COLUMBIA — Max Grodecki wanted Ryan Lochte's autograph when he competed against the Olympic gold medalist two years ago at the Minnesota Grand Prix. And he got it.
Lochte signed Grodecki’s shirt, which Grodecki proudly wore around New Trier High School in suburban Chicago.
Missouri senior diver David Bonuchi is set to compete at this weekend's World Swimming and Diving Championships in Barcelona, Spain.
Bonuchi, a Columbia native and eight-time All-American for the Tigers, won the 10-meter synchronized event with partner Toby Stanley at the USA Diving World Championships Trials in May in Tallahassee, Fla.
Bonuchi and Stanley are scheduled to compete in both preliminaries and finals at the world championships on July 21.
“Eventually, the signed Sharpie faded,” Grodecki said. “It was cool to have for a bit.”
Much can change in two years.
Grodecki, who will be a sophomore on the Missouri swimming team next season, competed against Lochte again last month. This time, he was not so enamored of Lochte or his Olympic teammate Conor Dwyer before diving in the pool with them.
He knows their accomplishments and is no longer awed by them.
“You’re still a fan even though they’re your competitors,” Grodecki says. “You don’t really think you’re going to beat them. But you don’t put them on such a high pedestal anymore.”
Grodecki competed against Lochte and Dwyer in a 100-meter freestyle preliminary heat at the U.S. Swimming National Championships on June 25 in Indianapolis. Grodecki took fourth in the heat behind only Lochte, Dwyer and Olympic silver medalist Jimmy Feigen.
Grodecki’s preliminary time was a lifetime best at 49.91 seconds. He followed that with a 49.98 in the final to finish 11th overall — five spots from making the U.S. team for this weekend's World Championships in Barcelona, Spain.
“Max isn’t afraid of anybody. He just needs to get himself to where he can compete with people that are better than him,” Missouri swimming coach Greg Rhodenbaugh said. “He got 11th at world championship trials. Out of that top 11, there are only like two or three guys that are college age. He is in the elite.”
But there is some reluctance about success for 19-year-old Grodecki.
He likes to swim fast. He likes to win. But he is hesitant about notoriety. He is hesitant about expectations.
One of Grodecki’s greatest days swimming is not a particularly fond memory. His senior year of high school, Grodecki won two individual state titles, anchored two relays to state titles and led New Trier’s team to a second consecutive state title.
That success he remembers more as a relief.
“I wouldn’t say it was like a most important, most proud moment for me,” Grodecki said of his senior year of high school. “It was definitely very enjoyable. I liked it a lot. It wasn’t as much of a big deal to me as it was to other people.”
The best part for Grodecki was the pressure was gone. He says his face “broke out” leading up to the state meet because he felt pressure to lead his team to success.
“I did stress out about that,” Grodecki said. “I kind of just wanted to win those events, get past it and celebrate with the team.”
Andrew Grevers, Missouri’s assistant coach for sprinters, has seen Grodecki can be hesitant about notoriety.
“He’s kind of the strong, silent type,” Grevers said. “I definitely would say he’s not one for the spotlight. He’s not looking for it. That’s not why he swims. He simply swims to beat the guy next to him and let the guy know, ‘I’m better than you.’ He doesn’t need everyone else to know.”
Grodecki said he could enjoy aspects of returning to the kind of success he had in high school, but he is hesitant about everything that comes with it.
“It would be fun. I’m not sure I want to be there again,” he said. “I don’t enjoy attention as much as most people. I avoid interviews sometimes — just because they can be weird or awkward at times.”
Still, even though Grevers does not expect Grodecki to have his own E! reality show like Lochte, he said he sees some similarities between them.
“They both have the ability to understand what each race is — and it’s a game and an opportunity to have fun and race another human being and try to prove you’re better than them,” Grevers said.
Missouri’s coaches were impressed that Grodecki was not intimidated at the U.S. Championships.
In his preliminary heat, Grodecki took fourth in 49.91 seconds. Feigen won the heat in 49.15 followed by Lochte (49.17) and Dwyer (49.30).
“I actually had an open lane next to me, so I had a clear view of them,” Grodecki said. “Coming back (the second 50 yards), I just remember trying to chase down Dwyer and catch him, and I could not gain on him. It was tough, but I did what I could.”
Grodecki had the 15th best morning preliminary time, and that night, his 49.98 was the 11th best time in the final.
“His attitude has picked up a lot and just watching his confidence … his confidence in training, his confidence in racing,” Rhodenbaugh says. “He was racing the best guys in the world. … I mean that’s pretty good.”
Grodecki’s 11th-place finish is impressive progress in one calendar year. Grodecki was 38th in the 100 freestyle at the 2012 Olympic Trials. His training is paying off despite first-year difficulties at Missouri.
Rhodenbaugh said he thought Grodecki had a “good” freshman year, but he struggled second semester. His struggles culminated at the Southeastern Conference Championships where he finished 21st in the 100 freestyle. Grodecki said the SEC meet might have been a turning point in his college career.
“I did get a little stressed out this year for SECs. It was a little bit weird for me,” Grodecki said. “I wasn’t swimming very well. … I think I just forgot how to have fun with it, and you can’t always be so intense about it and so strict with everything. You have to have fun sometimes.”
Grodecki said afterward he learned “how to work with” those feelings. He now calms himself by reading John Steinbeck novels or listening to 90s alternative music. He also tries not to think about swimming much away from the pool. He says he probably won’t watch the World Championships.
This attitude helped Grodecki stay calm at the U.S. Championships.
“Usually going to meets, I’m a lot more stressed out,” Grodecki said. “But at world trials, I was trying to just relax and go with the flow and see what happens — hang out and be relaxed and not get too stressed out or anything. I’d say it helped me a lot, and I learned a lot from that.”
Grodecki’s performance has Rhodenbaugh excited about what is ahead.
“He’s probably going to take off here his sophomore year,” Rhodenbaugh said. “When I say take off, I mean get a lot better. … He’s going to take off like an airplane his second year.”
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.