By Bud Denega
ADA — ADA — Ohio Northern head coach Austin Veltman sees a different swimmer in Ryan Groehl this season. And it's not because the senior has reached a new level of commitment or made any major changes in the water, but Veltman simply observes something different in Groehl.
"He has always been an extraordinarily hard worker, always pushes himself and gives his best effort, no question about it" Veltman said. "But this season, he's just flat out thriving. He's pushed himself to an extra gear, and it's a testament to Ryan's determination."
Groehl is making the most of his final swim season in what has been a long and eventful 17-year career. He's the unquestioned captain, a standout backstroker and a lunch-pale, workmanlike swimmer who doesn't shy away from any discomfort or adversity he faces while in the pool.
Groehl hails from Marysville where he did a litany of activities growing up. While he started out swimming at the age of four — because both of his older brothers swam — he also participated in cross-country and lacrosse among other sports.
It didn't take long for Groehl to encounter some athletic adversity. When making the transition from middle school cross-country to high school, Groehl battled with exercise-induced asthma, which would flare up when his heart rate would elevate and stay elevated for an extended period of time.
As the miles increased in high school, Groehl jockeyed with his asthma. The ailment also affected him on the lacrosse field as Groehl played midfield, which tasked him with quite a bit of running.
Swimming was the one sport that didn't aggravate Groehl's asthma, and thus he found a niche. The sport he had been competing in for more than a decade was his medicine and, if it wasn't already, a passion.
"Being able to swim in a pool where my asthma didn't affect me as much was a factor in me choosing swimming," Groehl said. "I was cooled off, and swimming is more quick sprint, and then you have some rest, and that short bit of recovery is what I need to slow my heart rate down, and then I can go back at it."
Groehl didn't just commit himself to swimming for the high school season. He also joined a USA Swim Club in the Columbus area, and the results were fruitful.
Groehl experienced meteoric improvement for the next few years. He was named captain of his high school team as a senior, and another strong season presented Groehl with some collegiate swimming options.
Groehl chose Ohio Northern after his official visit where he met the team and took part in some team-based activities. His freshman year at Northern was one of transition — not just as an athlete but as a college student, as well.
Groehl entered college having swum a lot of butterfly in high school. At the Wooster Invitational, the mid-season meet for ONU, Groehl was placed in the backstroke events to see how he'd fare.
And similar to how he found swimming, he found a niche and passion in backstroke.
"Making that transition from doing butterfly all the time in high school to switching over to mainly doing backstroke was a little weird at first," Groehl said. "With backstroke, I've really learned to enjoy it. I really enjoy the stroke and underwaters. In backstroke, you can recover a little more, because you can breath, so you can really pound out your tempo.
"It's a stroke you can really mentally push yourself."
Whether it has grown over time or Groehl has always had it, there's no questioning his mental toughness. He has courageously chased sporting dreams with an asthma that's aggravated specifically by high-intensity activities seen in most sports.
That extra gear he has found in this his final season of swimming is another example of his mental toughness. During certain race-pace sets, Groehl will push himself to a point where he must exit the pool because of extreme nausea.
"Each test set we do is kind of a marker to see where our progress is at, and to see how we are feeling that day," Groehl said. "… To overcome that fatigue mentally, that's a big thing for me during those test sets. Sometimes mentally I can push myself a little further than what my body can handle."
While it's not pleasing to see one of his athletes go through that endeavor, Veltman can't help but be impressed.
"Every single time he knows he's going to get sick, and he doesn't let it affect him," Veltman said. "He refuses to allow himself to back off even though he knows he'll get sick every single time he does that. I feel bad for him, but at the same time the amount of pride you have in a swimmer that does that is there, as well."
That is an example of leadership through action, which is only part of Groehl's captain duties. He's also a vocal leader, which is essential on a team that is nearly 70 percent freshmen and sophomores.
"He's crucial," Veltman said. "All those guys really really look up to him, and on a team that's so bottom heavy with so many freshmen and sophomores, you have to have upperclassmen that are willing to do that. You need people like Ryan to be servant leaders, willing to put their teammates before themselves."
Veltman is eager to see Groehl will do at the Ohio Athletic Conference Championships this week. He can't wait for his hardworking, 'different swimmer' to be given bright lights to perform under and shine.
It's a spotlight Groehl has earned. His athletic career hasn't been linear or absent of adversity or challenge.
It has been a career of leadership, mental toughness and strength. It's one that not all would have endured, but it's one where Groehl has thrived.