Tim Siciliano is, as his coach Jon Urbanchek said, a “superstar.” He is also a self-proclaimed “goofball,” whose post-graduation plans include skateboarding and sleeping in.
With three national titles in his pocket, this Michigan senior will be the focus of the entire 400-yard individual medley field at this month”s NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Athens, Ga.
If Siciliano wins, he will become just the second swimmer to win the 400 IM all four years and will join the elite ranks of eight men who own four titles in any event.
He hungers to regain the “exhilarating” feeling that only a championship can bring, but he doesn”t appear to be weighted down with pressure or expectations.
He”s too busy enjoying the last few weeks of life as he has always known it, and too excited about what”s ahead.
Siciliano said that other than becoming older and smarter, he hasn”t really changed much in his four years at Michigan, and you wonder if he”s changed much since he first started swimming 17 years ago.
He still has a boyish fascination with boats and airplanes, and he”s most at home in the water. Fishing, surfing, scuba diving whatever. He can”t get enough.
“I don”t know what it is about the water,” he said. “I think I”ve been around it so much that, just, I feel right in it, you know?”
He also has a deep appreciation of the Michigan swimming tradition. The record board in Canham Natatorium, packed with the names of the NCAA champions and Olympic medallists who came before him, serves as a motivational reminder of the prestige of the program.
Siciliano said swimming for the Wolverines is an incomparable honor.
“I hate to say this, but I mean, swimming for Michigan is like nothing I”ve ever done before,” he said, adding that competing in the World University Games last summer “just wasn”t the same.”
“I think swimming for Michigan is on a higher pedestal than swimming for the United States.”
Siciliano felt that pride right away, so much so that he got a big “M” tattoo on his left arm after NCAAs his freshman year.
“I”d never been on a team that was so close and a team that had so much tradition,” Siciliano said.
That bond with his teammates helped him get through a tough stretch this season. Although he was able to swim in all of Michigan”s meets, Siciliano missed significant training time because of a wear-and-tear shoulder injury that wouldn”t heal. He said the most frustrating part was “sitting up there on the bike that overlooks the pool, watching everyone swim and put in their hard work.”
As if being unable to swim wasn”t hard enough for a guy who loves the water, Siciliano felt isolated from his teammates. That is, until they started making fun of him.
“One of the guys, Ryan Earhart, he had this thing. Whenever I”d get up on the bike he”d call it the Tour de Timmy, and he”d be like “Hey, how”s the Tour going today?”” Siciliano said, cracking up just remembering it.
So Earhart got daily updates and a good laugh and Siciliano felt like part of the team again.
Siciliano said he could feel the effects of the injury at the Big Ten Championships last weekend, but his fourth conference title in the 400 IM, followed by a solid week of training, have convinced him that the shoulder has healed pretty well and just in time. The NCAA Championships are less than three weeks away.
When the race Siciliano has had in his sights all season finally arrives on March 29, he plans on keeping it simple. He doesn”t have a pre-race routine, and he doesn”t study his opponents.
But once he gets in the water, the strategy begins. Because the 400 IM involves four different strokes, and most swimmers specialize in one or two, Siciliano said the mental aspect is a bigger factor than in other races.
“It”s a mind game, really,” said Siciliano, who struggles in the backstroke but makes up for it in the breaststroke. “You can”t go out too fast, but you don”t want to get too far behind. It”s tough.”
Siciliano will have to out-swim and out-think an impressive collection of athletes in Athens.
“The event is very deep this year,” Siciliano said. “The field is going to be extremely fast. I definitely could say it”s probably going to be the fastest field of the 400 IM in the history of NCAAs.”
But Siciliano”s team thinks he has something that sets him apart from the rest of that field.
“His heart is just incredible,” junior Garrett Mangieri said with awe. “You can never count the kid out. I think he”s got a competitive edge that no one can touch. He just goes out there and does what he needs to do.”
Said Urbanchek: “He”s a hell of a competitor. If you give him an opportunity, Timmy will go.”
After winning three NCAA titles and four Big Ten titles, that competitiveness is something that keeps Siciliano from getting complacent.
“I think it is that,” he said. “I think it”s making everyone proud making my team proud and just making my school proud.”
For Siciliano, the best part of winning a national championship isn”t the ring or the recognition, but sharing the moment with his team.
“Jon (Urbanchek) comes over and shakes your hand,” Siciliano said. “He”s always got a big smile and everyone”s really happy for you. I like seeing that more than anything else. I like seeing other peoples” reactions, seeing everyone else so happy.”
While Siciliano wants that scene to play out one more time, his competitive fire is less about being the best and more about swimming his best.
“If I could go best time, I”d be extremely happy,” he said. “It”s kind of like the same feeling (as winning). Like “wow, I just went faster then I”ve ever been before.””
No matter how he does at NCAAs, it will be his last weekend of competing. All eight swimmers who have won four NCAA championships have gone on to earn Olympic medals, but whether he joins that list or not, Siciliano is calling it a career.
He said thinking about climbing out of the pool for the last time “is definitely strange. I”m kind of anxious in a way. I”m sad for it to be over, but I kind of want it to be over, because I want to try new things and do other things.”
Siciliano has no idea what life after swimming will bring, but he can”t wait to find out. Four years of being the best in the country have not exactly left him with a lot a free time. So like a fourth grader thinking about summer vacation, Siciliano is just looking forward to the possibilities. He”s planning a road trip home to San Diego after he graduates in the spring.
“I”m definitely going to try and pick back up because when I was a little kid I used to skateboard so I really want to skateboard again,” Siciliano said. “And then, like, snowboard and stuff. I”m anxious to do other things.”
After that, Siciliano said he”ll just see what happens, which makes him both excited and nervous.
“Excited because I don”t know where I”m going to be, because who knows?” Siciliano said. “I”ve never really not known where I”m going to be, so it”s kind of fun in that sense. But it”s definitely nerve-wracking because I have no idea what”s going to happen.”
Whatever Siciliano ends up doing, you can bet that he”ll be giving his all. And that he won”t forget that “M” on his arm or that goofy kid inside.