As 80s rock blasts through the speakers at McCoy Natatorium, Tobias Van Dyke cuts through the water and hits the wall seconds before anyone else.
It might seem success like this has followed the reigning district champion at all times. But the State College senior reached a turning point three years ago when he was cut from the postseason team.
“I didn’t want to be the bottom of the team,” Van Dyke, 17, remembered. “I wanted to continue with the sport. I wanted to be the best that I could. It really drove me, especially that summer. I just got more and more motivated.”
Driven to not crash at the bottom once more, Van Dyke didn’t realize he was quickly rising to the top of the team. He had no clue that three years after missing the cut he’d enter Friday’s District 6 Class 3A swimming championships as the top seed in two individual events and two relays.
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After getting cut as a freshman, Van Dyke was determined to make the postseason team as a sophomore. That summer, he joined the Nittany Lion Aquatic Club on campus — coached by a familiar face in State College High’s Ryan Sprang — and began working out three to four days per week.
Before long, he started waking up at 5:30 a.m. without an alarm.
When Sprang would head into the local YMCA to lift, he would see Van Dyke in there lifting weights by himself. Van Dyke would already be sweating and breathing hard.
“He wanted it,” Sprang said. “His sophomore year, he came back. He was in great shape. He basically transformed his physique, and he was a key contributor on our team.”
Van Dyke’s progress was easy to track. During his sophomore campaign, Van Dyke improved enough to qualify for one event at the state championship. As a junior, he qualified for two. Last year, he swam the 200-yard freestyle in the Mid-Penn Championships in a time of 1 minute, 43.39 seconds.
This year, he cut 1.89 seconds off that time and was named one of the Mid-Penn Boys’ Swimmers of the Week for his performance.
Sprang called that progress, from Van Dyke’s freshman year to his senior year, “nothing short of remarkable.”
“Knowing Toby,” Sprang said, “I can see why [the growth] was possible. Even back then, when he wasn’t as fast, you could just see it in him that he had that desire to reach his potential and that willingness to do whatever it took.”
Van Dyke said having both his mother and sister encourage him through the cut was also helpful. Van Dyke’s mother, Jean Brundage, still attends every meet by usually wearing one of her son’s maroon shirts.
And, with that support, Van Dyke’s work ethic and intensity has only increased.
Sprang said Van Dyke is a leader both in the pool and out, has a high swimming IQ, is very “self-aware” and likes to be challenged during practices. The coach also called Van Dyke a “sponge,” because Van Dyke picks up things he needs to be a better swimmer.
“I’m a bit of a nerd,” Van Dyke said, admitting he is the type of kid that surfs YouTube for research. “I look up a lot of technique stuff, a lot of what successful swimmers have done in terms of sleeping, diet, schedules.”
Van Dyke said he picked up the ancient Chinese therapy of cupping, the reduction of lactic acid buildup in the muscles by pulling the skin away from the muscles, from Olympian Michael Phelps. Van Dyke said the traditional fire method scares him, so he and his mother use a hand pump with the plastic set he purchased on Amazon.
Sprang joked that fans can always tell Van Dyke apart from the other swimmers because of the red circles dotting his body. The coach also said that the closer the team gets to major competition, the more dots begin to appear on the 17-year-old’s body.
“It’s peculiar,” Van Dyke said. “You kind of look weird, but if it works, [then] I’m not really concerned how I’m looking.”
While changing himself athletically in pursuit of his goals since not making the cut three years ago, Van Dyke has changed himself in his personal life, too.
He enrolled in the Learning Edge-Out Program at State High and doesn’t have to be in school until 9:45 a.m., something which he said gives him more time to complete assignments and catch up on sleep. Although he said he tries not to have too much time without swimming, he goes camping, plays XBox live and, last summer, he went to $5 movies at the local theater almost every week.
Sprang said he thinks Van Dyke will be a “real impact performer” at the collegiate level, throwing out the possibility of NCAA titles and All-American status. Van Dyke, who has his choice narrowed down to Penn State, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati said he based his decisions on the schools’ swimming and graphic design programs.
“My motivation was borne of trying to get out from the bottom,” Van Dyke said. “But, now it’s really been about trying to be the best that I can be [and] trying to bring the team to new heights.”
District 6 Swimming & Diving Championships
When: Friday, First session, 2 p.m.; Saturday, Second session (Diving), 11 a.m.; Third session, 2 p.m.
Where: McCoy Natatorium
Tickets: Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for students, per day