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Engineers transition swimmingly from the pool to the lab

Six men standing in a row of library stacks.

Seven members of the Mizzou men’s swimming and diving team have a second bond with engineering. Pictured, from left, are mechanical engineering senior John Krause, mechanical engineering junior Connor Nolan, industrial engineering junior Andrew Phillips, pre-engineering freshman Eddie Mapel, mechanical engineering freshman Kevin Poskin and civil engineering senior Jowan Qupty. Not pictured: mechanical engineering sophomore Michal Rokita. Katie Bell/College of Engineering

Engineering’s reputation as a major that requires long study sessions and endless hours in labs and the library easily rivals any college course of study for the title “most rigorous.” College-level athletes would say their schedules — packed with daily and weekend practices, mandatory tutoring and study sessions and sometimes even scheduled meal times is just as rigorous.

Yet, seven members of the Mizzou men’s swimming and diving team have not only taken on the schedule required of NCAA-level athletes, but have a combined it with the academic demands of engineering students, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Mizzou has the right balance between academics and athletics,” said Connor Nolan, a junior mechanical engineering major.

Most of the swimmers said the love of swimming and engineering both started young. In some cases, a family member served as the inspiration for engineering and sometimes the reason for both.

Michael Rokita said not only was his father the person who initially signed him up for a swimming club, but his father’s company — in his home country of Poland — peaked his initial interest in engineering.

“My father owns a mechanical engineering-oriented company that works with hydraulic systems in cars,” Rokita, a sophomore mechanical engineering major said.

Cars and racing have been a favorite interest for Nolan since childhood. He said he loved building things and figuring out how they work, so it only seemed natural to find a school that gave him the best of both worlds.

The five current NCAA-eligible competitive swimmers make up one-sixth of the men’s swim team. Engineering is one of the best-represented majors among team members. Seniors John Krause and Jowan Qupty are fifth-year seniors who are no longer on the competition roster, but remain involved with the team. Both have said their experiences with the swim team and the engineering curriculum have required dedication to make the pairing work.

“Time management is essential,” Krause said. “It really clicked for me during my sophomore year — how competitive we are in swimming, we have to be just as much in school.”

Swimmers practice six days a week with two practices on three of those days, and a four-hour practice on Saturday. Many leave practice and head straight to class, meals or mandated study sessions and return in the afternoon to practice again.

“We get a lot of help from the athletic department,” Rokita said. “They assign us special academic advisers who help us find the time to study.”

Swimming sometimes leaves little time for extracurricular activities, but it’s possible. Krause began working in mechanical engineering Associate Professor Roger Fales’ fluid power lab as an undergraduate researcher more than a year ago — the same time he became the team’s co-captain.

“The opportunity came up at that point,” Krause said. “My tutor sophomore year did research for Dr. Fales. After he graduated, I applied for and was able to fill his spot.”

The following summer, Krause got an internship with a hydraulics company in Sarasota, Fla. As he is no longer NCAA-eligible, Krause said he’s dedicating this semester to engineering and is working on his MAE capstone project with train motor refabrication as well as offering advice from his own experiences to younger teammates who are, perhaps, second guessing the engineering curriculum.

“I remind them it’s worth it and tell them to get out into the engineering community,” Krause said. “You can easily isolate yourself within the team. Just as we work better as a team, I tell some of the younger guys engineering works better as a team, too.”

There are times when the swimmers find principles from engineering beneficial in the pool.

“As a freshman, we sat in on the mechanical engineering capstone presentations,” Nolan said. “And I kept thinking of ideas for capstone projects that involved swimming — like gloves that could measure forces underwater.”

Krause said going further into the engineering program, he found the life skills he learned from swimming applied to the ones he’d need for engineering.

“Getting to know who is on your team is the same thing for swimming as it is in industry,” Krause said.

For now, the aspirations for the near future remain in the pool — Nolan and Rokita said they each plan on training for the 2016 Olympic trials for the U.S. and Poland, respectively, and Qupty redshirted 2012 to try out for the Israeli national team. But all agree that engineering is where they will be for their long-term careers.

Swimming engineers

John Krause
Major: mechanical engineering senior
Events: 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 100 butterfly
On his proudest moment in the pool, Krause said, “Last year, when we went to Georgia, that was our first SEC meet. There was this expectation that we wouldn’t compare to an SEC team, but we battled them, and I’d never experienced a meet that was that close. Although we didn’t win, we made them work hard for that victory, and we felt that we won.”

Eddie Mapel
Major: pre-engineering freshman
Events: 100 and 200 breaststroke, 200 individual medley (IM),
On balancing engineering and swimming, Mapel said, “I enjoy challenging myself and pushing myself to see my full potential. The programs that the athletic and engineering departments have in place to support their students are phenomenal and make issues like time management much easier to deal with.”

Connor Nolan
Major: mechanical engineering junior
Events: 200 and 500 freestyle, 200 and 400 individual medley
On how he discovered engineering, Nolan said, “When I was a kid. I loved building things. I love cars, especially racing, Formula One. I love learning how things work. I thought, ‘when I go to school, how can I do the things I love doing?’”

Andrew Phillips
Major: industrial engineering junior
Events: 200 butterfly, 200 and 500 freestyle
On how his major helps his schedule, Phillips said,  “Having a tight schedule may seem bad, but I have come to realize that an open hour will usually be filled with procrastination. I like to joke that my major revolves around efficiency and that my schedule is practically air tight.”

Kevin Poskin
Major: mechanical engineering freshman
Events: individual medley and Butterfly
On getting into engineering, Poskin said, “I’ve always been interested in engineering because it asks questions like, ‘How can we make this better?’ and optimizes the design of a given task. To balance school and swimming, you have to work hard 100 percent of the time and make the most of your free time.”

Jowan Qupty
Major: civil engineering senior
Events: 100 and 200 breaststroke, 200 individual medley
On getting into swimming, Qupty said, “I went to kindergarten at the YMCA in Jerusalem, and they would take us twice a week to the swimming pool.
I loved it. It felt like i belonged in the water from the very first time I got in. I never left swimming since then and kept training with the YMCA club team until i moved to boarding school in Jacksonville, Fla., when I was 16 to pursue my swimming career.”

Michal Rokita
Major: mechanical engineering sophomore
Events: 100 breaststroke, 200 breaststroke
On getting into swimming Rokita said, “It was while I was in primary school. There was a swim meet in our city [Katowice, Poland], and they were looking for people who could swim to compete in the meet. My father suggested I try it, and after doing well, he thought this could be something I would be good at. He saw the potential in me.”