By Edward Weinman
Photo: Matt Banderas ’04
When Karl Mering ’15 stands on the starting blocks, he normally feels no pressure. The swimmer, who excels in the 100 and 200 yard butterfly, relies on his classical piano training to calm his anxiety.
“Swimming and playing the piano are both performances,” he said. “Playing recitals has helped me to not let the anxiety of a performance take over.”
However, at the NCAA Division III National Championships, held in Indianapolis, Ind., March 19 to 22, the piano performance major felt the jitters. Despite finishing sixth in the 100 yard preliminaries thanks to his goggles falling off, he considered himself a contender to win nationals.
“I had the expectation that I should win, not that I would, but that I should win nationals,” Mering said.
The expectation made sense. He dominated the 100 yard butterfly the entire season, so the pressure was on in the finals. He felt it in his stomach.
Race officials “bring you to a ‘ready room,’ where you sit down for like 15 minutes with all your competitors. You’re all ignoring each other. Brooding over the race. Then they line you up and walk you out. It created so much anxiety,” Mering said.
Normally, he said he listens to music before a race, because it “gives you some distraction. But I didn’t this time. I was too nervous to listen. I was trying to get into my head and focus on my race.”
Despite not listening to Schubert’s piano sonata in B-flat, his favorite piece of classical music, and despite a “really long flip-turn into the last wall,” Mering closed out the last 25 yards of his race strong and won.
“I was coming off that last wall and thought, ‘Just put your head down and get to the finish as fast as you can.’ I got to the wall and couldn’t read any of the names. But then I saw the number one by my name. I was like, ‘Oh my, God.’ I was so happy.”
His title-winning time of 47.91 edged out Samuel Gill from Connecticut College by a whisper – .01 of a second.
The 5,000 calories of food he ate per day this season, and the 6,000 yards he swam at each practice, paid off. Mering became Whitman’s first-ever national champion.
Oh, by the way, he also finished third in the 200 yard butterfly.
“Karl is the real deal,” said Whitman’s swim coach Jennifer Blomme. “He’s a big, strong swimmer with terrific mechanics. He gives incredible attention to detail – from how many kicks off the wall, to the number of strokes he takes in his first length, to his race strategy – he’s a really smart swimmer.”
Plus, he has size 13 feet. That helps. But the key to Mering’s success?
“First and foremost, you need to have the desire to go to practice,” he said. “That starts with a good team dynamic. A fun team atmosphere makes the grind of practice easier. That’s number one in being successful.
“You also need to have goals. Maybe not concrete goals. Mine were short term, focusing on what I can do right now in this set to be successful. Focus on the task at hand while keeping in mind how awesome it would be to do well at the end of all this. That’s what helped me get through all the practices.”
And where is Mering’s national championship trophy?
“My parents have it.”