David Fitch breaks NCAA Division III butterfly record in unofficial meet to close season

  • Conway’s David Fitch swam the 100-yard butterfly in a time faster than the Division III record at an unofficial time trial, Friday at Kenyon College Gambier, Ohio. The meet was held in place of the canceled national championships. COURTESY SEJIN KIM/KENYON COLLEGE

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2020 1:39:33 PM

David Fitch’s roster page on the Kenyon College athletics website displays tables listing his performances at the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Division III swimming championships. He placed fourth two years ago and won two titles last year. There’s a table titled “2020 NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP MEET RESULTS” with cells for six events. They’ll never be filled.

The Conway native found out on Thursday that the 2020 championships were canceled and that he had less than two days to move off campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kenyon coach Jessen Book broke the news in a meeting and allowed his team time and space to reflect, talking about what that meant and the fact that the season was over. He and his staff also enacted one of the contingency plans they concocted as the spread of the COVID-19 virus canceled sporting events last week: a last hurrah time trial at the Steen Aquatic Center in Gambier, Ohio.

“Thursday night we realized things were changing and we met with our administrators and talked about what options we might have,” Book said. “During that window of time we could still organize something if we wanted to. We pulled together, in a few hours, the most epic time trial ever giving our kids a chance compete and have fun and race.”

So on top of packing to move out on very short notice, Fitch, a junior, also prepared to swim at a championship level. He wouldn’t have wanted anything else.

“I decided to keep the focus on what I could control. I had control over packing in the time that I could and coming and ready to race when it was time to race. I tried to keep it as simple as I could,” said Fitch, who attended the Williston Northampton School. “Before the meet it was difficult getting around the emotional hurdle that nationals was done. A lot of people sacrificed a lot throughout the year for the opportunity. Under the circumstances, the time trials was the best thing the coaches could have done.”

Kenyon’s coaches hung massive NCAA championship banners they poached from previous events. They set up an awards podium and handed out medals. There was an announcer, on-deck interviews and athlete hospitality.

“We had all the things the championships would have in our own version and our own way,” Book said.

The event featured two sessions on Friday – one in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening – and a Saturday morning session before the athletes left campus.

Fitch conjured a moment of catharsis Friday morning. He swam the 100-yard butterfly – an event he was the defending NCAA Division III champion in and Division III record holder – in 46.83 seconds. Had the meet been official, that would have broken his national record (46.92). His teammates celebrated like he broke the record anyway, “Oh my God, yay!” Zoe Toscos exclaimed over the event’s live stream.

“I wasn’t expecting to go as fast as I did,” Fitch said. “I knew the team needed to see a good time to get behind this meet.”

The 100 butterfly wasn’t even Fitch’s best swim. He separated his hands on the start and messed up his last turn and finish.

“It was the sloppiest 100 fly I’ve done all year,” Fitch said. “It was a fight getting through the emotions, then negative thoughts, just trying to swim through that.”

Book noticed the errors but didn’t fixate on them. He recognizes that practices are for details and great swims come from competing in the moment.

“It was full of heart and full of David,” Book said. “He’s a competitor and someone who believes in hard work, the team and being his very best for others.”

A defining element of the swim was Fitch’s use of flip turns at the walls rather than open turns. Normally swimmers touch the wall with both hands then kick their legs off it to go the other direction. Fitch, over the past three years, has perfected using a flip turn like in freestyle or backstroke to keep momentum.

“He’s not the first in the program to do it, but he’s the best in the program to do it,” Book said. “I believe we’ll see more of it in the future of swimming. David is a pioneer.”

Fitch began practicing the butterfly flip turn as a freshman at Kenyon. He overheard one of his teammates and assistant coach Hannah Saiz discussing swimming and the turn and decided to learn it himself.

The turn involves keeping the hips high and hands low on the touch then rolling over on the wall to preserve momentum. He struggled to grasp it at first, slamming his ankles on a gutter the first time he tried it in a meet.

“It’s picking up a whole new means of getting a turn, a whole new development,” Fitch said. “It’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks sort of thing.”

Fitch honed it over the next summer and had it down by the 2019 national championships.

“A lot of people ask me if it’s faster or why I do it,” Fitch said. “If it wasn’t faster I wouldn’t be doing it.”

He also swam a 50 freestyle in 19.75 seconds that set a pool record Friday morning. Though the times won’t be recognized nationally, Kenyon is treating the event as official and honoring the results as school and pool records. So for the time being, Kenyon’s school record in the 100 butterfly is faster than the NCAA Division III record. But they both belong to David Fitch.

“It was far from how we were expecting to end or hoping to end the season. Under the circumstances I’m proud of how the team was able to bound together and complete the season,” he said. “I think it was just a small taste of the progress I’ve made.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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