By Rick Malwitz
FAIR HAVEN – When Connor Jaeger swam his preliminary 1500-meter freestyle race in the 2012 Summer Olympics, he had no idea about the support he had back home.
He was totally unaware that a large crowd had gathered at the Knights of Columbus Hall to watch the race during the early morning of Aug. 3.
“I think people tried not to tell me about it because they didn’t want to put any additional pressure on me,” he said. “But after the race, people were already posting pictures on Facebook.
“I was shocked, in disbelief that people would get up really early to come together and watch the race,” he said. “I was really excited about that.”
When Jaeger qualified for the 1500-meter final, word spread fast through Fair Haven. Borough officials worked quickly to put together a second viewing party on Aug. 4 at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High, this time for hundreds of residents. Another 60 residents cheered for Jaeger at the Knights of Columbus.
“I had no idea so many people” would attend, he said. “That was so cool to hear … I wanted to perform well for my team and for my country, but to know that that many people in the town came out for me, even people who didn’t know me, was amazing. I never expected that.
“It shows what the Olympics is capable of doing and why we have to keep doing it. … It was enough for people to come together,” Jaeger said.
“Thank you so much for all the support,” Jaeger continued. He wants borough residents to know he appreciates all the good wishes. “I hope I can return the favor someday.”
The 1500-meter race is so long that it allows swimmers to think and realize where they are.
“In the end it’s like every other meet,“ said Jaeger, sitting poolside at his home here.
But, it is the Olympics, with the best swimmers in the world. “You do allow yourself to realize, ‘This is an amazing experience,’” said Jaeger, who finished sixth in the final with a time of 14:52.99.
While hundreds of residents gathered at viewing parties, Jaeger’s parents, Eric and Bernadette, were in the Aquatics Centre in London, soaking in the experience.
“You can’t put into words what it was like watching your son, in the Olympics,“ Eric Jaeger said. “First, there’s the enormity of the event. But then, you look it as another swim meet.”
By one measure, the 1500 final exemplified the spirit of the Olympics, according to Eric Jaeger. “The final eight swimmers were from eight different countries. This was the best of what the Olympics is all about.’’
The medals went to swimmers from China, Canada, and Tunisia. Others in the race known as the “metric mile,’’ represented Korea, Italy, Poland, and Great Britain.
Jaeger, who will be a junior at the University of Michigan, was one of two American swimmers to qualify for the event when he competed at the Olympic Trials in Omaha on July 2. Only he advanced to the final from the preliminary rounds in London.
Following his performance in Omaha, he returned to Ann Arbor, Mich., for three days before joining the Olympics team in training at Knoxville, Tenn. The team went to France for 10 days to train before going to London.
Inside the Olympic Village he stayed in a suite in a new highrise being converted to luxury apartments. He ate in a common cafeteria, meeting athletes from around the world.
The village was off-limits to the media and to athletes’ families. Jaeger’s parents had not been with him since leaving the pool in Omaha, but remained in close touch through social media.
Though some athletes stayed outside the village — most notably the high-profile men’s basketball team — the swimmers stayed together in the village, including headliners Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin. The team was a tight group said Jaeger; he went to their events and they to his.
Jaeger was part of the American delegation that entered the stadium for the spectacular opening ceremonies. He was one of many athletes filming the ceremony with his cell phone.
The swimmers had to vacate the village once the swimming events were complete to allow other athletes to take their place. Jaeger remained in London, and became a tourist, seeing such sites as Westminster Abbey, the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.
Jaeger grew up around the water, living in Middletown before his family moved here. He learned to swim as a toddler at the Surfrider Beach Club in Sea Bright. When he was in the third grade, he began swimming competitively with the Central Jersey Aquatic Club, joining his older sister Dana, a member of the team.
Following success at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, he drew the attention of major college programs. He visited the University of Florida and University of Virginia before deciding on the University of Michigan, where he is studying mechanical engineering.
At Michigan his coach, Mike Bottom, suggested the 6-foot-1 Jaeger compete at 1650 meters, 150 meters longer than the distance used in international competition.
In the 2012 Big Ten Conference meet Jaeger won the 1650, and was part of the team that won the 4-by-200 freestyle relay. He finished second in the 200-meter and 500-meter freestyle events. At the NCAA Championships, he finished fifth in the 1650.
Jaeger is looking forward to swimming two more years for Michigan, and perhaps earning a spot on the 2016 Olympic team. He would love another try.
“He couldn‘t have done this four years ago and four years from now, who knows? This was his perfect time,‘’ Eric Jaeger said.
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