By Ron Leir
LYNDHURST – Olympian swimmer Peter Vanderkaay recently offered this surprising admission to a group of young fans: As a kid, “I was not very good at swimming.”
Of course, Vanderkaay has more than made up for his lack of aquatic skills, having won a bronze medal in 400-meter freestyle in the 2012 London Olympics this summer. He won a bronze (200 meter freestyle) and a gold (4×200-meter freestyle relay) in 2008 in Bejiing and a gold (4×200-meter freestyle relay) in 2004 in Athens. The Michigan native was in New Jersey last Tuesday, chatting with about 60 representatives of the Skyy (cq) Swim Team of Bergen County coached by Erin Miller and family members and giving a demonstration clinic at the Lyndhurst Community Pool, which hosts Skyy practices and meets.
“Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of having an Olympic swimmer here?” said pool director Tom Caffaro.
Township Recreation Commissioner Tom DiMaggio agreed.
“It’s an honor having an Olympic medalist at the pool,” he said.
Vanderkaay, who brought his medals, posed for photos with star-struck Skyy swimmers and signed autographs on the kids’ swim caps and kickboards.
The Olympian told The Observer he started competitive swimming at age seven at the urging of his parents and his then 10-year-old brother, Christian, who was about to join a youth swim team called “The Sprints.”
As he later explained to the Skyy contingent, Vanderkaay had a sudden realization at age 14.
“I decided if I wanted to be good, I needed to work harder,” he said. “I found that if I set goals, I was motivated to push myself. I could set goals every day, maybe (achieving) a state (record) time or being in a certain place finishing (a race).”
When he began doing that in earnest, Vanderkaay said, “I started improving like crazy,” to the extent that “by the end of high school, I made the national (swim) team.”
Watching the 2000 Olympics in Sidney on TV “was just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” and after continuing success in the collegiate swim ranks and beyond, “I thought maybe I had a chance” of reaching the Olympics.
And he did – just two years after graduating from the University of Michigan – joining Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Klete Keller on the 4/200-meter American relay team as they upset the favored Australians.
“I remember Michael saying, ‘We can do this,’ ’’ Vanderkaay recalled. And after they’d won, “I had a smile on my face for two weeks after that.”
In the four years he spent training for each of his Olympics, Vanderkaay said he followed a strict regimen of multi-hour sessions of laps in the pool Monday through Saturday (Sunday was an off-day), swimming at least 35 miles per week, supplemented by 10 hours a week of “inland” training with weights, running and boxing.
Using this grueling workout schedule, Vanderkaay estimated he was “probably burning 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day.”
Not a big fan of vitamin supplements, Vanderkaay said he firmly believed that, “Nothing is better than eating healthy – and I don’t think I have to explain what that means.”
Probably one of the superswimmer’s biggest thrills was being the anchor on the 4×200-meter freestyle relay team that became the first such unit “to go under seven minutes,” finishing with a time of 6:58.56, besting the previous record set in Melbourne in 2007 by four and a half seconds.
At the ripe age of 28, Vanderkaay said he’s still undecided about whether to set his sights on a fourth Olympics in 2016.
Favorite pastimes when he’s not training include “movies, books, hanging out with friends and taking naps because I get tired of all the training,” the swimmer said. He also volunteers with a Detroit-based initiative that promotes swimming for younger kids.
One of his fans, Maywood’s Ken Mooney, whose kids, Kathleen and Matthew, swim with Skyy, said it’s pros like Vanderkaay who’ve won him over to the sport.
A baseball follower, Mooney said he found himself switching channels from a Yankees game to the Olympics trials.
“Just sitting in the stands and listening, I’ve come to know the little ins and outs,” said Mooney, a “selftaught” swimmer. “I love watching swimming now.”