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Missouri swimmer Connor Nolan fights anxiety, asthma to succeed in pool

Friday, May 17, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Missouri swimmer Connor Nolan succeeds in the pool despite struggles with asthma and anxiety. When not in the water, the 19-year-old studies mechanical engineering.

In the middle of a swimming pool in Mansfield, Texas, all of Connor Nolan’s worst fears have caught up with him.

The 18-year-old Missouri freshman clutches a plastic lane line, using it to provide support for a body that is quickly shutting down. He lifts his head out of the water and takes quick, desperate breaths. He searches for air but finds none.

Connor Nolan's notable races

United States Olympic Swim Trials - June 2012

  • 400-meter individual medley - 4:37.59 (103rd out of 109 qualifiers)
  • 200-meter individual medley - 2:10.00 (109th out of 116 qualifiers)

Mizzou Invite - Dec. 1, 2012

  • 100-yard freestyle - 44.85 seconds (7th out of 32 swimmers)

SEC Championships - Feb. 21, 2013

  • 400-meter Individual Medley - 3:53.72 (8th place in 'C Final')

What's Next

  • 2013 Mel Zajac Meet - May 25-27, Vancouver, Canada


With a crowd looking on from bleachers adjacent to the pool, the race goes on without him. The weight of expectations, of goals, of split times and medals – all that seems hopelessly tied to him, like a 50-pound weight bogging him down.

Surrounded by people yet completely alone, he realizes something:

This is what dying feels like.

Nolan’s lungs constrict, the product both of exercise-induced asthma and the fear that this would happen.

As other swimmers glide by, he floats on his back and slowly wades to the edge of the pool. He manages to lift himself out of the water and stand on the deck. He shakes violently, uncontrollably.

His eyes glassy, Nolan stands alone, fearing deep inside that he has let the whole world down. He thinks of his coach, his teammates, his parents and friends. A trainer asks him if he’s all right.

He doesn’t answer. He looks right through her.

After coaches lead Nolan away from the pool, his father comes down from the bleachers to check on him.

“You don’t have to do this,” he says. “You don’t have to swim.”

With water still dripping from his suit, Nolan seeks isolation. He sits in a stairwell beside the bleachers, the only light seeping in from a small window above.

Here in the stairwell, the roar of the crowd is reduced to a dull, muffled chatter. He hears the pop of the starting gun as the next round of swimmers splash gracefully into the water.

Here in the stairwell, there is only darkness.

Here in the stairwell, no one can hear him cry.

***

Nearly eight months later, he stands on the edge of a masterpiece.

Inside the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., Nolan’s feet idle on the lip of the brand new pool. Like many others, his short, messy brown hair is hidden underneath a black plastic cap. His size, however, separates him from the crowd.

At 5 feet, 10 inches and 145 pounds, Nolan isn’t as big as the swimmers walking around him on the deck. While most of their bodies closely resemble Roman sculptures, he looks ordinary, even small, in comparison.

Nolan has always been small, but he’s also been fast. If he weren’t fast, he wouldn’t be here, at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in June 2012. This is one of the events all American swimmers aspire toward winning, but few actually qualify for. This is the pool, clear and blue and surrounded by spectators, that will be shared by Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, a host of Olympic hopefuls and six Missouri swimmers — Nolan included.

He looks down at the water — once a sanctuary, but more recently a prison. Over the past year, Nolan has battled a lingering anxiety that has often flared up during big meets. The anxiety triggers his asthma, which affects his breathing and impedes his ability to swim.

Nolan tries to be positive, to stop those familiar, destructive thoughts from reappearing. He knows he has no realistic chance of making the Olympic team, but right now that hardly matters.

Right now, he’s just happy to be here. Despite the black goggles that shield his eyes, he can’t help but stop and look around.

“It’s the bright lights, and the perfect lanes, and the still water, and all the blue,” Nolan says, describing the Trials pool. “And you can’t believe you’re actually standing there.”

He stands in place for another second, then takes a deep breath and dives in.

***

Nolan is a man of order.

Inside his apartment in Columbia, separate boxes hold video games, controllers and movies below the television. Hanging on the wall in his room, a white board displays each of his classes in different color ink. Below the labels, upcoming assignments and due dates are printed neatly in place.

A calendar hangs, too, and on it Nolan has noted every swim meet he plans to participate in over the next three months.

Here, life is lived by a schedule. On Sundays, Nolan cooks pancakes, then cleans the house. There are times when he swims, times when he studies and times when he naps while electric dance music thumps in the background.

