MUNSTER | "It was an amazing feeling," 10-year-old Martin Barnard said of wearing one of Ian Crocker's Olympic gold medals during a photo-autograph session at the start of the Mutual of Omaha Breakout! Swim Clinic held April 29 at the Munster High School pool.
And in some ways the feeling was "mutual."
"That's one of the things I love about doing this," said Kristy Kowal, a silver medalist in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2000 Sydney Games, who with Crocker were featured at the clinic. "It's seeing their reaction when I hand them my medal."
"And they get to see us as normal people," said Crocker, who won three golds, a silver and a bronze during his Olympic career, and has held five world records. "We may be Olympians, but we started in age-group swimming just like them."
There was one message Crocker and Kowal particularly wanted to convey to the large group of swimmers attending the clinic: Long stretches of tedium and disappointment tend to bridge the moments of glory.
"When you see us on the podium, those are the good times," Kowal said. "What a lot of people don't see are the struggles, all the hard times we've had to overcome."
For Kowal, who was named the NCAA Woman of the Year while helping the University of Georgia claim three swimming and diving championships, setbacks came in split seconds as three times she missed making Olympic cuts by .17, .01 and .02 of second.
And even during the 2004 Athens Games where he won a gold, a silver and a bronze, Crocker's experience in Greece didn't always glitter. His jump start cost USA the gold in the 400 freestyle relay, and he was bested by Michael Phelps by .04 of second in the 100 butterfly finals.
Phelps also broke Crocker's six-year-old world record in the 100 butterfly in 2009.
"When your No. 1 rival is Michael Phelps, you're going to have some ups and downs," Crocker said.
Retired from swimming, Kowal teaches elementary school and is an assistant high school swim coach in her home state of Pennsylvania. For Crocker, whose three golds came in the 400 medley relay, the 2012 London Games will be the first Olympics in 16 years that he will watch from his TV set.
"It had crossed my mind to come back," said Maine native Crocker, who now lives in Texas. "But one thing is for sure: I don't miss the morning practices."
For the Munster Swim Club, it was its first Breakout! Clinic. And for Crocker, who has been doing the clinic for two years, and Kowal, who has been doing it for one, the club's and school's new Olympic-sized facility was something to behold.
"I've never seen a high school pool like this before," Kowal said. "Then again, I believe the pool I coach at was built in the 60s."
If anyone could relate to the Olympians' long road to the top, it was veteran MSC member Nikki Smith. Prior to this winter's Age Group State Championships, Smith's best placing was a pair of third-place finishes.
On March 15-16 at the IUPUI Natatorium, Smith won three golds in the 400 and 200 individual medleys, and 100 backstroke in the girls 13-14 division.
"I knew it was my last shot (at Age Group State), and I wanted to make the most of it," said Smith, who as a freshman helped Munster take second in the 200 medley relay at the high school state championships.
For Smith, Barnard and many other aspiring swimmers at the clinic, it was their first encounter with Olympic medalists.
For 12-year-old Joey Baeza, it was his second encounter as he attended a previous Breakout! Clinic.
"I don't know who I got to meet," Baeza said. "I think it was Michael Phelps."
If Crocker was there, he could have ID'd him for sure.