State College senior Tobias Van Dyke went to sleep every night and woke up every morning this season with his motivation nearby.
A Little Lions swimming team banner hangs over his bed, and next to that, he kept a list of time standards to shoot for in his top events. Both served as reminders of his goals all season leading into the PIAA Class 3A Swimming and Diving Championships at Bucknell University, where Van Dyke took second in the 500-yard freestyle to close out the year with a bang Sunday.
“It definitely pushes me to really be the best version of myself,” said Van Dyke, who finished in 4 minutes, 26.32 seconds in the 500 freestyle.
Van Dyke’s silver-medal performance was the individual highlight at the state championships for the Little Lions, who recorded a team score of 156.50 points. State College sits in third behind La Salle College (183) and North Allegheny (271) with the diving competition to take place next weekend.
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The Little Lions earned four medals Sunday after winning four medals on the first day of the event. Mikey Challis took fourth (56.72) and Ben Gingher finished fifth (56.78) in the 100 breaststroke, and Matt Brownstead finished fourth in the 100 freestyle (45.55) to round out the Little Lions’ medal-winning performances Sunday.
Foster Heasley tied for 11th (58.68) and Jordan Hillsley was 18th (58.92) in the 100 breaststroke; the 400 freestyle relay team of Van Dyke, Hillsley, Challis and Matt Morris placed 11th (3:11.27), and Noah Witt finished 23rd in the 100 backstroke (52.87).
State College coach Ryan Sprang and his swimmers said the program worked toward the breakthrough performance in the last few years.
“I’ve never seen anyone from State College on a podium before,” said Challis, a junior. “We made such a huge stride this year.”
To do that, Sprang said he needed his swimmers to believe they belonged with the best teams in the state and to use their past disappointment as motivation.
The coach said Van Dyke served as the perfect example.
“As a freshman, he didn’t make our district team,” Sprang said. “That means he wasn’t one of the four fastest State College swimmers in any event. Today, as a senior, he finished second in the 500 free and led off our 400 freestyle relay.”
Van Dyke said he thought about the state championships every day for the last year. He arrived at last year’s meet confident he could place in the top 8 to earn a medal in the 500 freestyle and left with a 25th-place finish.
He suffered from food poisoning the day of the event, but chose to compete.
“There was no way I was going to let the whole season worth of training go without a 500,” Van Dyke said. “I knew I wasn’t prepared to do my best, but at the same time, I used that really to drive me.”
The team banner and times kept him focused, too.
The Little Lions pass the banner down to a rising senior who embodies the program’s standard for hard work and commitment. Van Dyke showed that all season with his presence at morning swims and afternoon practices every day and throughout his career to become one of the top swimmers in the state.
He started writing the time standards for his best events — the 200 and 500 freestyle — on his wall in Sharpie last year. He didn’t get to cross off his first goal for the 500 of 4:30.0 until this past December.
But soon, he was crossing off another second more often and set a team-record time of 4:27.85 at the District 6 meet.
He topped that with his time Sunday of 4:26.32.
“I had goosebumps,” Sprang said. “He went out after it, and I was just pulling for him to hold on and fight and that’s exactly what he did. It was one of the gutsiest swims I’ve ever seen.”
When he arrived home, he planned to add his latest goal of 4:25 to the list.
But he hasn’t decided which talented teammate is next in line to receive the banner.
“I don’t know. We’ve got some great junior swimmers,” Van Dyke said. “We’ll see.”
Lady Little Lions results
For the State College girls, Abbey Whipple finished 29th in the 100 freestyle (54.50), Maya Urbanski took 30th in the 500 freestyle (5:20.55), Ruth Dangelo placed 30th in the 100 backstroke (1:01.68), Jodie Challis finished 32nd in the 100 breaststroke (1:11.57) and the 400 freestyle relay team of Meghan Hughes, Whipple, Grace Dangelo and Ruth Dangelo was 19th (3:42.75).