Jeff High senior to compete against Michael Phelps for spot on 2012 Olympic team


by Gene Kang

Posted on May 22, 2012 at 5:57 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 22 at 8:51 PM

JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. (WHAS11) -- He’s one of the fastest swimmers in the state of Indiana, competing for a top spot with the best in the world.

Jeffersonville High School senior Zach Blankenbeker is vying for a spot at 2012 Summer Olympics in London and WHAS 11 News was poolside as he trained to compete against a world champion.

"In two months, I'm going to be up against the best swimmers basically in the world. It's crazy to just think about that to go from Jeffersonville High School to Omaha, Nebraska to face Michael Phelps," Blankenbeker said.

Michael Phelps is the current world record holder and winner of 16 Olympic medals. After graduating with honors next month, Blankenbeker is headed to Nebraska on June 28 to compete against a pool of about 80 swimmers in the 200-meter butterfly. The top two make it to the Summer Olympics.

Humbling for Blankenbeker, he is the only high school student from the state to qualify.

"To be honest my goal when I go up there is to break 2:00 and hopefully get top 16 in the nation, that's my big goal," Blankenbeker said.

Sights set high, Blankenbeker said it all started at an early age.

He was only 5-years-old when his father, an alum of Jeff High's swim team himself, got him into the Pacesetter Aquatics team.

WHAS 11 News asked: "At 5-years-old did you have any idea what you were being trained for?"

Blankenbeker said: "I learned how to swim and my dad brought me in here and he led me to the record board and he said son someday your name is going to be up there."

His name is on there. In fact, four times. There are two pool records and two high school records, just like his dad said.

But this is not your miracle story. This teen wasn't born in water with fins.

Jeffersonville High School head varsity swim coach, Keith Gast, trained him for more than a dozen years, sometimes with tough love like family.

WHAS 11 News asked: "Do you believe in natural born talent? Do you see that in Zach or is that something can be trained over the years?"

"Zach came in at about that time he was nine. Zach said I want to be a champion and there were a lot of times that I doubted his natural ability to be a swimmer. He's not 6'3". He's very broad in the shoulders, he doesn't have the natural kicking attributes that some of the top guys do," Gast said.

A typical day for Blankenbeker means he trains in the pool for an hour before school.
He hits the books, then masters his technique for two hours after class. In all, Blankenbeker trains about 19 hours a week while also making Academic All American and All State.

"I remember once when I was little, I was 12, and I was racing this 16-year-old guy and you're like 'how am I in the heck going to beat this guy,' you know? But that's something again you're going to have to conquer within yourself," Blankenbeker said.

He won that competition and many others since. Now it’s the same situation, different waters. Blankenbeker will face off against Phelps, college-level and professional swimmers twice his size.

Somehow, he's fearless even with butterflies in his stomach.

"When I get nervous it's because it tells me basically that I really do care about this and I want to do well," he said.

Blankenbeker will try out for the U.S. Olympic Swim Team on June 28, four days later, he’ll head to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and swim for the Black Knights.

He said his mother and friends are huge supporters and if he doesn’t make it this year, he’ll try out again in 2016.

"His heart is what makes the difference. He decided he wanted to be a champion," Gast said.