Swimming: Mokena 10-year-old erases Matt Grevers from record book
By Tim Tierney For Sun-Times Media February 17, 2013 8:14PM
Eric Stelmar, 10, of Mokena, recently broke a state swimming record in the 100-yard backstroke that was previously held by Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers. He is pictured during practice for the Lincoln-Way Swim Association team Thursday, February 14, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 19, 2013 6:25AM
Eric Stelmar is a 10-year-old boy from Mokena who likes to play baseball and basketball, spend time with his friends — and once in a while break a record that used to belong to an Olympic swimmer.
The extraordinary part of that ordinary description was achieved by the young swimmer in a recent USA Swimming meet at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Although Stelmar set two state records competing for the Lincoln-Way Swim Association Gators, the one that really turned heads in the swimming community was the 100-yard backstroke time (1 minutes, 2.16 seconds) that beat the record Matt Grevers clocked in 1996 for the Lake Forest Swim Club (1:02.75).
“I was really proud of myself,” Eric said in a soft voice. “I kind of felt in my mind while I was swimming that I was going to get it.”
“He was thrilled,” Lincoln-Way coach Mark Hoffer said. “He couldn’t wipe the grin off his face.”
Stelmar put his face with some special mugs in the swimming hierarchy. Grevers, a Lake Forest High School and Northwestern University graduate, is a six-time Olympic medalist who won two gold medals in the 2012 Games, including the 100 backstroke.
It’s obviously way too soon to foresee that kind of success for Stelmar, but when asked what makes him an elite swimmer at such a young age, Eric didn’t hesitate to credit the family tree.
“My dad was really good at sports and my mom was a synchronized swimmer, so it kind of combined,” said Eric, who also set the 50 freestyle state record at the meet.
“He actually set this as one of his goals at the start of the season,” Hoffer said. “He is head and shoulders above every 10-year-old boy in the state right now. There’s nobody who can measure up to him in his events, especially the backstroke.”
Stelmar met Grevers twice at swimming clinics, including one in December.
“I raced him in the freestyle, but he gave us half-a-pool head start,” Eric said with a smile. “I look up to him and try to be like him.”
Stelmar’s parents, Cheryl and Mark, have several swimmers in their family. Susan is a freshman at Lincoln-Way East and Eric’s younger brother, Adam, also swims with the Lincoln-Way Gators. Coach Ryan Counihan said Adam’s goal is to break all of his brother’s records.
Eric has been swimming competitively since he was 6 years old, influenced by his sister getting involved in the sport.
“At that age they’re just paddling around, learning the strokes,” Hoffer said. “By the time he was 7 he was already showing signs of something special.”
“He loves it,” Counihan said. “He’s a seven-time state champ. He just goes out there and swims. He gets faster and faster and faster.”
As an 8-year-old, Stelmar qualified for the state meet in the 10-and-under age group. He set the records at UIC swimming against the 13-and-up individuals, Hoffer said, “to get a little better competition because in his own age group, there’s not any competition.”
“He’s a very driven person,” Cheryl Stelmar said of her son. “Not only in sports, but in academics, too. Whatever he sets his mind to, he’s going to accomplish.”
The competition continues Friday at an Illinois Swimming Inc. regional hosted by Lincoln-Way East. That organization’s short course state meet is in March at UIC, and its long course state meet is during the summer.
Hoffer and Counihan started the Lincoln-Way Gators in 2000 and now have 325 swimmers in five general groups.
Two of their other top individuals are Makayla Varga and Kendall Hermann. Varga broke the state record in the 10-and-under 50-meter butterfly two summers ago and Hermann qualified for the 2012 junior national meet in Orlando, Fla.
“It’s been a constant progression,” Hoffer said of the Gators. “A lot of the top teams in the state are drawing from five, six different places. Pretty much all of our kids are homegrown. We have very few kids who came into the club late.”
Stelmar practices four to five days a week. The swimming season only has about six weeks of downtime, according to Hoffer. It’s not easy, but Eric still has some time to be a 10-year-old.
“I like to go outside with my friends, play basketball, play tag,” he said.
Down the road will be high school, college and a lot of big dreams.
“I’d like to first get a good scholarship and then try to get into the Olympic trials,” Eric said.