Swimming is a sport dominated by seconds.

Races are won and lost, records are set and subsequently fall and heroes are born based solely on the ticking of a clock.

In such a black-and-white, cut-and-dried world, Eric Namesnik never should’ve had a chance.

After all, he was dwarfed by his tall, lanky peers. And he would’ve been the first to admit he wasn’t at the top of the list in the talent department, either.

So competing against athletes who were far bigger and more gifted, “Snik” wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if he had faded from the scene as an anonymous have-not when he graduated from the University in 1993.

In a way, Snik was defined by another kind of seconds. You see, most people who never met him personally might point to his two Olympic silver medals from 400-meter individual medleys in 1992 and 1996 – the latter of which came after he lost by a fraction of a second – as his defining career achievements, a testament to his status as the ultimate runner-up.

But it would be grossly unfair to judge Snik based on his lack of an NCAA Championship or an Olympic gold medal, because he was the epitome of a winner in the game of life.

I got to know Snik in the fall of 2003 when I started working at the Daily. Aside from a few attempts at women’s golf stories, the first team I covered was the men’s swimming and diving squad. It was Snik’s last year as an assistant coach at Michigan.

As the season progressed, I found myself talking to Snik more and more. Part of the early silence had to do with my inexperience as a sports writer, and part of it probably stemmed from Snik’s naturally quiet demeanor. But as the topics of conversation gradually shifted from strict swimming strategy to more personal areas, I began to realize that Snik wasn’t simply a monomaniacal competitor. He was a joker, a friend, a father, a husband, a teammate and a trusted confidant.

We spoke about then-coach Jon Urbanchek’s amazing stash of rings, watches and other awards from decades of swimming and coaching

“It looked like a pawn shop in there,” I’ll never forget Snik telling me after shooting a glance into Urbanchek’s prize-filled office.

He reminisced about that final race in Atlanta in 1996 – when he finished behind fellow Wolverine Tom Dolan – and his intense desire to win gold for his family and his coach, rather than for himself.

He even remembered what he was thinking on the block before the final heat began: Just leave nothing. Don’t leave anything to doubt on yourself.

So when Snik died a week ago at age 35, a few days after suffering serious injuries in a car accident, I was devastated. I didn’t know him for very long. We weren’t especially close and hadn’t spoken in some time. But Snik left a lasting impression on everybody he came in contact with.

I’ll never forget those afternoons I spent standing next to Snik on the pool deck at Canham Natatorium. The overpowering stench of chlorine was a welcome respite from the cold outside. Snik would monitor the Wolverines’ times as he talked slowly and casually, the swimmers occasionally splashing us at the wall as they made their turns. It’s a scene that will stay with me forever.

Last night, an event at Canham celebrated Snik with speeches and a slideshow. Snik’s wife, Kirsten, and two young children, Austin and Madison, were on hand. The tremendous turnout was a testament to just how many lives Snik touched in his brief yet brilliant life.

As I watched images of Snik flash on a projection screen at the far end of the darkened pool, the reflection of those pictures superimposed on the serene water between the lane markers, I remembered something Urbanchek told me last week:

“The lights went out, but the Olympic torch is still burning in heaven,” Urbanchek said. “He’s going to walk right in there carrying the torch.”

Rest in peace, Snik. We’ll miss you.

– Gabe Edelson can be reached at gedelson@umich.edu. A trust fund has been organized to support Austin and Madison. To donate, please make checks payable to “SNIK’S KIDS” or “The Eric Namesnik Memorial Fund.” Donations should be mailed to: SNIK’S KIDS, United Bank and Trust, 2723 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48104.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *