February 21st, 2013

Brains and Braun: Trinity's Thomas Cooper

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Paul Najjar

Senior Writer

Brains and Braun: Trinity's Thomas Cooper
Trinity's Thomas Cooper starts in backstroke event / photo from Thomas Cooper

Superior talent looking forward to challenges in the pool

Thomas Cooper is among the fastest swimmers in the nation. The Trinity High School junior is a rare talent with lofty goals. Among them: make the national team and then the Olympics.

When he burst on the swim scene as a freshman, Cooper won the 50-yard freestyle and took second in the 100 free at the state meet. As a sophomore, he won the 50 free with a time (20.66) that ranked him among the top 10 swimmers in the nation in that event for his age. He broke the high school state record in the 100 free with a 44.71 clocking, good enough to register as the fourth-fastest time for his age nationwide.

St. Xavier head coach Todd Larkin, whose team is competing for its 25th consecutive state swimming title, said of Cooper’s accomplishments at last year’s state meet: “He’s very, very talented and fun to watch. His fundamentals and technique are excellent and that’s what it takes to be an elite swimmer.”

But it’s not about the past with this young man. Cooper has grown from a 6-foot freshman into a towering 6-4 junior. He carries about 185 pounds on his lanky, swimmer-friendly frame. To watch him swim, you would swear he was born to do it.

Scott Paulson, Cooper’s coach for the better part of the past eight years and associate head coach at Triton Swimming, knows his swimmer is capable of great things.

“His work ethic, his drive is incredible,” Paulson said. “His internal motivation to succeed is apparent every time he shows up on the pool deck. As soon as he’s in the water, he is 100 percent focused on accomplishing his goals. The sacrifices he makes to be a better swimmer are rare for a kid his age.”

And though he reached a bit of a plateau in his training and competition in the summer and fall of 2012, Cooper has rediscovered his form in his taller, more powerful body, and is ready to compete for two new state titles this weekend at the Kentucky state swim meet at the University of Louisville’s Ralph Wright Natatorium. Cooper will compete in the 200 free and the 100 fly. In the 200 free he will go head-to-head with Covington Catholic standout Max Williamson, winner of the 200 individual medley and the 500 free at the 2012 state meet.

“What’s helped me overcome that plateau, really, has been my mom and my coach,” said Cooper. “I went to winter juniors this year (the Winter Junior National swim meet in Knoxville) and got to compete against my peers. I had seen their names and times in the magazines, but to be able to see them in person and compete against them made them real and made me realize that they’re not 6 foot 8 and 250 pounds; that they’re just like me and I can swim as fast they can. One of the tough things for me was seeing these fast times and trying to get over that I couldn’t achieve those.”

Climbing the national swimming ladder is not just a physical grind, but a mental grind as well. The countless hours training in the water, in the weight room and in dry-land workouts for a brief splash in the pool can be a grueling test for the psyche.

“The mental side of swimming can become a physical limitation at times,” Paulson explained. “Thomas never stopped working to get over that hump. But he’s back to form, having fun with swimming and his times are dropping. We’ve tried having more fun in and out of the water. He loves a challenge and we’ve pursued going after some fast times at practice and getting personal bests out of him in the weight room. And for his dry-land workouts, when he really needs a break, he’s an incredible ultimate Frisbee competitor.”

Getting away from the pool and having fun with his workouts has reinvigorated the teen phenom.

“I just focus on my racing now and try to challenge myself to get better every time I train,” Cooper said. “My mom (Joan) always told me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. And Coach Paulson has pushed me to my limits and really has been an inspiration for me. I want to win every time I get in the pool, but I have to accept that I’m not going to win every race. I just want to put forth the best performance I can every time I compete.

“I’ve grown three or four inches in the last year and that’s been a challenge to figure out as well with regards to counting strokes and setting up my turns. But I’m motivated to keep moving forward with my training and career. Mentally, it’s tough when you hit that wall or start to feel tired, but you just have to put it out of your mind and break through that barrier. One thing I try to do is train myself not to think and just let my body take over in the water.”

The marriage of his mind and his talent has been a blessing and sometimes a curse; but much more of a blessing. He has a passion for facts—according to Paulson, Cooper would be a great candidate for Jeopardy!—and his favorite class is Physics.  

“I really enjoy reading and my friends tell me that I annoy them a bit with interesting facts that I pick up here and there,” he said with a chuckle. “But reading helps me relax and I love to learn.”

Sometimes those thoughts can cloud his performance. For Cooper, it’s about growing with his many talents; about figuring out the physics of the perfect race; about accomplishing his goals but not losing sight of the fun that can be had along the way.



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