DANVILLE — Sitting on a cooler with the pool at Danville High School 100 feet away, Jon Delzell leans forward.
He has on a maroon Danville swimming T-shirt and jeans. He exudes the relaxed nature one would expect of a senior who knows he only has a few more months of high school.
No pressure of an after-school practice exists. No drives to Champaign are on his radar for swim practices with the Champaign Heat, the club swim team he competes with.
For a half hour, Delzell can reflect back on the past four months.
The past four years. The past decade, ever since he first hit the water.
To see how far he’s come. To see how low he’s felt. To see how he’s overcome setbacks, struggles and heartache.
For an athlete like Delzell, swimming became a large part of his high school career and his identity. But it was more than that.
It kept the grief he felt, the pain he endured, the mind games his head played, to stay quiet, just for a brief moment.
When he was in the water, no one could touch him. No harm could come his way.
“No matter what happens, you can accomplish your goals,” said Delzell, The News-Gazette’s 2013 Swimmer of the Year. “There’s going to be major setbacks, no matter who you are. As long as you stay focused, you can do it.”
The focus is there. Now. The same statement might not have rung true four months ago when Delzell’s father, Jack, a former standout athlete at Danville in the late 1970s, died unexpectedly.
Delzell speaks with command and authority.
He’s open and honest, although he doesn’t peel back all layers. At least not initially.
“He can talk to just about anybody about a variety of different topics,” Danville coach Carl Long said. “There are some things he won’t talk about with a lot of people, and if you don’t know him, you won’t see it, but it’s not like he’s a closed door.”
No one would blame him if he were, though. The area’s standard bearer in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events this season wanted to put his name on the record board at Danville’s pool.
Particularly in the 50 freestyle, where Stan Jackowski had held the school record for more than 30 years in 22 seconds flat.
“These were my personal goals before it happened, but my dad’s support meant more to me than anything else when it came to my swimming,” Delzell said. “I know he wanted to see me break that record, and he got close to seeing it at our first meet of the year.”
Delzell came in with a time of 22.08 seconds in the season-opening race Dec. 1 at Urbana to win the 50 but fell agonizingly short of breaking the record. Less than 24 hours later, his father was gone.
Danville’s swim team practices five days a week after school.
The week after his father’s death, Delzell took time away from the pool.
Quitting the sport he started when he was 8 years old filtered through his brain. Often.
“To be honest, there was a lot of thought where I wasn’t sure if I would come back,” Delzell said. “I knew I needed to because I didn’t want to regret not coming in and not accomplishing my goals. There were some tough days and practices that I couldn’t really get through.”
One of his first meets back came in mid-December against Bloomington, but still, Delzell wasn’t all there. The hurt this time happened in a physical sense, with Delzell straining either his right bicep tendon or his right shoulder.
Delzell wasn’t entirely sure, although he was sure that it hurt for him to move his arm above his head, a key factor for a swimmer who specializes in the freestyle events.
“I wasn’t so much worried that I wouldn’t (get healthy),” Delzell said. “It was just, ‘When am I going to be healed?’ I knew if I was healthy I could do it regardless of whether I had gotten hurt. I was just waiting for that day to where I could swim fast and have it not hurt.”
That day arrived Feb. 2 at the Big 12 Conference championship meet.
Delzell had the area’s lone first-place finish, in the 50 freestyle.
The sectional meet at Unit 4 Pool in Champaign was two weeks away. It was the last time for Delzell to earn a chance at the state meet.
He didn’t disappoint.
He took first in the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle to qualify for state, but it was his win in the 50 freestyle, his first victory of the day, that allowed relief and emotion to overcome him.
He clocked season-best times in the 50 freestyle (21.79) and the 100 freestyle (48.48), and the time in the 50 freestyle broke the school record.
“Ever since he was young he had that eye on the record,” said Kathy Delzell, Jon’s mother. “He just really wanted that. Then it became more important after he lost his dad.”
The cheering section Delzell had for him in the bleachers above the Unit 4 Pool that mid-February afternoon hardly had any dry eyes after his record-setting swim.
“It was probably the most emotional thing,” Kathy Delzell said more than a month later, her voice still choking up. “With him breaking the record and going to state, but also that’s what his dad had wanted, and me, too. I know that gave him the extra drive to get that.”
Once he hopped out of the pool and received congratulations from several of his competitors in the race, he touched his chest and pointed to the sky. Moments after his biggest swimming triumph, his father wasn’t far from his mind.
