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Swimmer's Olympic Trial Experience 'Best in the World'

Hillsborough's Mike Vernoia falls short of making U.S. team, but enjoys challenge of facing nation's best.

He has been swimming since he was a student at Immaculata High School, and now the Hillsborough resident has one more thing to add to his resume—participation in the Olympic trials this year in Omaha, Neb.

Michael Vernoia, 21, participated in this year’s trials in swimming after qualifying in a competition last year in the 200 and 400 freestyles.

“You have to get a certain time, and then you qualify to go to the meet,” he said. “It was a really cool experience, and I was happy to go and do it.”

Vernoia took to the pool among 900 swimmers from around the country, knowing that only 25 would be selected for the U.S. Olympic team. He said the swimmers who qualify finish in the top-two in their events.

Although Vernoia only finished 60th in the 200 freestyle and 70th in the 400 freestyle, he said it was an honor to participate, and exciting to finish in the top half of the group.

“A lot of world records are broken at the trials, and it is an honor just to be selected to go,” he said. “I was on my lifetime personal best.”

Vernoia said that even though he did not qualify to join the U.S. Olympic team in London, he has no regrets about his performance.

“You know where you stand going in,” he said. “I just wanted to go there and immerse myself in the experience, rather than having the pressure to try and win and being disappointed.”

“I was happy, and I have no regrets looking back,” he added.

Vernoia said he has been swimming competitively for eight years, having begun with the Somerset Valley YMCA when he was in high school, working with Coach Matt Donovan.

“I like how it’s a real individualized sport, you can have people from all different skill levels, and it’s exciting to see people being happy with their different times,” he said. “But it’s still a team sport because everyday in practice you are always pulling for your teammates.”

After graduating from Immaculata, Vernoia continued swimming at The College of New Jersey, but transferred after two years to the University of Minnesota, which has a more competitive swim program.

“I improved a lot and decided I wanted to swim at a more competitive level,” he said.

But this was the first year Vernoia qualified to compete in the Olympic trials.

“When I was a senior in high school, there were stories about people qualifying and I always thought about it, but thought I would never be able to achieve that,” he said.

But now, after qualifying for the trials, Vernoia said he thinks it might be time to take a little break from swimming.

After swimming in college Division-I, Vernoia said, he has seen a lot of people who swim for a few years then stop because they need the time off.

“It is hard to balance the student-athlete lifestyle, and a lot of people stop swimming,” he said. “For me, it was really wearing my last semester, and I kind of lost that love and passion.”

But when he returned from Minnesota after graduating this year, Vernoia said, he began training again with Donovan and found that love for swimming again.

“It kind of inspired me to start again, and I found that passion,” he said.

At that point, Vernoia said, he began training outside of the pool, with weights and running, and Donovan helped him continue that work.

“He tailored workouts around me, which I was grateful for,” he said. “With all the work I have put into the sport, I was glad to be able to be back with Coach Matt, back with my roots where it all started.”

At this point, Vernoia said, he is preparing to start a job as a mortgage broker in Morristown, and hopes, in the next few years, to go back to school for his MBA.

“I finished my certification, and am studying to take the test to start selling mortgages,” he said.

And in the future, Vernoia said, he may really take up swimming again, although he does not know if he’ll ever make it back to the Olympic trials.

“I think I’m going to need a little break from the sport, but if I stay in good shape and want to swim again two years down the road, I don’t think it’s too crazy to think I could,” he said. “As of now, I’m going to take a little break from the pool.”

Still, Vernoia said, he believes the Olympic trials were one of the “coolest meets” he has ever been to, and it’s exciting to think that he knows some of the people who qualified for the team.

“One of my really good friends qualified to go for the 1,500, and that’s going to be cool because I used to play against him in high school,” he said. “I’m connected to him because I’ve raced him before.”

And Vernoia said anyone could qualify if they work hard at it.

“The experience to compete in that pool was the best in the world,” he said. “Everybody who think it’s impossible to qualify, I completely disagree. Anything is possible with hard work and dedication.”

“I wasn’t expecting much, but it exceeded my expectations,” he added. “It was a good way to temporarily end my career.”

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