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Men’s Swimming: North Baltimore’s Wills shines for Irish

Molly Sammon | Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Last summer, millions from all corners of the world diligently watched the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. For most, it was just a source of national pride, but for Notre Dame sophomore swimmer Connor Wills, it was also a chance to watch a few of his former teammates go for the gold.

Wills is a graduate and athletic product of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, a very highly regarded swim academy that has produced seven recent Olympians. Among them is Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals in Beijing and became the highest gold medal recipient in men’s swimming history. Katie Hoff, who earned a silver medal and two bronzes for her individual medley and freestyle performances, also trained at North Baltimore.

“North Baltimore Aquatic club was intense,” said Willis, who began swimming at the age of five.

“He is quiet, talented, and smooth,” coach Tim Welsh said of Wills. “The water likes him and he likes the water.”

Wills developed most as an athlete outside of the arena of high school sports.

“High school swimming in Baltimore wasn’t serious, not like it is in the Midwest,” Wills said. “On the east coast it’s all about club swimming, so North Baltimore Aquatic Club was basically my high school team.”

When Wills was just 16 years old, he qualified for the Olympic trials at the junior nationals competition. He said he earned a spot mostly as a result of good coaching.

“It was completely unexpected,” Wills said. “I dropped four seconds in a two-hundred meter event, which is pretty unusual.”

A large age gap made direct competition with Phelps rare for Wills, but the two still met on occasion.

“I raced right next to him a handful of times at local Maryland meets, which was pretty special,” Wills said. “[The videos] should be cool to look back at in a few years.”

For the Irish, Wills competes in the 200-meter butterfly and backstroke events, and both the two hundred- and four hundred-meter individual medleys.

“I have progressed from last year, and my in-season times have been better overall,” Wills said. “But it’s really only fair to compare end-of-the-season times in order to get a clear look at the progression.”

Wills and the rest of the Irish will host the Shamrock Invitational next weekend. He said he is also looking forward to the Big East championships in Indianapolis in mid-February.

“The Big East is going to be a challenge, but it should be great,” Wills said. “I don’t

want to jinx anything, but we are looking really good in practice. I am only predicting fast times.”