Austin Pyrch chases second championship of 2017-2018 with men's swimming & diving
At his first GW men’s water polo practice, Barry King was somewhat concerned to see a goalkeeper take the lead in conditioning.
Watching those laps back in August, the veteran coach figured the rest of the Colonials had some serious work ahead to get in proper shape for the quickly approaching season.
It didn’t take King long to realize that oft-repeated scene said much more about Austin Pyrch than anybody else.
“He was the fastest guy in the pool,” King said. “And it was effortless.”
After helping GW capture its first Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference title in the fall, Pyrch has found another use for that speed. The junior from Texas joined the swimming and diving team in December and has made an impressive transition.
Pyrch heads to the A-10 Swimming and Diving Championships next week in Geneva, Ohio, hoping to help the Colonials earn a repeat conference crown and his second title celebration of the school year. The sprinter has won races in both of his dual meets since ending a three-year break from competitive swimming, and he enters the conference meet ranked seventh in the 50-yard freestyle (20.97 seconds).
“I’m excited to see what I can do and what the outcome will be,” Pyrch said. “I don’t even know what I’m capable of at this point, and I don’t think anybody else does. It’ll be a big surprise to see what’ll happen.”
Pyrch arrived in Foggy Bottom in the fall 2015 with this path in mind. It’s been done before, most notably by David Zenk, who was GW’s first water polo All-American and a three-time Most Outstanding Performer at the A-10 Swimming and Diving Championships before graduating in 2009.
That Pyrch has achieved success in both sports after a slight detour is a testament to his hard work and physical gifts.
He was a water polo All-American and record-breaking swimmer at Billy Ryan High School in Denton, Texas. He pulled double-duty in his first semester at GW, mixing in early morning workouts with the swim team during his freshman water polo season.
Pyrch’s plan changed when he received an invitation to compete in USA Water Polo’s National League during the spring of 2016. After much thought, he opted to step away from swimming for the chance to compete alongside some of the nation’s best water polo players.
“It was a great opportunity for me,” said Pyrch, who was one of only five East Coast players to compete in the California-based league that season. “Honestly, it was a very big honor just to be invited.”
Pyrch turned his focus completely to water polo, but he never lost his speed in the pool nor the itch to compete.
His road back to swimming started in the fall with a conversation with King. Pyrch looked to the Smith Center Pool record board and said he believed he could challenge some of the times.
That led to an e-mail to swimming and diving head coach James Winchester and then a face-to-face meeting.
“I told him everything that he’d do would have to be earned,” Winchester said. “I wanted to give him the same opportunity as everyone else, but he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Pyrch agreed, though his start date with the swimmers did get postponed by a week.
Throughout the fall, Pyrch impressed King with his continued progress in net. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound junior split time with Vaios Vlahotasios for a squad that played its best at the right time.
At the MAWPC Tournament, Pyrch totaled 23 saves in three victories en route to Second Team All-Tournament honors. He was in the cage for the closing seconds of the Nov. 19 championship win over Wagner, which clinched the program’s first national tournament appearance.
He made seven more saves the next weekend at Harvard, where the Colonials battled the Crimson into overtime in their NCAA debut before falling, 15-13.
At that point, King was happy to turn Pyrch over to Winchester.
“I think that says something about what he got out of the water polo season,” King said. “We had that success and he saw that opportunity to kind of continue it. It was like ‘Hey, it’s fun to be on good teams,’ and that was something that he wanted to keep pushing forward.”
Pyrch immediately turned the page on his new adventure.
Following the NCAA loss, it was after midnight when the bus arrived back on campus. The next morning, Pyrch was up bright and early for a run and a stop in the weight room.
Since then, Pyrch has been all swimming all the time, which means twice daily practices that have served as a crash course in the finer points of the sport. He’s been careful with his body, adding in extra stretching and shoulder exercises to handle the new workload.
“It’s something I still love to do,” Pyrch said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love it. I still have that passion and that drive to push and compete and do well.”
Pyrch was particularly proud of his efforts on the team’s winter training trip to Miami last month.
Winchester told him to sit out sets, if needed, during the team’s most grueling practices of the year. Pyrch expected to take him up on the offer but ultimately pushed through. In the end, his aching muscles provided satisfaction that he was on the right track.
“It was tough,” Pyrch said. “That was by far the most yardage and magnitude of swimming I’ve ever put in, including high school, but I knew I needed to throw down some real work and effort to really get in shape to be where I wanted to be.”
The results have shown with Pyrch taking his place among GW's top sprinters. He won the 50 free in his collegiate debut in a tri-meet at American on Jan. 13 and then bettered that mark in a Senior Day win against Old Dominion a week later.
“When we do the short, fast stuff, you can really see it,” said Gustav Hokfelt, a senior who claimed six gold medals at last season’s A-10 Championships. “He just goes.”
Now, Pyrch is counting down to his first trip to the A-10 Championships, where he’ll look to take down opponents who have been training since last year with this meet in mind.
The dual-sport standout is feeling confident, though. Every practice offers another opportunity to drill the starts and turns that make a difference in races decided by fractions of a second. At the conference meet, he’ll be wearing a racing suit and coming off tapered training for the first time since high school.
Perhaps as important, Pyrch knows what it takes to be a champion.
“I’m excited to see what Austin can do,” Winchester said. “It’s a new environment, but at the same time, there’s really no pressure.
"He’s come in and done everything we’ve asked, and he’s really competed. As long as he maintains doing those things, I believe he’ll have, as the team will, too, a successful conference championship.”
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