Hickman swimmer John Willet emerges from the Hickman weight room draped in a baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants. He’s a head taller than most of his teammates but otherwise blends in with the mass of Rock Bridge and Hickman swimmers going home for the evening after a lifting session.
His easy stride displays the laid-back personality coach John Hamilton said has not changed in the four years he has coached Willet. This is the guy who might be a state champion in two months.
Underneath those baggy garments is a long, lean body perfect for swimming, especially Willet’s specialty, the breaststroke. That easy-going demeanor belies an intense competitiveness, also an aspect of Willet’s personality that hasn’t changed, Hamilton said.
Three years ago Willet didn’t swim at the state meet, but not because the desire to win wasn’t there. The only thing stopping Willet was a Missouri State High School Activities Association rule the made him ineligible to compete as a freshman because he transferred to Hickman after living in the Rock Bridge district.
“Even as a freshman, he was focused and had high goals of what he wanted to do,” Hamilton said. “He had the goal to qualify for the state meet even though he wouldn’t be able to swim in it. Although he had some swimming background, it wasn’t a highly intense background. He was still able to pull it off and qualify for state.”
Building on past success
As a sophomore, Willet finished seventh in the 100-yard breaststroke at the state meet. Last year, Willet finished third. Now, he has a state championship in his sights.
Two swimmers remain from last year’s eight-man breast stroke final: Willet and Parkway Central’s Jared Lender, who finished second last year, less than half-a-second ahead of Willet.
“What’s so unique about (Willet) is his ability to get everything, his psyche and his physical being, all going in the same direction together,” Hamilton said. “When he focuses in on something, it’s pretty absolute, and that hasn’t changed. He’s always been intense. He’s just gotten bigger and stronger physically and more experience.”
Sizing up the competition
This year’s state meet is already on Willet’s mind.
“I like the intensity,” Willet said. “It’s an experience you don’t get anywhere else and I may never get again.”
Lender is also in Willet’s thoughts.
“He is one of the fastest guys,” Willet said. “I swam against him a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t go as well as I wanted, but there’s time. I’ve got a lot to do.”
Even when he is talking about competition, Willet’s nonchalant attitude shows. His brow doesn’t furrow when he talks about Lender beating him. He gives a slight chuckle when talking about it.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned,” Willet said. “It’s good to be competitive, but it’s the experience that I value more than the times I’ve gotten.”
Acquiescing in his leadership role
The value of the experience that Willet emphasizes is why he and the rest of the seniors got together at the beginning of the season to talk about leadership goals they wanted to accomplish.
“There are a lot of things that we’ve seen in the past few years that declined in leadership,” Willet said. “It’s the little things. What you do on a day-to-day basis; cheering for them, stroke advice, and more than anything just pay attention. That’s something the seniors haven’t done a lot of in the past.”
For Willet, the best part of swimming is hanging out with the team. One wouldn’t have seen this attitude from Willet toward swimming four years ago. Willet swam with the Columbia Swim Club, but that was the extent of his involvement in competitive swimming.
Following his brother's strokes
Willet’s older brother Peter was the swimmer. After seeing his brother swim at state, where Peter placed second in the 100 breaststroke and the 200 individual medley his senior year, Willet caught the swimming bug.
“I wanted to do a sport in high school,” Willet said. “And I don’t have much land speed, and no ups.”
Goal in sight
Now Willet seems in position to contend for a state title in the breast stroke in February.
“He’s further along this year than at the same point last year,” Hamilton said.
The 2005 state meet will always be in Willet’s mind this season, but you’re not going to get much of a reaction from him about it.
“I just want to swim my best and see what I can do,” Willet said. “If I place and swim a good time, that’s nice, but that’s not what is going to matter in the end. I just want to have fun and enjoy myself.”
Come February, the odds are pretty good that Willet will place. That place may even be first.