Second place just wasn't cutting it anymore.
Connor Black was determined to go out on top. He had accomplished plenty during his swim career. But heading into February's state finals, the Mundelein senior had never before won an IHSA state championship.
"I had gotten seconds like four times," Black said. "My goal was to win this year."
Black not only won, he won big. And he was bigger than he ever had been while doing it.
A growth spurt that saw Black sprout to 6-foot-5 as a senior from 5-foot-9 as a freshman helped him finally break through, and smash two state records en route to winning two state championships. He won both the 50 freestyle and the 100 butterfly.
The sweet and unexpected cherry on top was that one of the records was also a national record. Black's swim of 46.71 in the 100 fly broke the old national high school record of 47.08.
"When you look at some of the things Connor has accomplished in swimming, it puts him the conversation of future swim stars in America," said Mundelein swim coach Rahul Sethna, who also marveled as Black became just the second swimmer in IHSA history to swim the 50 free in less than 20 seconds (19.95).
"When you break a national record," Sethna said, "you're talking about a select number of swimmers who can do that."
Also a select water polo player who led the Mustangs in scoring this year with 100 goals and was named all-sectional as a senior in just his third season in the sport, Black certainly merits selection as the Daily Herald's male athlete of the year for Lake County.
A near straight-A student who ranked in the top 2 percent of his class at Mundelein, Black will be taking his smarts and talents to the next level to swim on scholarship at Stanford, which he chose over Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and dozens of others.
"Stanford is consistently in the top 4 in the NCAAs each year," Black said. "It's the best team I looked at from an athletic standpoint. It'd be great to do well at the NCAA meet."
Beyond that, the potential path for Black gets even more big-time.
"Connor is in the Olympic pipeline," Sethna said. "He's definitely on his way. He's on that path. So much can happen between now and then, but it wouldn't surprise me if he made it. He's got that love and passion for the sport, which you really need in swimming, and he's only gotten stronger with each year."
Black's first taste of meaningful success in swimming dates back to when he was just 10 years old, about four years after he joined his first swim club. He was breaking state youth records and winning major swim meets, such as the Mid States Championships Meet in Indianapolis, which draws the best swimmers ages 14 and younger from four states in the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio).
But it wasn't until Black hit that crazy growth spurt in high school that his times really got good, and college coaches took notice.
"The size has really made such a difference," Black said. "You're taking the same amount of strokes, but as a bigger person, you're getting so much more out of it."
Back in February at the state meet, Black had a feeling that he'd be getting a lot out of his long, lean frame that day.
"I had a really fast warm-up that morning," Black said. "Coach (Sethna) said I was looking really good, so I knew I had a shot (at the national 100 fly record).
"It was pretty cool to get it. Everyone in the building knew about it and I had a good race against Andrew (Jovanovic, the second-place finisher and three-time defending state champ from Loyola). We were both going for it and we were pushing each other."
Usually, Black needs only himself for a push.
He says he loves the social aspect of swimming and getting to spend so much time with his teammates. But the real lure of the sport is the way it speaks to his competitive side.
"What keeps me in the water is that competitive drive," Black said. "I love to race other kids. I'm always trying to win."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.