COLUMBIA — Like his long arms and legs and slender physique, Missouri sophomore Sam Tierney has competitive swimming in his DNA.
His father, Robert Tierney Jr., swam for USC during college and later for Team USA.
His grandfather, Robert Tierney Sr., swam and dove for Syracuse in the late 1940s.
“It’s part of the whole family makeup,” Tierney Jr. said.
But what drove the latest Tierney swimmer into the pool wasn’t family history or his father’s insistence.
It was a congenital disorder known as pectus excavatum that causes the chest to appear caved-in.
Doctors first noticed signs of the disorder shortly after Tierney’s freshman year of high school. His chest curved slightly inward but the disorder wasn’t severe. Still, doctors recommended Tierney undergo surgery.
A curved metal rod about a foot in length was inserted into his chest cavity, where it would remain for nearly three years. The rod forced Tierney’s chest outward, back to its normal position.
Doctors told Tierney, who was 16 at the time, that he could no longer compete in contact sports. So he turned to swimming.
“Truthfully that was the start of his athletic career,” his father said. “About the only thing he could do was swim.”
While his friends competed for local swim clubs, Tierney started to learn the fundamentals of swimming like proper stroke technique alongside 12-year-olds. A year later, Tierney progressed to swimming with the 14-year-olds. He focused on improving his endurance.
“It was just yards, yards, yards,” Tierney remembered. “Awful practices just beat me down.”
The physically demanding practices molded Tierney into a better swimmer, though. And after playing catch-up for two years, Tierney started competing against swimmers his own age.
He drew attention at a dual meet near the end of his senior year after posting several personal-best times. A few months later, Tierney, who is from Plano, Texas, finished fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Texas high school state championships.
“At that point in time,” his father said, “I thought, 'He’s got the chops.' ”
Swimming at the collegiate level became a reality for Tierney. He agreed to walk on at Missouri after speaking with head coach Greg Rhodenbaugh.
In his first year at Missouri, Tierney exceeded expectations. He finished fifth in both the 100-meter breaststroke and 200-meter breaststroke at the Big 12 Conference Championships. Shortly after the end of the season, Rhodenbaugh offered Tierney a scholarship.
Thus far, Tierney hasn’t disappointed. He was named the SEC Male Swimmer of the Week on Nov. 13, has broken multiple school records and has already qualified for the NCAA Championships in March.
Not that that surprises Tierney’s father.
“It’s sort of the DNA of our entire family.”