Even outside the pool, there is order. There is discipline.

“He has to organize things,” says Brooke Morris, his roommate and childhood friend. “‘This is the way things run quickest and most efficiently.’”

She smiles as she mimics him. The words highlight a theme of Nolan’s life.

Quickest and most efficiently.

His meticulousness, of course, is what makes him fast. It’s what made him continue going to the pool after his mother forced him to start swimming at age 9. It’s what allowed him to win and keep dropping time all the way through high school at Carroll Senior High in Southlake, Texas.

Swimming has everything to do with mechanics, with structure. You swim thousands of meters every day, and with each passing lap you tighten the screws a little more.

Reach. Pull. Kick. Repeat.

Now a sophomore at Missouri, Nolan is constantly perfecting those mechanics. He needs order at home almost as much as he demands it of himself in the pool.

Nolan knows he can be faster, and therefore he is never truly satisfied. He looks at himself, at his times, at the upcoming meets written neatly on the calendar, and he feels a familiar drive — the need to improve. The words hit home.

Quickest and most efficiently.

***

As Nolan can attest, anxiety and asthma don’t exactly mix.

It starts small, like a strain of bacteria ready to multiply. What if I let everybody down?

As the race nears, the idea grows, until soon it’s all he can think about. It’s a storm cloud hovering over him, covering him in darkness. The more he thinks about it, the more he feeds it — the more he’s certain of his own demise.

“What if I can’t finish this race? What if it builds up, and I can’t breathe, and I stop?”

The warning siren in his head wails as he approaches the blocks, and by the time the tip of his fingers pierce the water, he’s a lethal combination of anxiety and self-doubt.

That’s when the asthma kicks in.

Exercise-induced asthma, also known as exercise-induced bronchospasm, causes the airways to tighten and extra mucus to be produced. It is triggered in Nolan’s case by a combination of both physical exertion and stress.

Because he is a scholarship athlete, stress is something that builds and wanes, depending on the moment. However, for Nolan — someone who is always pushing to be faster, to win — his mind constantly races. The stress rarely subsides.

Quickest and most efficiently.

In pressure situations, Nolan’s body can only handle so much. Like a glass being steadily filled with water, at some point he’s going to overflow. When he does, his strokes shorten, his kicking stops and his lungs constrict.

The race, in this moment, becomes secondary.

“It’s almost like a flight response,” Nolan says. “It just feels like everything is closing in, like ‘Oh crap, I’m going to die.’”

***

But it wasn’t always this way.

Thinking back, Nolan says his asthma only became a factor once or twice per year during high school. When you win, it turns out, things come easier. There’s no stress, only smiles.

Nolan remembers finishing second in the Texas state finals of the 200-meter individual medley during his junior season. Midway through the race, he knew he was trailing. He could see the blurred figures of his opponents ahead.

Back then there was no doubt, only confidence. He steadily closed the gap, saw the final wall and accelerated through it.

After touching the wall, he looked up at the scoreboard and saw his name ahead of six others.

Occasionally, Nolan re-watches the old, granulated tape of that race. He sees himself chase down the leaders, and the memories resurface.

Back then, Nolan knew that he was fast. The scoreboard, the medals, the cheers after touching the wall — they were all proof that no matter how large the deficit, he could always come back.

He watches the tape, and he smiles.

***

Suddenly, Connor Nolan wasn’t the fastest one in the pool.

In August 2011, he enrolled at the University of Missouri as part of a class that coach Greg Rodenbaugh promised would create a foundation of excellence for a swimming program that desperately needed it. Ranked the No. 21 high school swimmer in the country by CollegeSwimming.com, Nolan could have gone almost anywhere. But he chose Missouri.

At the time, it wasn’t a well-known program. There weren’t banners hanging over the pool, and the team wasn’t littered with top recruits. But the challenge to change all that appealed to Nolan. It appealed to him in high school, when he joined a mediocre team and, in four years, helped turn it into a state champion.

He saw the same challenge at Missouri – another mountain to climb.

“My class kind of set that stuff up to happen (in high school), and it was really cool,” Nolan says, sitting across from a large black Carroll Dragons flag that hangs proudly on the wall in his apartment. “So it was like, ‘Let’s do that again.’”

But in Columbia, Nolan quickly learned that while the pool was the same size here as in South Lake, the expectations weren’t.

