Christian Vanderkaay

Year: Fifth-year senior

Birthday: March 29, 1982

Major: Biology

Strokes: Breaststroke, butterfly

Awards: Two-time Academic All-Big Ten; Four-time U-M Athletic Academic Achievement; 2004 NCAA All-American

 

As late as his senior year of high school, Christian was uncertain whether he wanted to pursue swimming at the collegiate level.

The valedictorian of his class at Rochester Adams High School, Christian was primarily interested in pursuing his education. He waited until April of his senior year of high school to decide to try to walk on to Michigan’s team.

Then-coach Jon Urbanchek saw potential in the young swimmer and gave him a spot on the team.

“He was a quiet leader,” Urbanchek said. “He just let the swimming do the talking.”

Christian is often described as a reserved and studious person, but his family and teammates know him for his subtle humorous side and for being a strong motivator.

“Christian is a fairly quiet kid,” his father, Mark, said. “I think my wife laments a bit because she wishes he was more social, but he is a strong individual and a great leader.”

Christian started swimming competitively at age seven with the Oakland Live Y’ers, a team based in Oakland County in suburban Detriot.

“Christian wasn’t particularly good at anything else besides swimming,” joked Mark. “When he joined (The Live Y’ers), it just sort of took off for him.”

Becoming one of the premier club swimmers at a young age, Christian was influential in pushing his brothers to become more interested in the sport.

“Christian was the best of the three boys for a long time,” Live Y’ers coach Jeff Cooper said. “He was an impressive swimmer. I think watching him do so well made Peter and Alex want to step their swimming up.”

His younger brothers raced him after practices and always lost to him. Now, Christian says that they could probably beat him fairly handily.

Christian was forced to medical-redshirt for his junior year after overworking his shoulder in the summer of 2002. Even after enduring a painful surgery and hours of intense rehabilitation, Christian was determined to get back in the pool.

“I’ve never seen an athlete put 150 percent effort into rehab,” Urbanchek said. “Most people would give up. But he fought back from surgery and was able to return to an even higher level of swimming. It was pure hard-work ethic.”

Now in his final year of eligibility, Christian is applying to medical schools and preparing for the end of his collegiate swimming career.

“It has been a great experience (swimming for Michigan),” Christian said. “It has taught me most of the life lessons that I will live by for the rest of my life.”

Peter Vanderkaay

Year: Junior

Birthday: Feb. 12, 1984

Major: Biology

Stroke: Freestyle

Awards: Olympic gold medal in Athens in 800-meter freestyle relay; three-time NCAA champion in 400-meter freestyle, 1,500-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle relay; seven-time NCAA All-American; 2004 Big Ten co-Swimmer of the Year; 2003 Big Ten freshman of the year; six-time Big Ten Champion and eight-time Big Ten Swimmer of the Week.

 

When Peter first started swimming, Live Y’ers coach Jeff Cooper had his doubts about a future in swimming for the young boy. He was small and didn’t have the raw abilities to make it as a great athlete. He never could have believed that Peter would make it to the Olympics one day.

“Peter was the worst of his brothers when I first started coaching,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school did I ever think he might have a shot at a higher level of swimming.”

Around the age of 15, Peter grew about seven or eight inches and became a much stronger swimmer. Peter quietly pursued a tougher training regimen and worked his way to becoming a faster swimmer. With sufficient time drops, Peter made himself a promising candidate for top Division I programs. Peter’s decision to come to Michigan was a combination of wanting to work with Jon Urbanchek, one of the best long distance coaches in the country, and being near Christian.

“When I recruited Peter he casually dropped the idea that he wanted to make the (2004) Olympic team,” Urbanchek said. “At that moment, I knew (Michigan) was the place for him. Although I didn’t have a crystal ball, I lived up to my word.”

This past summer, Peter competed in Athens at the 2004 Olympic Games, earning himself a spot on the 800-meter relay. The team outtouched the Australians for the gold medal.

“It was awesome,” Peter said. “It was better than I ever thought or dreamed it would be.”

Peter’s parents made the trip to Athens to watch him, but Christian and Alex stayed at home and watched the race on television with their younger brother, Dane.

