In listening to Steven Wilfing describe his breaststroke swim in the Mercer County Championship preliminaries, it’s hard not to wince. He showed up at West Windsor-Plainsboro North on that Friday, Feb. 7, fighting the flu and bronchitis, and struggled to attend school for a half day just so he could be eligible to race.
“He was sick as a dog,” coach Brian Emerson said.
He was also determined.
“My first 50 I went out pretty good and I was keeping up with everybody and was right even with them,” Wilfing said. “Then the second 50 came, and I turned and pushed off the wall; and as soon as I let go of my air, that was the most pain I’d ever felt in the pool. It was awful; I could barely keep my stroke rate going. It was really awful.”
So, he must have done pretty horrible in the race, huh?
Well, actually, maybe he should race sick more often.
When Wilfing climbed from the pool, the Nottingham High junior emerged with a sixth-place finish, good enough to qualify for Saturday’s A cut. Even more astoundingly, his time of 1:10.83 smashed the Northstars’ 33-year-old record of 1:12.50, set in 1987 by Kelly Wilson. It was a mark that had been around longer than not only Wilfing, but his 28-year-old coach.
“I was shocked,” Wilfing said. “I didn’t expect to break it at all with the way I felt. My first 50 felt good, my second 50 felt awful, so I was thinking it will probably be right on the record or maybe a couple milliseconds faster, but to break it by that much.”
It was the culmination of a season-long quest.
“I was working at it all season and getting close to it every meet,” Wilfing said. “To finally be able to break it, it was pretty exciting for me. Especially being very sick. I was not good.”
In fact, he did not return the next day to race in the finals as he only felt worse. But his preliminary effort had Emerson shaking his head.
“He blew past the record,” the coach said. “It just so happened on his last shot of the season he cruised right past the record fighting the flu and bronchitis. I thought to myself, ‘If that kid can do this under these conditions, it’s gonna be fun pushing the envelope when he’s at 100 percent.’ So we’re gonna look forward to those other records next year if he stays on his trajectory, which I think he will.”
Wilfing did more than just set a record this year. He won both of his two allotted individual races in 11 of 12 dual meets, with his only “failures” being second-place finishes to West Windsor-Plainsboro North in the breast and fly.
“The kid (Ethan Yuen) was an absolute tank in the breast,” Wilfing said. “He destroyed me. I don’t really train in the fly too often, and I got beat by a kid I swim club with (Steven Kim). I’m not making an excuse there, he just out-touched me.”
Every other meet, however, Wilfing was perfect in individual races and also had success in the 200 free and medley relays with Zack Miller, Chris Filipowicz and Dustin Tyler.
“Internally he’s an athlete that makes a coach’s job easier,” Emerson said. “He wants to be there every day, he wants to be coached, he wants to help others. He’s intelligent, he’s respectful, he’s got a good heart and he’s easy to root for.”
Wilfing’s aquatics career started at age 6 when he used to swim in the ocean at the Jersey shore. The daughter of his mom’s friend noticed how much he enjoyed the water and recommended Wilfing join the Hamilton Aquatics Club, and he has been there ever since.
His first year at Nottingham provided Wilfing with a huge highlight in the Northstars meet with Hamilton. Swimming anchor for the 400 relay team, he inherited a half-lap deficit when he dove in. Wilfing overcame the leader as Nottingham won the relay and won the meet by one point.
“That was a thrill for sure,” he said.
Baseball was also in the picture, and Wilfing did both through his freshman year. He gave it up last season but, as an assistant on new coach Charlie Iacono’s staff, Emerson is hoping he makes a return.
“We’re trying to get him to join back,” the coach said. “He’s a great catcher so we hope to get him back there. Just in general he’s such a hard working kid you want on any team. Anything he puts his mind to it’s almost an easy get once he’s focused on it. “
As of mid-February Wilfing was torn about whether to return or not. He sat out last year to focus on swimming nationals for HAC.
“It really hurt me not playing,” Wilfing said. “I’ve been playing baseball longer than swimming. Baseball is in my blood, it’s something I’ve always done. I love it, but I don’t know. I’m contemplating coming back, I’m just not sure.”
He is certain, however, that swimming will remain part of his life and it’s easy to see why. Although the breast is his main event and freestyle sprints are his second favorite, he has the ability to swim them all.
“When I found out I was taking this job, about two weeks before the season started, I was talking to the previous coach (Steve DiGiacomo) about lineups,” Emerson said. “I said ‘What do I do about this Wilfing kid? I never met him.’ He said, ‘He’s our ace in the hole. Anywhere you need a hole to be filled he’s the guy and it’s pretty much guaranteed.’”
Wilfing didn’t make it to the introductory meeting when Emerson took over, and the first time the two met was at Nottingham’s initial dryland workout.
“We were doing some core, doing some running,” the coach said. “Here was a kid I’d never seen at the school before, he’s pushing six feet, he’s got a nice build and he was just cruising past the other kids in every workout we did. That was my first understanding of what kind of athlete he was.”
Emerson got a greater understanding as the season wore on and Wilfing continued to excel. He wants to go after the 200 IM record next year, and if he can make a state cut in the breast that would also “be something cool to swim at, but it’s not a big priority of mine.”
Just what is the priority?
“I’ve never really been too crazy about what place I come in,” he said. “As long as I have a good time and it’s a good swim, that’s what I worry about.”
His main worry this year was toppling that 33-year-old record.
“Some people say hard work pays off, some people say you get out of it what you put in,” Emerson said. “I don’t want to box Steven into some cliché but there’s a reason this kid broke a record that’s been held for 33 years. It’s one of those things you could see coming. His drive and commitment was unlike anything I’d ever seen at the high school level. He was doing 5 a.m. strength training sessions three times a week, and 30-plus hours of pool time. He was on a mission.”
Mission accomplished—despite the flu and bronchitis.