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Behind the scenes, trainer prepares athletes for glory

BY RYAN A. PODGES
Daily Sports Writer
Published January 31, 2008

It's 4:50 a.m., and despite the freezing temperature outside, swimming and diving athletic trainer Keenan Robinson is the first to arrive at Canham Natatorium for morning practice.

Before he turns on the lights, the building is completely dark, except for a red glow flickering in the back corner. The light shines from a countdown clock ticking away the seconds until the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing begin. The clock is a motivation tool installed by Michigan coach Bob Bowman shortly after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

"Most people thought he put it up for only one person, Michael Phelps," Robinson said of Bowman. "He told me, 'Everybody thinks the Olympics are great every four years, but I have to do something every day for each one of these kids so that they have the opportunity to make it to Beijing.' And I know that that's the approach I have to take."

As the athletic trainer for the men's and women's swimming and diving teams, Robinson is responsible for keeping the athletes' bodies healthy and in top physical condition during their season. He's also a trainer for Club Wolverine, a group of post-graduate and professional swimmers, and will work with the U.S. Olympic swim team this summer.

Robinson works with some of the biggest names in swimming, including Kaitlin Sandeno, Erik Vendt and Phelps. But strangely, when he accepted the job four years ago after graduating from Adrian College, he had no swimming experience, had never seen a swim meet and even admits he didn't know who Phelps was.

Today, though, there are few people who are more proud to be a part of the rich tradition of Michigan swimming.

"Men's swimming has won more national championships than any other sport at this University," Robinson said. "Everyday I come in, I have a constant reminder of how special it is to work here and how lucky I am to work for Michigan Swimming."

Robinson works all day, even though his routine starts well before the crack of dawn. His mornings include preparing Gatorade and milkshakes for the team, helping with stretches and massages before practice at 5:15 a.m. and even performing some electrotherapy. Through the afternoon, athletes come to Robinson for physical therapy, and during practices he can be found strolling the pool deck, making sure swimmers are performing at their best.

Practice ends at 5 p.m., which means there's still weight training or dry-land exercises for teams to go through. Robinson is still available to help with the team's aches and pains following workouts.

As if his job didn't keep him busy enough, Robinson has been a trainer at international swim meets like the 2007 Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At that meet, Robinson said having a roommate like Auburn coach David Marsh, who won a combined 12 NCAA titles with the Tigers, and talking to swimming legends like Gary Hall, taught him a lot about how he could work better with swimmers.

"It was a great experience and you just pick up a wealth of information," Robinson said. "I think it really helped with the type of care I've been able to provide the athletes at Michigan."

After the Olympic trials in July, Robinson was selected by USA Swimming to work with the U.S. Olympic team during its training at Stanford before departing for Beijing. In the future, he aspires to be a trainer for the U.S. Olympic team at the 2012 games in London.

While Robinson may train with several high-profile athletes, his work remains mostly behind the scenes.

"It's all about the athletes and coaches," he said. "That's what people come to see and I just try to get them out there. I think in the past the attitude was just tough it out, but (trainers) have become more important because we have allowed athletes to prolong their careers."

Robinson says he could see himself working to prolong the careers of Michigan athletes for the rest of his career.

This might seem like a long time, but he knows as soon as the last race ends in Beijing, the clocks starts counting down to 2012.