Growing up in Menasha, Wis., a small town 40 minutes from Green Bay, Michael Lagieski’s swimming began as a younger brother copying the older brother.
By his own admission, he didn’t start out a good swimmer. He didn’t display an overwhelming talent. His high school didn’t have a swim team, so he divided his time at first between football and club swimming before deciding it was too much.
He chose swimming, and once he did, he rediscovered his love for the sport and his development accelerated.
This week, Lagieski, a rising senior in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, will find out if he’s going to spend part of his summer in Brazil as a member of the U.S. Olympic Swim Team. He’s leaving this week for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Neb., where he will attempt to qualify for the 100-meter breaststroke.
To do so, he’s getting a few days off from his internship at the Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he is spending the summer doing research on brain tumors.
Neuroscience might seem out of left field for Lagieski, a mechanical engineering major, but he appreciates doing something that has not been done before. Not only is Lagieski a devoted student, but he also has a natural curiosity that melds into everything he does. Lagieski is up for the challenge.
Once he made that choice to concentrate on swimming, Lagieski said it seemed “like every swim was a personal best.” But because most of his experience came from the club level and his high school didn’t have a team, he wasn’t heavily recruited. While he fielded offers from some NCAA Division I schools, Lagieski chose Washington University.
“I’d get to be competitive and get the fantastic education,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was settling on either spectrum.”
Lagieski set his sights on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012, when his club coach took the team to the trial as fans. After the races, Lagieski said he thanked his coach, and then told him that next time he wanted to be in the pool.
“Coach Curt Beutler was the reason I wanted to achieve this goal,” he said. “He was the one that made me think it was possible.” Lagieski said he left the 2012 trials knowing it was attainable if he worked hard.
Qualifying has been four years in the making. In each of the three previous years, Lagieski has been within a half-second of qualifying — a mere two-tenths of a second the last time he tried.
It strengthened his resolve. Lagieski kept up an intense level of training throughout the offseason.
He got help from Washington University swim coach Brad Shively. “He has gone out of his way to write practices, be on the pool deck and help us in every way possible to achieve this goal.
“I can’t even put into words how much he was necessary for this to become reality,” Lagieski said. “Without Brad, I would’ve been done. He’s the reason I’m here.”
“He genuinely hates to lose, and that drives him,” Shively said. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s in or out of the pool. He is simply competitive. He is also a true student of the sport and combines that attribute with a tremendous work ethic.”
This May, Lagieski broke qualifying time at the Speedo Premier Spring Open in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. What made it even more special was that both college and club swim coaches were there to watch him.
Lagieski has a long list of accomplishments: NCAA Division III national champion in the 100-meter breaststroke; seven-time University Athletic Association champion; 13- time All-America honors; and now U.S. Olympic Team Trials qualifier.
But he will tell you his favorite memory is when his Washington University team took home sixth place at the NCAA Division III national championship two years ago in Shenandoah, Texas.
“I’m not trying to be ‘Mr. Team,’ ” he said. “The national championship was great, but it wasn’t better than having that sixth place (team) finish.
“And that kind of pushes us now because this year, we finished eighth and that was almost a disappointment. If we had finished eighth the year before it would’ve been awesome. Now, it’s almost expected to be better than that, to keep improving.
“As much as it’s the joy of having that sixth place finish, it also made us realize what we could be, where we had to go now.”
Lagieski likes to speak in “we.” Sometimes, he means his team, but oftentimes there is more to it. Lagieski is humble; it is never his own effort or accomplishment.
Swimming in the Olympic Trials has been a longtime goal, but it’s a goal he has shared with his coaches and teammates. In the same breath Lagieski speaks of his accomplishments, he continually mentions those who’ve helped him along the way.
That includes the classroom. Lagieski intends to use his degree to be at the forefront of discovery. He is interested in the aerospace industry, but curious enough for anything.
“He’s very competitive in everything he does, which drives him to be the very best he can be in the classroom and in the water,” Shively said. “He really thinks about what he does in practice, so we use a lot of equipment with him. I suppose practice is a bit like a laboratory for Michael. Pretty fitting for an engineer.”
Wherever he lands, he always wants to be pushing the boundary of what has been done before. But for now, he’s focused on the next swim meet. The one that could end with a ticket to Rio this August to represent the United States in the Olympics.