Swimming phenom David Plummer working on his Olympic dreams in familiar Minnesota territory

David Plummer celebrates winning the Men's 100m Backstroke at the U.S. National Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif., Aug. 4.
REUTERS/Mike Blake
David Plummer celebrates winning the Men’s 100m Backstroke at the U.S. National Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif., Aug. 4.

In his life, as well as in his swimming, former University of Minnesota All-American David Plummer prefers things simple and predictable.

Sprawling, noisy cities? Not for him. Training with a big-time swim club? Not his style. He knows what he likes, and anything outside of that makes him uneasy.
“I don’t like a lot of change in my life,” Plummer said as he sat in the stands at the Minnetonka Aquatics Center recently. “I like to get up and know exactly where I’m going. I’m not a huge fan of living in a really big city. Probably the U was the closest I’ll ever be to that, which was great. But I don’t really want to do it again.”

Familiarity brought Plummer, a 2008 Minnesota graduate, back to the Twin Cities after a year-and-a-half in Ohio, where his girlfriend Erin Forster attends medical school at Wright State University in Dayton. If Plummer were to achieve his goal of swimming at the 2012 Olympics, he felt he needed to be around coaches who knew him, in an area he felt at home.

So last January, Plummer returned to train with old friends. Minnetonka Swim Club Coach Ben Bartell swam at Minnesota with Plummer’s older brother Ryan. Bartell’s two assistants, Dan Berve and Zach Wood, were teammates of Plummer at the U. The club provided some living expenses and placed Plummer with a host family, Dave and Amy Busch, who live a short drive from the pool. In return, Plummer agreed to help coach the club’s younger swimmers and write a blog for the Aquatics Center web site.

“It’s the comfort factor,” said Plummer, 25, who grew up in Oklahoma City. “It’s knowing Ben really well. His way of training and my way of training line up really well. And I have so many friends here.”

Said Dennis Dale, the longtime University of Minnesota swimming coach who trained them all: “I think it’s a really good deal for everybody involved.”

It sure looks that way. Eight months after returning, Plummer scored the biggest victory of his career, stunning world record-holder Aaron Peirsol in the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif., in August. Plummer’s time of 53.60 seconds edged Peirsol, the two-time Olympic champion, by 0.03 of a second. The race was so close that Plummer couldn’t tell who won until the times were posted, even though he was looking at Peirsol when they reached for the wall.

David Plummer
David Plummer (2008)

“I think it’s probably, as of now, one of the best swims I’ve put together,” Plummer said.

The national championship earned Plummer a small training stipend from USA Swimming and automatic berths in the short and long-course world championships. For Plummer, this weekend’s Minnesota Grand Prix at the University Aquatic Center will serve as a tune-up for short-course worlds in Dubai next month.

The meet, which began Friday and runs through Sunday, features preliminaries at 9 a.m. each day and finals at 6 p.m. (5 p.m. on Sunday). Tickets, available at the door, are $10 per session; an all-sessions pass is $50. Plummer was to compete in the 100 butterfly and 100 breaststroke on Friday as well as Saturday’s 100 backstroke.

Olympians Ryan Lochte, Ricky Behrens, Chloe Sutton and Christine Magnuson also are expected to swim. Peirsol never committed to the meet, while Michael Phelps, who planned to participate, withdrew.

Plummer hopes to become the first Gopher to make a U.S. Olympic swim team since 1964, when Walt Richardson and Virgil Luken made up half of the gold medal-winning 4 x 100 medley relay. (Diver Craig Lincoln won a bronze four years later.) Dale counts nine Olympians among the swimmers he’s coached in 25 seasons with the Gophers, but all were from outside the United States.

Dale couldn’t remember any of his former swimmers training locally for more than a year or two after leaving the Gopher program. Many post-collegiate swimmers with Olympic aspirations gravitate to such elite programs as Longhorn Aquatics in Texas (Peirsol’s home base) or Club Wolverine in Michigan (Phelps and Tom Malchow), to be challenged by swimmers with the same goals.

“That’s not for David,” Dale said. “He grew up without being around athletes as good as he was. He knows you just have to focus on the things you need to do.

“This is a great opportunity for David. And David was mature enough to recognize, if he was going to make a go of it, this is where he needed to be.”

Plummer said his girlfriend came to that conclusion before he did. Plummer had been training and coaching with Cincinnati Aquatics, and wasn’t sure how to support himself financially as an Olympic hopeful. Bartell offered guidance and the use of a state-of-the-art facility, upgraded in 2009 at a cost of $6.1 million.

“Actually, Erin was like, if [Bartell] has all the resources you need, then maybe that’s the place you should be in,” Plummer said. “I broached the subject with him, and he said, absolutely.

“It was tough, but it sort of got easier and easier the more we looked at it. I think one of the biggest things we looked at was, in 2012, we have an opportunity with each other that she can graduate med school and I can go to the Olympics. That’s sort of the big goal for both of us. If we can make that happen in 2012, get the work done between now and then, then that will be worth it. We’re both going for something that’s really, really important for us. If it pays off well in the end, we’ll be fine with it. And it’s paying off already.”

Beating Peirsol not only established Plummer nationally, but reflected his work with Bartell. Usually a slow starter, Plummer often overworked his next few strokes to catch up, then tired at the end. By keeping an even pace throughout, Plummer stayed with Peirsol in the final 20 meters before out-touching him at the wall.

“I think he was impressed in how I swam, the race, just because I didn’t get overly excited in the first 50 and I was really able to hold it together and get my hand on the wall,” Plummer said. “I think we swam the race almost exactly the same.”

Afterward, a gracious Peirsol told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve been swimming against Dave for 10 years now. He’s always been very good. He’s always been one of those guys who had a very pretty stroke.”

Plummer splits his two-a-day workouts between the U, where he also uses the weight room, and Minnetonka. This weekend likely marks the only time this season he will compete locally.

“I’m sure there’ll be a big crowd of people from Minnetonka cheering him on,” Dale said. “He’s a hero out there. And that’s just great.”

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