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Boys swimming: IMSA’s Steven Tan eyeing state title

IMSA's Steven Tan competed state finals 100 backstroke 100 freestyle last February. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

IMSA's Steven Tan competed in the state finals in the 100 backstroke and the 100 freestyle last February. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 6, 2013 10:05PM

The Illinois Math and Science Academy is known more for producing Rhodes Scholars than state champion athletes, but Steven Tan is hoping to change that.

Tan became just the eighth athlete in school history — and the first swimmer — to earn a state medal when he finished fifth in both the 100-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke at the 2012 state meet last February.

Now the junior is poised to make even more history. Tan, who intends to swap the 100 free for the 100 butterfly, is a legitimate contender to win at least one state title.

If he does, the Aurora resident will become just the third state champion at IMSA, joining track stars Matt McLean, who won the Class A 110 high hurdles in 1990, and Amber Farrell, who captured Class 2A titles in the 100 intermediate hurdles and 300 low hurdles in 2010.

“I would be really proud,” Tan said. “Having my name up on a banner saying I’m a state champion at IMSA, that would mean the world to me, because I’d be doing it both for me and the school.

“IMSA doesn’t really have a reputation for sports or athletic abilities, but coming to IMSA I really wanted to change that and maybe set out there what IMSA can accomplish, both in school and in extra-curriculars.”

IMSA is a selective enrollment, residential school for academic standouts in grades 10-12. When Tan transferred in after attending Waubonsie Valley his freshman year, the culture shock was an adjustment.

“It’s a huge difference because back at Waubonsie you live with your parents and you really don’t take care of yourself,” Tan said. “Here at IMSA you become more independent. You have more choices and you pretty much make what you want your life to be at IMSA.

“So being a swimmer you really need to have a lot more time management (skill). You don’t have time to do many other things besides your studies. We have a very large workload, so we have to manage our time to be in the pool and finish our homework.”

Tan has excelled despite having half the practice time and triple the homework of his counterparts at other schools. Many teams often have double practices three times a week, but IMSA has no morning practices and just a two-hour session after classes, which don’t end until 4:15 p.m. Even then, swimming takes a back seat to academics.

“It’s typical for a student to sit out five or six practices a season just doing homework by the side of the pool,” IMSA coach Kevin Satler said. “They get typically three times as much homework as a typical high school, so I have to compensate for that.

“I have to run practices where every minute counts. In between sets I make sure every minute is being used properly, the recovery is being used properly, the stretch time is being used best. Everything has to be efficient as possible.”

Tan is used to being efficient. He trains hard in the offseason with his club team to make up for the limited in-season practice time and the results show as he is already well ahead of his pace from last season. Proper form doesn’t hurt, either.

“His technique is amazing,” Satler said. “Last season I told him maybe two things about technique all season to tweak. His technique is almost the same as what I’m seeing at the Olympics, so I don’t have to sit here and focus on this is how you do this, this is how you do that. I can just look at the exercise physiology part of it and go, ‘This is what I need to do to train your body to go faster.’”

Tan, who commuted to Chicago every week day last summer to take part in a biology research at Northwestern, didn’t expect to have the success he’s had.

“It’s actually something I can’t really explain,” Tan said. “I think I just have a natural feeling in swimming and I just go with that natural speed. I try to train hard and train smart but I know I’m at a disadvantage against those other swimmers who do have double practices, so for me I think it’s all about keeping in shape, feeling good and having the right mindset.”

That mindset has spread to other IMSA swimmers, who are hoping to drastically improve the program. Junior Andrew Liang placed 16th in the state in the 100 breaststroke last year and the Titans return three-fourths of the 200 medley relay team (Tan, Liang and senior Nate Suek), which set a school record and qualified for state.

Tan is already looking where to continue his career at the next level. His dream school is Stanford, one of the top swimming schools in the nation, but he is also exploring opportunities in the Ivy League, where Satler says he could become a conference champion.

Regardless of whether or not Tan wins a high school state title, he has changed the perception of swimming at IMSA.

“I think what it does is it shows other incoming swimmers that they don’t have to sacrifice on their swimming by coming here,” Satler said. “I feel that just by (Tan) coming here and showing that they can still make progress athletically as well as academically, that will encourage these really good swimmers that are also very smart to come here.”

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