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Men’s Swimming: Stephens leads by example

Mary Green | Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ask Irish head coach Tim Welsh to name the best race he has ever seen from junior Zach Stephens – one that sticks out more than the others – and he might have a difficult time choosing just one.
“There have been lots of them,” Welsh said. “I know at one point, we kept moving him around, and he kept doing well, and we thought, maybe we should just ask him what he could swim.”
For now, Stephens seems to have found his place in the 200-yard breaststroke, an event in which he holds a school record in a blazing 1:55.21, set at last year’s Big East Championships. And whose record did he break? His own: He’s held the mark since his freshman year.
Welsh said he remembers a particularly good race for Stephens in that event against Louisville last season.
“One of the most outstanding races [at Rolfs Aquatic Center] was probably when he went under two minutes in the 200[-yard] breaststroke last year,” Welsh said. “And he did that just in the middle of a dual meet, and I thought, oh my goodness, this is just outstanding.”
But, as Welsh said, Stephens is no one-trick pony. In his sophomore year, he claimed first place in the 50-yard freestyle, 200-yard freestyle, 100-yard breaststroke, 200-yard breaststroke and 100-yard butterfly in meets throughout the season. He also finished outside the top-two positions in individual events in dual meets just three times that year.
“He’s a really, really, really good competitor,” Welsh said. “He’s a very intense racer. He’s a very good competitor.”
Welsh said the drive that fuels the Bloomsburg, Pa., native to victory is something he developed over his time at Notre Dame.
“As he’s gotten better, he’s learned to give himself to a race,” Welsh said. “Everybody kind of swims with what they have, but with Zach, what makes him such a good competitor is that he’s able to just give himself completely to a race. There’s an extra gear in there somewhere, and he finds it.”
With all the success he has had over the past two-plus season and the accolades he has collected, including last year’s Monogram Club Most Valuable Player award, voted by his teammates, Stephens has reason to be a little confident. But Welsh said confidence never translates into cockiness on the pool deck.
“He’s a modest, unassuming guy, so you’re not going to hear any bragging or boasting from him; you’re not going to see any trash talk from him,” Welsh said. “He just takes care of business.”
That combination of success and modesty has made a popular teammate out of Stephens, whose sister, Jessica, swam for the Irish from 2003 to 2007.
“He is a team player,” Welsh said. “When he’s with the guys him, on the bus traveling to meet, wherever, he’s a team player. The guys like him, he likes the guys, and he’s very supportive of the program.
“He’s not self-inflated at all; he’s just a quiet, modest, hardworking, tough-as-nails competitor.”
Stephens will next put that competitive drive on display Saturday, when the he and the Irish take on Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech in Pittsburgh.
Contact Mary Green at mgreen8@nd.edu