weeks later, the team was going through what they label “Hell Week” – a grueling, intensive training period over the winter holiday break that’s intended to make or break a season.

“Our winter breaks are Hell Weeks; it’s two-a-days every day. But we just tried to have fun,” Bundas said.

David Boland chimed in. “We had the goal in mind all season, but we went through Hell Week beat up and exhausted. We still threw down some good times. We went 1:32 (in the 200 medley) in-season when we were absolutely dead.”

As the season continued, they knew they had a shot at a national record. But they still had details to work out. The order of the relay was tweaked through a trial-and-error process. David Boland hadn’t swam the backstroke before, but training over the summer with Eastern Michigan’s team helped him prepare. Whitener hadn’t swam the medley relay before their senior year. He didn’t know which stroke he would swim – fly? Free? Between prelims and finals at states, he switched strokes.

By the time the finals rolled around, all eyes were on Saline. They had their relay set. They had their order set. There they were, in the middle of the Holland pool, a state championship practically wrapped-up. All they had to see now was one thing:

How fast could these four best friends go?

A National Record Broken, But A Mission Not Completed
It happened not in finals, but in prelims. In the first event of the meet, as spectators were still sitting in seats and people were just settling in, Saline broke the national record. Right then and there. At first, it didn’t even compute with the Saline swimmers. They didn’t realize it. There was no announcement on the PA. They were focused on their team, the rest of their swims remaining in the meet, and warming down.

“We didn’t realize at first we broke the national record,” Ehrman said about that prelims session. “We broke it by one-one hundredth. We didn’t actually know.”

“We knew it was 1:30-point something,” Boland said. “We went back to the bench, realized we broke it by a hundredth, and went crazy.”

But they still had an entire prelim session to go, and then the next day at finals. They still had to defend their team state championship. After breaking the national record, they had to temper down their excitement. Whitener had the 200 freestyle right after the 200 medley, so he had to not get too excited. They each swam their races, but after the prelim session ended, they entered the final day as the underdogs. Birmingham Brother Rice had performed really well in the prelims, and they were considered favorites by some heading into finals.

“For finals, we were in a dogfight with Brother Rice. We were down by 30-something points going into the second day. We knew we had to step up.”

So, at the finals, when Saline re-broke the national record (but barely missed breaking 1:30.0), they felt good, but they knew they had even bigger relays to go.

“For me, the 200 free relay was more exciting,” Ehrman said. “We had to win it to win the meet.”

So, they re-broke the national record. Did they celebrate? Not really. Did they warm down and prepare for their next races?

Ultimately, that’s what champions do.

Saline won that 200 free relay. Then Saline’s divers placed well. The backstroke and breaststroke, Saline did well. Going into the 400 free relay, they had to get no lower than 6th. They got 4th. They won the team state championship by three points.

And finally, over an hour after breaking a national record and one team state championship later, this foursome from Saline could finally celebrate an undefeated high school career.

A New Chapter For Four Friends
Now, these four friends are heading off to other colleges. Ehrman is heading to Purdue. Bundas is going to Navy. Boland will attend Louisville. And Whitener will go to Virginia. Though they are going separate directions, they state that they will keep in touch and remain friends. After all, they have been through so much. They have won four state titles. They broke a revered state record (Birmingham’s 1997 200 medley record). They broke a national record.

“This summer, I want to go fast before college,” Whitener said.

“We took a few weeks off after high school season, but now we’re starting back,” Boland said.

They’re starting a new chapter in their swimming careers. But they’ll always remember this season. Like all graduating high school seniors, they’re heading off in different directions, but they will forever be bonded by one special moment.

I asked them, weeks later, if breaking a national record had sunk in yet.

They all reflected:

“It’s cool we did it on a relay,” Ehrman said. “Everyone has to have a good swim. You have to trust your teammates.”

“Winning a state title would have been enough for me,” Bundas said. “The fact that we got a national record, it didn’t set in. But once the gravity of the situation sinks in, it’s crazy to think about. With these four guys, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

“What they said,” Boland agreed and smiled.

“My heart was racing,” Whitener reflected. “The lasting effect of it is just amazing. That we have a national record, to think that, still amazes me.”

“As much as we got the experience of it, I like to know that we did it for Todd too,” Bundas added about his high school coach at Saline, Todd Brunty. “Todd put in the work. We gave him something to remember about us.”

Then Bundas paused, and smiled.

“And for our community, and Michigan swimming, too.”

A journey that began so long ago is now complete. Though these four friends will depart in completely opposite directions, they will forever be unified. It was a process that technically took one minute and thirty seconds (and one one-hundredth) to complete, but the journey itself for these close-knit friends was nearly ten years in the making.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.