It was a friendly bet. So friendly, neither guy remembers what the stakes were. It was also a very cool bet, in that both gamblers came out a winner.
Henry DeSandre gained a swimmer and Andrew Solarski began a career.
It all transpired in December of 2015, when a freshman in his first year of organized swimming was too timid to dive off the starting blocks and into the pool for the Notre Dame High boys’ team.
“I was worried about many things,” said Solarski, now a confident senior. “’Am I going to mess up my dive? If I get through the dive, are my goggles going to fall off? Will I mess up my flip turn? Will I do something to get me and my entire relay disqualified?’ I had so many negative thoughts in my mind I had no room for any positive ones.”
DeSandre watched and waited, neve quite seeing a situation like this before.
“He was scared to death,” DeSandre said. “It was not until the fourth meet that he would even consider getting up and swimming the two laps in the relay. And the only reason that happened was we did a little bet and he lost and had to fulfill his part and get up there and go off the block in that relay. So he did it, we got through the first year, and he returned the second year with a stronger attitude, a little more confident. He went from there and started to progress as a swimmer.”
It’s a pretty amazing story. Solarski has never done any club swimming, but has worked his way into the starting lineup in the 50 and 100 freestyles this year. Last season, Solarski came alive in the state tournament and helped ND upset highly ranked St. Peter’s Prep in the sectional quarterfinals.
“Last year, he made it on to our county team in the 50 and 100 and had tremendous time drops, and really fell in love with the sport and really performed fantastic,” DeSandre said. “He was a starter in the team state tournament and his event was one of the contributors when we upset the third ranked team in the state. This year, his goal is to be able to give himself an opportunity to potentially be in one of the top 12 in the county meet. He’s a freestyler (in sprints) and also a good backstroker.”
‘I think swimming has definitely taught me many things; such as how to not place limitations on myself and how to be a good leader.’
Growing up in Hamilton Square, Solarski played soccer for Hamilton YMCA, little league baseball and intramural basketball for St. Gregory the Great. Despite the fact his mom was on the swim team with DeSandre’s daughter when they attended Notre Dame, the sport was never on Solarski’s radar. Things changed at a Notre Dame open house.
“I had experiences doing sports but none of those sports interested me,” Solarski said. “When I was taking a tour at Notre Dame, I happened to have a swimmer as my guide. She told me about how great the swim team was, from the coaches to the swimmers themselves. This stuck with me, and something told me that I should give sports one last try.”
It didn’t look like the greatest of decisions during those first few months, as Solarski had to battle major trepidation to survive.
“I wanted to quit many times,” he said. “Each practice or meet I would question why I was still swimming. The stress I experienced was overwhelming. But I had so many supporting friends and coaches by my side to help me that I knew I needed to actually give the sport a chance before I just gave up.”
And so came “The Bet.”
“I remember there being a bet that got me up on the block, but I can’t recall it,” Solarski said.
“I can’t remember either,” DeSandre said. “I just know that part of it was him not being able to back out of getting on the block in that fourth meet (in the 200 relay). I wasn’t about to put him in the 400. I was just tickled to death to get him to do two laps.”
The date was Dec. 11, 2015 against Trenton High. Solarski didn’t completely beat the demons, but it was the day he started to fight back.
“I was so angry at myself for not being able to get myself up on the block in the first meets and would go home sitting in my bed saying to myself, ‘Next meet, next meet I will do this,’” he said. “When I finished my first race I was overwhelmed with joy, but not all the stress went away after that. I still had a hard time getting on the blocks and would try to avoid doing my races. I looked at myself and realized that all I was doing was making myself seem unreliable to the team. I was letting my coaches down, my teammates down, myself down. This definitely pushed me to swim every race I could, attend every practice I could, do every last lap that I could. I finally was feeling like I could do this.”
The process began to perpetuate itself, slowly but surely. Solarski swam a few more relays as a freshman, and his participation increased as a sophomore. He actually placed in the top three in a few individual races in the 50 and 100 free. Last year, Solarski became a steady contributor.
“His junior year was the next hurdle for him,” DeSandre said. “He accepted the challenge. He started to develop a natural feel, a natural talent. The sport fit him. He became part of that water. It was one body with the water rather than a swimmer in water. It’s just how they fit the water. It was not two items between the lane lines, it was one. He has a natural talent. It was just a matter of growing. He still has a lot of growth to do physically and again, accepting the challenges that come up.”
Solarski concurred with his coach that it has been a long but steady progression that finally brought him to a state of comfort in the pool.
“The state meets were huge for me, I really didn’t expect to get to where I got and did not expect to be put in the races I was put in,” he said. “Last year really brought my confidence up, made me feel like I had finally reached the goals I set the year before, and drove me to make some new one’s for my senior year. I had already loved swimming, the team, the coaches, and the energy at the meets, but last year I can say I really felt connected to the sport.”
The goals are simple—help Notre Dame to another strong state run, while also finishing in the top 12 in both the 50 and 100 freestyle at the county meets. Solarski promises to give his very best to accomplish that. Next year he will begin pursuing a degree in engineering and says if a swimming opportunity presents itself, he will take a shot. DeSandre feels he is definitely good enough to swim for a Division III program.
It’s a pretty impressive rise for a guy who only swims four months out of the year.
“I considered (club swimming), but never really decided to go for it as I got a job lifeguarding in the two summers going into sophomore and junior year so that I could save up for a car,” Solarski said. “My junior to senior year summer was very busy having to go to Boys State, and preparing for the SATs.”
Regardless of what Solarski’s future in the sport holds, DeSandre feels swimming has contributed greatly to his overall character.
“Whatever force got him there, it was probably one of the best things for him with the life skills that he got out of it,” the coach said. “He’s got great work ethic, he’s a pleasure to coach. He’s just a good young man.
“As a freshman we just wanted to get him to believe in himself. I have preached for 30-some years, it’s not about swimming because if its only about swimming they’re never gonna finish out their four years. It’s about being part of a team and part of family beyond your regular family. It just helps in life skills and helps in the growth. For Andrew, it was helping him start to become more of a well-rounded person around other people. If you can grow that and get on that train, the athletic part will take of itself.”
Solarski has certainly become well-rounded. He maintains a B average and belongs to Notre Dame’s Patriots Club, which conducts drives to collect items to send overseas to active military personnel. The group also hosted a brunch for veterans and provided free food for them to enjoy.
And, of course, there is swimming, which has ignited so much for Solarski.
“I think swimming has definitely taught me many things; such as how to not place limitations on myself and how to be a good leader,” he said. “If you told me freshman year that I would be where I am now, I would not believe you. I am proud to know that I put all of myself into this sport to get to where I’m at.”
Justifiable pride indeed. You can bet on it.