CHARLESTON — Michael Bower says, “It was always a dream” to swim for Eastern Illinois University.
Bower is now a senior. He has been a member of the EIU men’s swimming team the last four years, and he realizes that dream is about over.
“It’s kind of weird knowing that I only have two more months of swimming for a school left,” says Bower, a 2009 Charleston High School graduate.
He also realizes how swimming for the Panthers almost did not happen. Bower almost abandoned his swimming career nine years ago.
The Charleston High School boys’ soccer program was in the midst of three state appearances in five years during the 2003-04 school year. That year, Bower was in seventh grade, and he opted to chase his soccer aspirations and quit swimming.
Bower, in hindsight, got lucky when the Mattoon YMCA was short on numbers for his 13-14 year-old age group. They needed another guy to have enough for a relay.
“I took like a month off, and one of my buddies that I swam with said, ‘Hey, we have three guys that are 13-14 at the Y. Can you start coming to practice two or three times a week so we can have a relay?’,” Bower says. “I took that season real laid back. I realized that season that I didn’t like taking it laid back, and I wanted to be able to go full out all the time in it. After that season, I did fairly well. I’m like, ‘Oh, I really need to keep going.’”
Bower qualified for YMCA state for the first time in middle school, and he would eventually qualify for YMCA nationals before joining the Eastern Illinois men’s swimming team as a walk-on.
His EIU career so far is highlighted by a seventh-place finish in the 400-yard individual medley at last season’s Summit League Championships.
That accomplishment has propelled him to a strong start to the 2012-13 season.
Eastern Illinois head swimming coach Elliott McGill is pleased with Bower through the team’s first four meets of the season.
“Michael is doing really, really well,” McGill said before Saturday’s scheduled meet at the University of Evansville. “He’s doing a different kind of training, and he’s responding really well to it both in practice, mentally, and then also in meets. He’s really stepped up his performance in meets, so he’s having a really good season so far.”
Bower’s new training is because part of his focus this year is on the freestyle mile.
The 100- and 200-yard breaststroke and the 400-yard individual medley were Bower’s main events his first three years,
But McGill had Bower experiment with distance freestyle swimming by doing some 1,000-yard freestyle races last season. His success there led to Bower taking on the 1,650-yard freestyle mile at the Summit League Championships.
“I’ve never been a distance freestyle swimmer, and going through my swimming career at Charleston and Mattoon in club, my weak stroke was freestyle,” Bower says. “Coming here and being thrown in the distance events as a distance freestyler has really been different for me.”
It may be new, but he has done well for the Panthers.
Bower finished 10th overall and had the best time of Eastern’s three swimmers in the mile at last season’s Summit League Championships. His time was 16 minutes, 59.83 seconds.
His first time swimming the mile this year — and the only time he will swim the mile this season before the Summit League Championships — was Dec. 2 at the House of Champions Invitational in Indianapolis. Bower swam the mile in 17:09.93.
“He was so close to his conference time from last year, and we still haven’t hit our peak yardage for training yet,” McGill says of Bower’s mile time at Indianapolis. “For him to be that close and still hasn’t hit a high yardage in training as a distance swimmer, it’s a good sign.”
Bower also accomplished the Indianapolis time while in the midst of changing his freestyle stroke.
“This year, my freestyle has really changed,” Bower says. “In previous years, I’ve been a really short, choppy fast-arm swimmer. This year — though my arms spin a lot faster than most everyone’s — I’m putting more length and trying to be a longer swimmer now.”
Chasing potential success in the distance freestyle races has meant sacrificing the breaststroke.
That may not be a tough decision for some swimmers, but it was the breaststroke that Michael’s dad swam at Northwestern. Brian Bower graduated from Northwestern in 1980, and he competed on the men’s swimming team in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke.
“I’ve always focused on the breaststroke because that’s what my dad swam,” Michael says. “That’s what I always wanted to do. I always wanted to be able to beat him and say, ‘I’m faster than you.’”
Michael has bragging rights in the 200 breaststroke, but he had not eclipsed Brian’s time in the 100 breaststroke entering Saturday’s meet.
It was never just his dad’s breaststroke times that inspired Michael.
“Growing up, my dad has always been kind of my hero,” Michael says. “Looking at him, he came from Charleston. He actually got into swimming really late. Listening to his stories about how his hard work pushed him from a small community swimming to a big Division I swim program and then on, that’s always been a real drive in my life.”
Emulating his dad pushed Michael to work at the breaststroke, but Michael’s best event so far in his Eastern Illinois career has been the 400 individual medley. In addition to finishing seventh in the 400 IM at the conference meet last year, he has the 10th best 400 IM time in school history with a 4:12.72 in 2011.
McGill thinks the mile could be Bower’s best event by the end of the year, but Bower says his specialty is “still more 400 IM at this point.”
It was Bower’s success in the 400 IM that made McGill first consider him for the distance freestyle races.
“Most milers are either distance freestylers/mid-distance freestylers or they swim the mile and the 400 IM,” McGill says. “It’s such a long event, and similar training is needed.”
Better times are the only slight regret Bower has entering the final two months of his EIU swimming career.
“I was hoping to maybe be a little faster in a couple of the events, but looking back on everything, I’ve been more than pleased with how I’ve done as a swimmer and how the sport has molded me as a person,” Bower says.
There is plenty to turn his attention two once Bower finishes swimming for his Panthers.
He plans to get a master’s degree after he earns his bachelor’s degree in athletic training in 2013. He is still choosing a school but trying to find a graduate assistant job that will allow him to stay involved with swimming as either a coach or trainer.
There is also a wedding on the horizon. Bower got engaged to Katy Satterfield three years ago at Christmas when he was a freshman. He says the two are waiting to get married until Satterfield finishes her bachelor’s at EIU.
But soon he will have more time to devote to a master’s degree and a fiancée. For the first time since Bower was 12 years old, there will not be a swimming practice just around the corner.
“I will sometimes sit back and think, ‘I wonder what it’s like to be a normal college student,’” Bower says.
But for all the two-a-day practices he endured, it has been worth it to be one of a handful of Charleston athletes to compete for the Eastern Illinois University swimming team.
“I’ve loved every minute coming here,” Bower says. “It was always my dream to come and swim at Eastern. … Really, I just feel blessed that I’ve been able to be given the opportunity to have that happen.”
Contact Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-238-6868.