Illinois'' True, Van Swol bring out best in each other
BOISE, Idaho – When push comes to shove, Jason Van Swol knows he can count on Illinois teammate Bobby True to bring out the best in him during workouts.
"A lot times at practice, he won't just go run his own thing, go out ahead of everybody else and run a great workout for himself," Van Swol said of the five-time track All-American. "He'll sometimes start behind everyone else and push us. Sometimes literally."
Figuratively – and usually literally – Van Swol has spent his freshman year following in senior True's footsteps.
"I've sort of been his shadow for the last couple months," he said.
Van Swol represents the latest generation of Illini 800-meter standouts, a group that has won nine of the past 12 Big Ten Conference outdoor titles in the event.
It's a line that stretches from Charlton Hamer (1988) to Tim Clancy (1989) to Marko Koers (1992-94, '96) to True (1997-99). Given that Van Swol won the Big Ten indoor 800 in February and was runner-up in the outdoor meet this month, True is confident the link will go unbroken.
"He's really mature," True said of the two-time IHSA champion. "He didn't come in as a freshman thinking he had to sit back and wait for us to lead. He came in knowing he had a job to do. And every race, he didn't run it to take second, he ran it to win the race.
"He'll probably mature maybe two years faster than I did. He's gained experience in important races that I never had. When he gets that maturity, he'll be scary to race against."
Van Swol's already a handful, as he proved May 15 in the FILA Twilight Distance Classic at Los Angeles. While placing second in the 800, Van Swol ran a 1:47.24 that is faster than any time True has run outdoors and sixth-fastest in UI history.
True was third in that race but came back the following weekend to beat his precocious teammate in the Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
This week, they'll run as collegiate teammates for the last time. Each has qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, the UI's first dual representation in the 800 since Charlie White and Tim Smith in 1977. As usual, Van Swol will be counting on True – who has placed eighth and fifth in the race – to guide him through the experience.
"I've never even seen it in person, and I really don't have any idea what to expect," Van Swol said. "He'll explain on the way what the meet is going to be like ... and he'll tell me a lot about other runners that he knows that are going to be there, so I have an idea of what it's going to be like.
"He's told me how you have to run the prelims like the finals, stuff like that. He'll explain strategies that worked on guys that he knows, sharing his experience. It's sort of given me experience I don't have."
Perhaps because True didn't have the same kind of mentoring relationship with Koers, he's willingly taken Van Swol under his wing. Not that Koers ignored True or wasn't helpful. It's just that by the time True arrived at Illinois, Koers' training regimen was beyond anything the UI newcomer had experienced. Koers, then a fifth-year senior, already had appeared in one Olympics and was preparing for another.
"I was in awe of him," said True, who was 17 when he entered the UI. "Marko was at a whole other plane that, I know for a fact, I wouldn't have been able to reach at that time.
"We didn't train together because he had his own workouts. He helped me with a few things, things he saw in my races that I could improve on. He gave me some drills I could work on to increase my speed."
Still, there wasn't the closeness that has developed between True and Van Swol.
"I think the relationship with me and Jason is much better," True said. "It's a lot more productive than it was with me and Marko.
"By Jason being able to train with me and some of the seniors, it makes him better physically and mentally. Once he knows he can hang with us in the workouts, he knows that when it comes to race time, he should be right there with us."
Van Swol isn't the only one beneficiary of the relationship. He has been such a quick learner that he's become as challenging a workout partner as True's ever had. In fact, for all that True has accomplished – an NCAA record in the indoor 600 and a Big Ten record in the indoor 800 – the five-time Big Ten champion expects Van Swol to leave a greater legacy during his UI career.
"With Jason, I know whatever I do, in two years he's probably going to go out and break it," True said. "It's great to be able to say I helped build the base for what he's going to do for the rest of his college career."
Illini coach Gary Wieneke knows from experience that the kind of mentoring relationship True and Van Swol have doesn't just materialize. Differences in ages and personalities can be a barrier. Sometimes veterans will be indifferent to – or even feel threatened by – a young up-and-comer in the same event.
"It just depends on the personalities involved," the 25th-year UI coach said, "and to their credit it's worked out really well.
"I think it's been very positive for Jason, and I think it's nice for the outgoing person to have someone to train with who's near or at that level. I think it helps motivate both of them. It's pretty hard to be a teacher and then not do it."