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Prichard's Freshman Season Is One for the Books

Former Buena High standout exceeds expectations, provides energy in his first year competing for Virginia's swim team.

March 24, 2001|LAUREN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Literature buff Ian Prichard, an avid fan of authors ranging from John Steinbeck to iconoclastic poet and novelist Jack Kerouac, began a new chapter in his life last fall.

Now the freshman at Virginia is set to close the book on a successful swimming season, no matter what happens today in the NCAA men's swimming and diving championships at Texas A&M.

"College swimming is amazing," said Prichard, from Buena High. "We have almost 30 guys on the team and we all have the same goals. The energy of that is just incredible."

Prichard, 18, has provided much of that energy.

"I would say quite frankly that he's exceeded our expectations," Virginia Coach Mark Bernardino said. "He's an intense and focused competitor and he's shown more talent, ability and work ethic than we even knew. We knew he had all those credentials, but he took it to a new level, I think."

Expectations for Prichard were high after last season, when he won the Southern Section Division I 500-yard freestyle in a record time of 4:19.34, captured the 200 freestyle title and was selected The Times' Valley-Ventura County boys' swimmer of the year. He won the same section titles as a junior and was selected to the U.S. National junior team.

The bar was raised when Prichard accepted a scholarship to Virginia, but it wasn't placed any higher than Prichard's own standards.

"I didn't want to be the punk freshman who was too big for his shoes or something, but I knew I was expected to contribute and play a big role for the team," he said.

Prichard has done that, qualifying for the NCAA championships in three events and a relay, and proving he was not in over his head competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

He was selected swimmer of the meet at the ACC championships after setting school and conference records in the 500 in 4:16.32 and the 1,650 in 14:51.70 to help Virginia win its third consecutive men's title in February.

Prichard, seeded No. 3 in the 500 at the NCAA championships, finished 11th in 4:19.11 on Thursday.

He finished 15th in 1:37.78 in the 200 final on Friday and anchored Virginia's 800 freestyle relay team that finished 12th in 6:33.46.

"It's definitely a Division I collegiate sport," Prichard said. "It's maybe not the whole country, like it is with March Madness, but to the people involved in this, they call it 'The Show,' 'The Big Show.' "

Prichard hopes to throw a curve at the competition in his last event of the championships.

His ACC-best of 14:51.70 in the 1,650 was good for a No. 4 seeding in today's race, which includes Chris Thompson of Michigan and Erik Vendt of USC, the second- and third-place finishers in the 500.

The top-seeded Thompson, a bronze medalist in the 1,500 meters at the Sydney Olympics and the American record-holder in the event, has the fastest 1,650-yard time in the nation this year at 14:31.15. That is more than 11 seconds faster than No. 2-seeded Vendt, a silver medalist in the 400-meter individual medley at Sydney and the first American to break the 14-minute mark at 1,500 meters.

"Just to be in the vicinity of those guys is pretty amazing," Prichard said. "Right now, I place myself in the second tier behind those guys, but I'm going to do my best, and I should be in the mix.

"I've never trained this well and this fast. Every day, I've had people to race. I haven't had that in two years, and it's made a huge difference for me."

That much has shown in his results. His best 500 time is more than three seconds faster than last year and his best 200 has improved by nearly two seconds.

On a dare from Virginia breaststrokers, Prichard swam a surprisingly fast 2:02.73 in the 200-yard breaststroke at a dual meet.

Prichard is becoming a top swimmer in a program with a history of excellent distance swimmers, including Peter Wright, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, and Austin Ramirez, an 11-time All-American who graduated last year and is a volunteer assistant with the Cavaliers.

"Mark [Bernardino] recruited me to pretty much replace Austin," Prichard said. "I've always relied on my hard work, but I did improve a lot this year and I attribute that to having people to train with and being part of this team."

Added Bernardino: "We hoped he'd be the next great distance guy for us, but we weren't sure he would take charge as quickly as he has. He's closed the gap this year between himself and all the other good college swimmers, and that was the goal.

"Before, he was kind of out there, but he was just a name on a piece of paper. He's no longer just a name on a piece of paper. He's somebody that's a serious contender and nobody better overlook him, because if they do, he's going to go by them."

That would be a happy ending to a storybook season.

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