As Bowe Becker climbed out of the water, he instantly began dissecting his swim in the preliminaries of the 50-yard freestyle at the Big Ten championships. The Gophers junior focused on the flaws in his technique, barely noticing the number on the scoreboard: a time of 18.69 seconds, a conference record.
“I didn’t think it was actually that good,” Becker said. “I was picking out the things I could work on. Then [associate head coach] Gideon [Louw] reminded me, ‘Dude, that’s fast. Be happy with it.’ But I felt like I had so much more room for improvement.”
A month later, Becker chuckled at his single-mindedness. Still, there’s no doubt his breakthrough season — which continues at this week’s NCAA championships — owes much to that new attitude. After his record swim, Becker won the Big Ten title in the 50 free, then followed up with a silver medal in the 100 free in a school-record time of 41.61.
At the NCAA championships, which begin Wednesday at the U’s Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center, the Las Vegas native is seeded second in the 50 free behind defending champion Caeleb Dressel of Florida. Becker also is seeded fifth in the 100 free and will swim four of five relays during the four-day meet. It’s not something he expected when he started swimming at age 11 as therapy for rheumatoid arthritis, but coach Kelly Kremer said Becker has only begun to tap into his talent.
“I thought, ‘If this guy works really hard and embraces what he’s doing, he could be good,’ ” Kremer said. “And he’s proving to be really, really good.
“He had to kind of convince himself and believe in himself a little bit more. Now, because of the success he’s had, he’s starting to have a vision of much bigger things. I can’t wait to see the next step of growth with him.”
Becker wasn’t interested in swimming as a kid, but after he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it was the only sport in which he could participate. Though he won a state high school championship in the 50 free when he was 14, he didn’t attract any interest from college coaches.
Kremer stumbled onto Becker when he was recruiting another swimmer in Becker’s club. The coach wasn’t impressed while watching him at slow speed in distance workouts. Once he started sprinting, Kremer said, “everything connected,” and he saw a potential star.
Becker still is affected by rheumatoid arthritis; he cannot run, and he has to pay careful attention to his body, particularly in the weight room and when he is kicking in practice. It has not limited his progress. Named the Gophers’ most improved swimmer as a freshman, he placed seventh at the Big Ten championships in both the 50 and 100 free, then finished fourth in both races as a sophomore.
This season, he set a goal to get on the podium. Becker committed himself to getting the most out of every workout, grinding away all season to ensure he would be ready to swim his fastest in February and March.
“I wanted to come to practice every day and not regret anything,” Becker said. “I didn’t want to waste time. I wanted to do the work. And I really wanted to medal at the Big Tens and be up there with the big boys.”
Though he once was told his lanky, 6-3 frame was suited for distance swimming, Becker always has preferred the thrill of speeding full tilt through the water. Focusing on sprint training under the guidance of Louw has allowed him to thrive, as has his hunger to work on the fine details necessary to swimming fast.
Kremer said he believes Becker, who has grown more comfortable with higher expectations, can drop more time at the NCAA meet.
“I’m not surprised by anything Bowe does now,” Kremer said. “He’s improving fast. He’s doing things that are world-class now.”
Whatever Becker does this week, chances are he will find something to improve upon. Still, he wants to make sure he enjoys the moment.
“I want to go faster, and I feel like if I have that perfect race, I definitely could,” he said. “The NCAAs are so intense, and so much fun. And to have it at my home pool is such an awesome gift. I’m really grateful for this opportunity.”