“It nearly brought tears to your eyes that the moment meant so much to him,” said Will Barker, Central’s co-coach who has coached Delzell with the Champaign Heat the last three years. “He always seems to be able to respond and push past the adversity and then kind of use swimming as an outlet, is a joy to watch. For a kid to go through what he has and be that successful, it shows the amazing character that he has.”
Now that his high school career is finished, it’s safe to let out this tidbit from Delzell.
The 50 freestyle isn’t even Delzell’s preferred race. He enjoys the 100 freestyle more, despite it being the more grueling of the two sprint races.
“When I’m feeling good, the 100 is my favorite race to actually swim,” Delzell said. “It’s less of just splash and dash. I just like coming home on that last 25. If I’m losing, I have ground to make it up. That’s what I like to do. I like to race. In the 50, I can’t see anything. I don’t know if I’m winning or not. With the 100, I know more where I’m at.”
His competitive swimming days aren’t finished just yet. Delzell plans to swim in college at Eastern Illinois under the tutelage of Elliott McGill, the former Central standout and brother of Olympian Tyler McGill.
Aside from swimming for the Panthers, Delzell said he’s unsure about what he wants to study at Charleston. Ask him where he envisions his life 10 years from now and what he wants to do, Delzell replies with an economical answer.
“Have a job, hopefully,” he said with a laugh. “I really don’t know. I’m just going to see whatever comes my way.”
Long first met Delzell when he was a freshman at Danville. He had just started coaching the Vikings but knew of a possible promising young swimmer he might have.
“He was tall, but he was a little scrawny freshman,” Long said. “I had heard that he was really talented, so it was interesting to see how he was going to live up to the expectations coming into high school.”
Delzell’s expectations for his high school swimming career were straightforward.
“I wanted records, to be honest,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and say I didn’t. Those are old records, and I wanted at least one. I got the one I wanted for sure in the 50. I did want to go to state. I was hoping to go earlier in my career, but it didn’t pan out that way. I’m glad I got to go at least once, though.”
Delzell credits his older sister, Carly, a former swimmer at Danville who now teaches at the school, for getting his start in the sport.
“I just started taking lessons, so I joined the (YMCA) team here,” he said. “I made it to state that first year with a relay and that kind of jump-started it. Maybe if I hadn’t made it to state with that relay I wouldn’t have been as passionate about it.”
Delzell is optimistic his passion of the sport can radiate to the underclassmen on the Vikings roster and any middle school or elementary school student in Danville who wants to excel in swimming.
Delzell became the first state qualifier from Danville since 2007 and while he did not make it past the first day of preliminaries in his two races, he might have restarted a trend that saw Danville have state qualifiers from 2003 to ’07.
“I really just hope it gives my teammates now and the kids in middle school the goal of breaking records,” Delzell said. “There’s still multiple ones up there from the ’70s, and I want those to go down. Records are made to be broken, but that’s a long time.”
Long agrees, especially at a school that has not had a state medalist in more than 40 years.
“It’s hard to replace a guy that qualifies for state in Danville,” he said. “I think it gives a little chance of hope for some kids that there are other opportunities, and that you can be from a medium-sized town and actually do something at state, even with Illinois being a huge swim state.”
Qualifying and competing at the state meet at New Trier High School in Winnetka was a nice way to cap off Delzell’s prep swimming career.
The record he set, the lessons he learned and the relationships he’s built with his teammates, however, are the memories he’ll take with him.
“Swimmers are kind of goofy,” Delzell said with a laugh. “There’s so many stories that I’ll carry with me forever and lifelong friends that I’ll have from swimming here.”
Delzell played other sports growing up, but he found his passion in the pool, mainly for the teammates he swam with, he said.
“Teammates keep your spirits up and push you through practice,” Delzell said. “I’m closer to my swim teammates than in any other sport because with other sports, if you mess up, people might blame you. Nobody can blame you for what you’re doing in the water. That leads to better friendships because nobody is putting each other down. They’re just trying to bring everybody up.”
Delzell’s life is in a better state than it was at the start of his senior swimming season. He still has his difficult moments where he thinks about his father, but he’s trying to cope the best way he can.
“It was tough to try to deal with adversity in a positive way, yet still give him hope,” Long said. “You never know how somebody is going to heal. Everybody heals differently. You didn’t know if he was going to be able to go at times. You didn’t know if one day he’d wake up and everything would be fine and dandy.”
The healing has begun for Delzell. The time spent in the water, away from the distractions, away from the hopeless feelings, has slowly started that process.
“I don’t think it gets much harder than losing a parent,” Delzell said. “I don’t want to say I’m prepared for stuff like that to happen, but if it it does, you can accept it more. It was hard to stay focused at times, but I wanted to do this all for my dad.”