He often had to scrap and claw for a fourth- or fifth-place finish. His teammates and opponents were bigger and stronger than him, and his coaches continued to demand results he didn’t feel capable of producing.

“He (Rodenbaugh) just had such high expectations, and you feel like you’re trying to reach them but never will,” Nolan says. “It’s like, ‘Why am I trying?’”

As he progressed slower than expected, he started doubting himself. And like dominoes falling in succession, the doubt caused the anxiety, and the anxiety caused the asthma.

He slowed to a crawl in some races. In others, he failed even to finish. The tipping point came on Oct. 29, 2011, with that 200-yard freestyle in Mansfield, Texas. He’ll never forget that stairwell, Nolan says. Shrouded in darkness, he was haunted by a single, hopeless thought.

“I will never be able to swim the same again, because I will always be thinking about this. There’s no way out of it.”

***

Connor Nolan speaks quickly, using words that you hardly understand. As he sips on a Gatorade, his feet sprawled out on a chair in his apartment, his mind runs faster than his mouth.

This is his passion. You can sense that. Nolan’s life revolves around two things: efficiency and speed.

“Maybe if it’s a car you’re working on a clutch and you’re trying to make it more efficient and powerful. You tweak out a few more horsepower for a car, and it’s lighter so you get more torque. You put that into a car, and they build a skirt for it,” he says, speaking quickly, excitedly. His hands move in rhythm as he describes each step.

“Maybe Ferrari uses that same clutch, and you just built a Ferrari essentially.”

At MU, Nolan majors in mechanical engineering, the science of designing and analyzing mechanical systems. Specifically, he’s interested in cars, planes and rockets — things that go fast.

He sees cars in parts, rather than the final product. He agonizes over the mechanics and how they can be improved. As Nolan talks about it, you can see the wheels turning in his head as he dissects the machine and imagines the possibilities.

“I almost never know what he’s talking about,” his teammate and roommate, Alex Glogoza, says. “If we’re driving a car he’ll see a Jeep or something and say, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful car.’ He tells me everything about that car. He knows the engine, and how it can handle. Everything, and he just somehow knows.”

If it runs, Nolan wants to make it faster. In the water or the classroom, his mindset never changes. The words always apply.

Quickest and most efficiently.

***

Sixteen months after the race in Mansfield, Texas, that almost made him quit, Connor Nolan is gliding through the clear blue water inside the MU Student Recreation Complex’s competitive pool.

His arms cut through the water, one darting forward as the other pulls from below. Like windmills, they propel and reset in a loop of constant mechanical motion.

Kicking just below the surface, his legs create a steady splash and drive him through the water like the propeller of a boat.

Except for the rhythmic synthesizers and drums of Wolfgang Gartner’s party hit “Redline” that play on loop in his head, Nolan’s mind is clear. He is at peace.

Last year, that may not have seemed possible. In spring 2012, Nolan began working with Rick McGuire, the director of sports psychology at MU. Through hours of conversations, Nolan worked on blocking out negativity and focusing on success.

He describes it as “rewiring your thought process” to avoid dark thoughts before and during a race.

After competing in the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in June 2012, Nolan did something else that, for him, was out of the ordinary.

He took a break.

For the first time in eight years, Nolan spent a month away from swimming. He went home to Southlake, Texas, to visit with old friends. He took a vacation to the Florida Keys with his family.

He still thought about swimming, naturally, but at least for a little while he was able to mentally and physically recharge.

When he did get back, things were different. Throughout the fall season, Nolan’s asthma never became a problem. Whereas the year before he was scratching and clawing to finish races, now he was focused on winning them.

With the help of McGuire, his teammates and a new outlook in the pool, Nolan could once again breathe — and swim.

***

He still isn’t as fast as he wants to be. When Nolan looks back at the fall season, he sees a step forward. When he looks ahead, though, he knows there is still a long way to go.

The anxiety has subsided, at least for now. Before he was tight, nervous, burdened by his lifestyle.

Quickest and most efficiently.

Now, though, a few new words fill the void.

Loose, free and happy.

Of course, Nolan knows that nothing is guaranteed. There will be stressful races in his future. There will be adversity, too.

His reaction will determine the difference between the overwhelmed swimmer in Mansfield, Texas, and the one gliding calmly through the water today.

“You can’t block it out 100 percent. It’s still going to come back, and occasionally it does,” Nolan says, pausing for a moment to find the right words. “You just have to have ways to get around it.”


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