UNLV swimming again enjoys ‘ultimate reward’

Jim Reitz might be the only man alive who could be sitting in a car outside Applebee’s in Iowa City, the temperature dipping below 30 degrees and a brisk wind whipping through town, and be ecstatic about his surroundings.

“I love doing this as much as the day I started,” he said. “This is the ultimate reward. I just love it.”

Not Iowa, mind you.

What it represents this week.

While other points of UNLV athletics usher in a high school coach to try to save a forgettable football program and a basketball coach convinces his boss to give him another year, Reitz merely checks off conference championships like a chef might the needed ingredients to a new recipe.

He has won 10 league titles the past 11 years, the most successful run in the history of UNLV’s swimming and diving program. He has been named Conference Coach of the Year — be it in the Big West, Mountain West, Mountain Pacific Sports Federation or WAC — 16 times.

He just hangs around the pool and wins.

Reitz is in his 35th season as head coach and his men open competition at nationals on Thursday, a three-day meet where the Rebels hope to equal or better last year’s school-best 19th-place finish. They also finished 19th in 2011.

There is nothing like the NCAA meet for college swimming. The drama. The pressure. The seemingly massive swings of emotion and momentum with each ripple of water.

You never really know what you have in a kid until he stands on those blocks and performs in such a setting. You can see the fast, long strokes and big, powerful kicks. You can’t see how large his heart is.

Reitz tells the story of freshman Forrest Beesley, from the small town of Estes Park, Colo., who because of an injury to a teammate suddenly found himself at the recent WAC Championships as part of UNLV’s 400 free relay, a race the Rebels needed to finish ahead of Air Force to secure the league title.

Beesley beat his personal best by two seconds, and UNLV held off the Falcons.

“Forrest was practically peeing in his pants,” Reitz said. “But he came through for us in one of those magical types of endings.

“We all know that courage is not the absence of fear. That’s just craziness. Our men’s team is a good, accurate assessment of talent, of kids like Forrest, who arrive as little boys and grow into men. Swimming at this level is very hard. To compete and work hard every day and get to class and be organized to get it all done isn’t easy.

“Nationals is something to be celebrated. We set goals as a coaching staff each year. Half the battle is getting to nationals. The kids know the times. They have an idea what it takes. I don’t talk about it a lot, other than to say once we are here, let’s go faster than we have ever gone.”

UNLV will be represented in Iowa by three swimmers in individual events and four more to make up relay teams. Of the seven, five are foreigners.

It’s the way of the world in college swimming that teams are comprised of countless athletes from across the globe.

Texas and its 10 NCAA men’s championships is one major program not fully invested in a recruiting philosophy that stretches to distant lands such as France and Brazil and Russia and Israel. Most everyone else is.

Of the more than 200 men who will swim this week, you can expect 60 or more to compete at an Olympic level, many from countries other than the United States.

As a Hungarian coach said in 2000, Europe sends its best young swimmers to America to learn how to race, and NCAA racing is without equal for such lessons to be taught.

As much as any coach of an Olympic sport at UNLV, Reitz has over time not worried about what his program lacks, but instead proudly flies the banner that states his team is one from a nonpower-five football conference sitting among the top 20 sides nationally.

“We don’t do this on money,” he said. “We do this on good coaching and good athletes. The kids are OK with that. They get a great experience and realize it’s not about how fancy the uniforms are.

“But the experience at nationals never changes. It’s always great. Sometimes, we do better than others. Last year, we had a great meet. No matter what happens, we try and savor the experience that we have trained to swim against the best people in the world. And if you make it here, you belong. If you make it here, anyone can score.

“You still have to get up there in front of thousands of people screaming and race your race. All of a sudden, you face reality. This is it. When you go through that, it’s very uplifting for both an athlete and coach.”

He still loves it as much as ever.

He wouldn’t trade sitting outside Applebee’s in Iowa City this week for the world.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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