In a perfect future world, Evan Eckels will be gearing up for a big race by listening to songs from none other than Evan Eckels.
Eckels is a standout sophomore on the Notre Dame High swim team, having won gold medals in the 200 IM and 100 backstroke at the Mercer County Championships in January and qualifying for the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in four events this month.
When he’s not swimming, he is singing bass for the ND Madrigal group. When he is swimming, he has certain way of preparing for each race.
“Swimming is all mental,” Eckels said. “As long as you have the right mindset going into the meet you’ll perform perfect.”
And how does he get such a mindset?
“I listen to music, and I visualize my race,” he said. “That’s a key factor in swimming. You have to visualize before you execute. I’ve been doing it since I was 11. My dad (Ed) said you have to visualize before you do anything.”
When it was suggested he visualize while listening to himself sing, Eckels said, “That would be a good idea.”
As a proponent of everything from pop to rock to rap, Eckels was unsure what genre he would choose.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ll have to think about that.”
As long as it involves the pool, Eckels doesn’t mind thinking about it.
“I’m into music and singing, but not as much as swimming,” he said. “Swimming has kind of always been the end game. I just feel like I have a huge passion for swimming, and I just want to keep growing and hopefully be the best someday. I gotta dream big.”
“Maybe the Olympic trials,” he said. “I’m two seconds away (from the backstroke cut).”
Eckels already owns the Irish short-course records in the IM at 2:10.54, which he set at this year’s counties, and the 100 backstroke in the low 52s. He broke the 18-year-old IM record of Bob DeSandre, son of head coach Henry DeSandre, by scant 100ths of a second.
“He didn’t shatter Bobby’s record, but that’s still fast,” DeSandre said. “He likes to bring it at the big meets. He’s a big-meet performer. He’s very, very competitive.”
It’s not surprising, as Eckels has been getting good training all his life. At age 7, he began learning the various strokes from Corina Simms, the mother of his neighborhood friend Lucas Simms. Corina is a product of the Ocean County YMCA Swim Club and has served as lesson coordinator for the highly successful Peddie Aquatics Club for the past seven years. Ironically, Lucas has gone on to play baseball at Lawrenceville Prep, but Eckels has taken his mom’s tutelage to the next level.
“I asked her if she would teach me, and we went through all the strokes,” Eckels said. “Lucas and I grew up together and right after that, we joined the swim team (at Robert Wood Johnson gym).”
Eckels moved on to the Hamilton Aquatics Club at age 8 and has been there ever since. He has qualified for the YMCA Nationals the past three years and has enjoyed top-five finishes in several relays.
“They worked on my strokes and all the strokes started coming together; that’s when I really started taking swimming seriously,” he said. “I just like the competitive aspect. Every single time you get in the water you’re pretty much racing yourself.”
Eckels lives in the Hamilton West district but, when it came to high school, there was never a doubt where he was headed.
“I always wanted to go to Notre Dame,” he said. “I knew the swim team was a tight bond and the school as a whole is really tight, and a nice community.”
DeSandre knew of Eckels when he was still attending St. Gregory the Great (and getting over his shyness by singing in an acapella group), but never met him until he arrived at ND. The veteran coach immediately knew he had something special, both in and out of the pool.
“Right off the bat, when we met and I talked to him, he had a very calm, mature air about him,” DeSandre said. “You could sense it was all about team. All about Notre Dame. He cherished being a Notre Dame swimmer right out of the hole.
“As a swimmer, I saw he had great underwater ability to move. In his training you could see him having a great feel of the water. He fit the water well and he was hungry for any kind of tidbit, corrections, any coaching he could get. Fresh eyes see new things, so we saw a few things. He adapted to all our staff as far as anything that was brought to him. It was a win-win situation all the way around. Not just for the high school, but for Evan, his talent and his career.”
Eckels won the MCT IM as a freshman and took third in the backstroke, which he and DeSandre consider his best event. He qualified for the Meet of Champions and made the B cut finals in both events. Despite his success, he remained grounded.
“As an athlete, he doesn’t let his talent change his personality,” DeSandre said. “He’s got a great team personality. He’s great around all the swimmers. He never flaunts that ability to go fast.”
The fact he could do all the strokes was a bonus for DeSandre, as many young swimmers only focus on going fast in the freestyle races.
“It’s a very pleasant feeling to have someone who comes in with that capacity, absolutely,” said the coach, who feels Eckels will also break the school butterfly record before it’s all over. “But it’s even nicer when you have someone who comes in with talent that doesn’t realize how much talent he really has.”
Eckels is starting to realize it, by virtue of the goals he is setting. But he also knows he still has a lot to learn. He is thankful to current teammate Matt Lequang, a talented senior.
“Every single day at practice, he keeps me in the right mindset and pushes me,” Eckels said.
DeSandre said that is the way it should work.
“What transpires is they feed off each other,” he said. “The younger swimmers look and see accomplishments by your veteran swimmers and they raise their bar and they want to go after it. It’s just great. We, as coaches, are there for the ride and all you gotta do is put a little guidance in there, and they’re there for the memories. And they are building them.”
Who knows, maybe someday Eckels will even sing about them.