BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – At the end of last February, Zach Yeadon was riding high.
The Reagan High School alumnus had just capped a brilliant ACC Championship performance as a member of the Notre Dame men’s swim team by posting a meet record in the 1,650 yard Freestyle, clocking in at 14 minutes, 27.93 seconds. He also won the 500 yard Freestyle in pool record fashion, finishing in 4:10.39. Those were the first individual titles of his college career, and both of those times were school records as well. Those marks placed him right in the mix for a national title at NCAAs later in the month.
Fourteen days later, the entire sports world was shut down by COVID-19. That included the 2020 Men’s NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships, which was canceled outright.
“I had gone in and done a dry-land workout, and Duke and maybe Kansas had just dropped out of the March Madness tournament,” Yeadon recalled. “We all knew that wasn’t good with NCAAs two weeks out. We finished the dry-land after 30 minutes, and we sat down for a team meeting. Our head coach, Mike Litzinger, tells us that the ACC has pulled out of the tournament. It’s done. We’re going to get some flights for you guys to ship home.”
In the immediate aftermath, Yeadon found himself in unfamiliar territory. His family had just moved to Minneapolis, and most of the club teams in the area were closing up shop. Suddenly, finding a pool was difficult. In fact, Yeadon wasn’t able to touch the water until mid June. For three months, he was left in limbo, but the time away from practice provided him an opportunity to reflect and gain new perspective on his relationship with the sport. When he finally did dive in again, he did so with a fresh mindset.
“The first two weeks getting back hurt, trying to get that aerobic base back up after being out so long,” Yeadon said. “Since then, it’s just been a progressive thing, and it’s really given me a sense of gratitude for being in the water at all. I was just really grateful that I had a great ACC Conference meet, and I felt like I put a lot out there. While I thought I could definitely do better than that at NCAAs, I was thankful that I had that good meet to leave the year on a good note in spite of all the things that were happening.”
TONIGHT on #InstantReplay: @reaganwayrhs's Zach Yeadon talks transferring to @calmenswim for his senior season amidst the pandemic and hopes for Olympic Trials this summer! #KSATsports @InstantReplaySA @Rattlersports pic.twitter.com/JW9YNddmkr— Andrew Cely (@ACelySports) January 17, 2021
It was during those middle months of April and May when Yeadon realized he was at a crossroads. With the Olympic Games postponed from 2020 to 2021, the San Antonio native realized he was going to have a prime opportunity to qualify for Tokyo. Upon discussing his options with his family and recalibrating his aspirations, Yeadon decided it was time for a chance of scenery. He entered the transfer portal.
“I’ve got one year left, and I’ve had great success at Notre Dame,” Yeadon said. “It was really transformative, and it made me into a better swimmer and a better person. I made some great friends. I actually met my current girlfriend there. We’ve been dating for two years, and she still goes to Notre Dame. But in terms of swimming, I wanted to reach the next level. Now that I have one more year before trials, I needed to make sure that I could put myself in the best position possible to make an Olympic team.”
There were two universities that held his interest, both powerhouses in the collegiate swimming world: the University of Texas and the University of California at Berkeley. The Longhorns and Golden Bears have won nine of the last ten national championships, and the most recent Olympic rosters have been filled with their alumni. Yeadon did have previous experience practicing at Texas. He swam with them during the summer after his sophomore season, and he learned firsthand just how intense practices with elite level competition can be.
Ultimately, after multiple conversations with Cal head coach Dave Durden and assistant coach Chase Kreitler, Yeadon decided to join the reigning national champions and become a Golden Bear.
“Zach reached out to our program, and he’s a phenomenal talent, great swimmer,” Durden said. “He was on the World University Games team in 2019. [Cal] had a group of guys on that team. Chase was on staff for that team, and that’s how that process started. From there, Chase, myself, Zach and his family got on the horn. He entered the transfer portal, and the next thing you know it was kind of fast and furious. We were fortunate, not just because of his talent in the pool, but because his personality is one that our guys are really enjoying and jelling with.”
“I had known [Cal distance swimmer] Sean Grieshop from high school back when he swam at Nitro in Austin, and I felt confident about Dave and Chase getting me to that next level,” Yeadon said. “I would like to be able to do some professional swimming after college. That’s part of the reason I came here as well, to be able to have that base of training with an elite pro group, and I’m well adjusted to the heat, coming from San Antonio. It’s nice to see the sun. At Notre Dame, it was oftentimes pretty cold during the winter with lots of snow, and that’s been a breath of fresh air. Being able to swim outside, being able to wear shorts really improves my mood and really makes it easier to lock into practice.”
Cal is no stranger to high-profile transfers. Breaststroker Chuck Katis and versatile sprinter Tony Cox are just two of the biggest names that have contributed to team and relay titles in the last decade. Yeadon hopes to do his part this season, and alongside Grieshop, who secured three top-four finishes in the 500 yard Freestyle, 400 yard Individual Medley and the mile at the 2019 NCAA Championships, the two might just be the best distance swimming tandem in the nation. But as a senior who has shouldered the weight of expectations his entire career, Yeadon isn’t letting the pressure of expectations affect him.
“I think the great thing about Zach coming into our program as a senior is that you have a level of maturity,” Durden explained. “You have a level of understanding about your swimming that’s better than a freshman. You understand the college system a little bit better. You understand where your energies are going to be spent. So for us, it is a matter of sitting down and asking Zach, ‘Where do you want this to go? How do you want this to end?’ We’re more of the editor, not necessarily the person that’s writing this chapter of his novel. We might suggest a comma or a period, but he’s in charge of the story.”
There’s still no guarantee that there will be an NCAA Championship meet this year. Cal has only competed in a pair of dual meets against Stanford in mid-November. Yeadon won all three of his individual events over that eight-day stretch.
But while college swimming remains a question mark, it does appear that professional swimming is returning to a semblance of normalcy. This week, San Antonio hosted a portion of the TYR Pro Swim Series, the first major meet of the year, and new safety regulations didn’t get in the way of fast swimming. That is certainly a positive sign as the calendar moves closer and closer to the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. Another thing working in Yeadon’s favor this year is the addition of the 800 meter Freestyle to the Olympic event list for the first time since 1904. As a result, Yeadon will have another opportunity to qualify for this year’s games in Tokyo, and with newfound enthusiasm and focus, anything is possible.
“While I thought I was in a fantastic position to do great at Trials last year, I undoubtedly think that I will be in an even better spot this year,” Yeadon said. “Even with the whacky training with all of the restrictions and everything, I still believe that this is a great place to be to help me prepare. Being in that culture, where there’s more than one guys that’s trying to get ready for Trials, and there’s 10 or 15, swimming with guys like tom Shields and Nathan Adrian is great. They’ve really embraced me and made me feel at home.”
The Men’s NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships are currently scheduled for March 24-27 at Greensboro Aquatic Center. The 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials will be held in Omaha Nebraska from June 21-28.