“We watched it live on CBC,” Christian said. “Then we watched it later (on NBC) that night, and it was just as exciting.  Only this time, everyone else saw it too. We got about 50 phone calls after he won.”

Coach Bob Bowman met Peter this past summer during Olympic training and was impressed with his work ethic and racing style.

“What I would hope for Peter is that he continues to broaden his horizons and really see himself as one of the premier swimmers in this country,” Bowman said. “He is a hard worker and will really get far with his abilities.”

Alex Vanderkaay

Year: Freshman

Birthday: June 21, 1986

Major: Engineering

Strokes: Freestyle, butterfly

Awards: Finished 19th in the 200-meter butterfly at the Olympic Trials

 

When asked about Alex Vanderkaay, most people who know him well get a funny smile on their face, which is followed by a big smile.  “Oh, Alex.”

Labeled as the clown of the family, Alex is best known for his hilarious impersonations — Napoleon Dynamite and Anchorman are his best.

“Down the line, (the boys) become less introverted and more extroverted,” their father, Mark, said. “Alex is just known as the comedian of our family.”

Alex began swimming when he was five years old, and he joined his brothers on the Live Y’ers team when he was seven. Live Y’er coach Jeff Cooper remembered when Alex joined the team — not because he was the third Vanderkaay, but because of his potential to become a great swimmer.

“Alex had two older brothers to live up to,” Cooper said. “So I think he was pretty motivated to do as well as them.”

Since Alex attended the same high school as Peter for two years, the two brothers got the opportunity to swim together.

“We both swam the 500 (freestyle), and we’d have to compete against each other,” Alex said. “I just remember that being a big thing, seeing us both up on the blocks together. I thought that was really cool.”

When Alex began making college visits in his senior year, Michigan was near the top of his list, but he made sure to look around and be certain that it was the place for him.

“Alex was thinking about jumping ship and going to the University of Florida for a while,” Mark said. “But he was interested in engineering, and so, for what he wanted to do, Michigan was the place for him.”

Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek remembered one of the reasons he wanted Alex to be a Wolverine.

“I figured you couldn’t go wrong with another Vanderkaay,” Urbanchek said. “So I recruited Alex.”

Now in his first year at Michigan, Alex has made great strides in becoming one of the most pivotal freshman swimmers.

“Alex is going to be a swimmer to watch in the near future,” Bob Bowman said. “He is a hard worker and is always consistent.”

 

No Kidding?

The three on Mom’s reaction to having four boys:

— “She took it as well as she could,” Peter said. “I hope we weren’t too hard on her.”

— “We had two female dogs,” Alex said. “So I think that may have balanced it out. Or at least that’s what she says.”

What they miss most about home:

— “The food,” Christian said.

— “My bed back home,” Alex said. “Oh, and my parents, I think they’d like to hear that.”

The three on youngest brother Dane:

— “He never got it as bad as us,” Alex said. “That whole discipline thing just sort of disappeared.”

— “I think our parents are just straight up tired of raising kids,” Peter said. “I think they’ll be pretty happy with all of us out of the house.”

(They have three more years to go since Dane is a freshman in high school.)

 

View from the top

Previous Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek on the three:

— “Jokingly, I asked (Robin) if there was any possibility for any more little Vanderkaays. She politely said, ‘Probably not.’ But I would have loved a couple more.”

Live Y’ers coach Jeff Cooper on coaching the three:

— “They are everything a coach could dream for. They sacrificed everything they could and had to make decisions that were difficult. All three did exactly what they needed to do to make themselves better. I had very little to do with their successes. I just provided the environment.”

Cooper on the boys’ personalities:

— “Both Christian and Peter are a piece of work. They have a sense of humor — like their father — which is off-the-cuff and subtle. Alex is more blunt about his humor.”

— “They are no longer my swimmers. Now I just consider them my friends. I talk to them about once a month and sometimes come up to Ann Arbor for dinner with them.”

 

From the backyard pool

The Vanderkaays on raising four boys:

— “I really thought we’d get a girl in there,” Robin said. “But they are great guys, and we are really blessed.”

— “We had to be very organized,” Mark said. “We’d usually turn swim meets that were outside of Michigan into our vacation time and make a thing out of them.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.