U.S.'s Pilczuk has gone from unknown to world champion

Bill Pilczuk went into the 1998 World Swimming Championships in Perth, Australia, as a relative unknown. When he left, he was the fastest 50-meter swimmer in the world.

Pilczuk pulled off the unthinkable by winning the 50-meter freestyle, beating world record holder Aleksandr Popov of Russia. Popov hadn't lost in international competition since 1991, and for Pilczuk it was his first international win. It was just another amazing accomplishment for an athlete that took a different path to reach the pinnacle of his sport.

Bill's journey to the top, an unconventional one, began over 15 years ago when his grandmother suggested that he give the sport of swimming a try.

"I spent a lot of time at the beach when I was younger," says Pilczuk, who grew up in Cape May Point, N.J. "My grandma put me on a swim team when I was 12 years old, and I continued swimming through high school."

Bill didn't find immediate success in the sport.

"I was terrible," says Pilczuk, who never even made it to his high school state meet as an individual. "My league in high school wasn't very good, and I wasn't even the best swimmer in the league."

Bill stuck with the sport through high school, but had no intentions of swimming at the college level. In fact, he wasn't even planning on going to college.

"I never thought I would go to college," says Pilczuk, who wasn't recruited by any colleges in high school. "It wasn't until some of my friends said they were going to college, that I decided to go."

He decided that if he was going to go to college, he was going only for the swimming. With no original intention of attending college, he put little effort into academics in high school.

His GPA was so low that he was a Prop 48 athlete, meaning that he didn't meet the academic standards of a four-year college or university. He decided to take the junior college route.

"A friend of mine told me about the (junior college) scene in Florida, and said it was pretty good," he said. "I just started picking schools. I called the coach at Miami Dade Community College, and asked him if I could walk on. He just told me a day to come. My mom drove me down to Florida and just dropped me off."

Pilczuk spent the next two years at Dade. He started to see some results in his second year. He swam good enough to win the junior college title in the 50-meter free, but wasn't attracting attention from many schools.

"My high school coach knew the coach at Auburn, so he got the coach to let me come for a recruiting visit," says Pilczuk. "I even had to pay my own way for the recruiting trip."

With few options, Pilczuk finally chose to walk-on at Auburn. The transition from the junior college scene to a major college program took some time to get used to.

"I came from a place where I was one of the best swimmers, to a place where I was by far the worst swimmer," Pilczuk says. "I trained with the slowest women on the team. I could hang with anyone on the team for 20 seconds, but after that I was just dead. I didn't have the background to hang on the pace stuff."

It took two years for Bill to finally start seeing some results in the pool. The former Prop 48 athlete wasn't having the same struggles in the classroom. Pilczuk was excelling, and was putting all of his energy into academics.

"I only focused on academics at Auburn," says Pilczuk, who eventually swam well enough to place fourth in the NCAA 50-yard freestyle. "When I was doing well in the classroom, my swimming came with it."

Bill did so well in the classroom, that in 1997 he graduated magna cum laude from Auburn, with a degree in health education. Since then, he has earned a master's degree in exercise physiology.

"Things don't happen overnight," Pilczuk says. "You have to work on the small details, then it will eventually work out."

Pilczuk continues to live and train in Auburn, Ala., and is hoping things will work out for him at this summer's Olympic Games.

"I have swam well in Australia before," says Pilczuk, who won his world title in Perth. "I would like to make it to Sydney this summer, and swim well."

Discuss This Article