Peter Vanderkaay prepares for the men’s 200m freestyle preliminaries during the 2012 Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center on May 11, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
By Phil Minshull, Special to Universal Sports
Having been part of the Team USA gold medal-winning 4x200m freestyle quartets at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, and he also got a 200m freestyle individual bronze in Beijing, the podium is not an unfamiliar place to Peter Vanderkaay.
However, the hugely-talented and engaging Vanderkaay has had to compete for the limelight throughout his career with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and more recently Ricky Berens, his team mates in the victorious Beijing relay squad.
In bid to step out of their long shadows, early last year he made the dramatic decision to move from his native Michigan – he was born in Rochester and since his days as a Wolverine had been based in Ann Arbor since 2001 – to the sunnier climes of Gainesville, Florida.
In the last 18 months, he has been working with the noted University of Florida coach Gregg Troy who will be the Team USA men’s head coach and he has had the 2011 200m freestyle world champion Lochte for company as a training partner.
“It basically came down to this: I needed to shake things up. I love Michigan and Ann Arbor, and it was really hard to decide to leave because the coaches and team had been really supportive over the years and I had a lot of success there; but I felt like I needed to get out of my comfort zone,” reflected Vanderkaay.
By his own admission, 2011 was a transitional year. On his return to China, with the 2011 World Championships being held in Shanghai, he was part of another gold medal-winning 4x200m team, accompanied by the same set of team mates as three years before in Beijing.
Vanderkaay also made the finals of the individual 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle events but came away without a medal, his best result coming in the shortest event where he finished fourth.
“Overall, I was really happy with my swims. Leading into the meet, I was curious because none of my in-season times were close to what I wanted to do at the Worlds. Fortunately, all the work paid off and I swam non-body suit best times. I was really hoping to get an individual medal (in Shanghai) but I can’t complain with the progress I’ve made,” added Vanderkaay.
Like in Shanghai, assuming he qualifies from next week’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, his best chance of an individual medal in London appears to be in the 400m freestyle.
However, the three men that finished in front of him last summer: Korea’s 2011 world champion Park Tae-Hwan, China’s Sun Yang and Germany’s world record holder and 2009 world champion Paul Biedermann have also shown good form this year and so potentially a fantastic four-way battle for the medals could ensue.
At least in London, Vanderkaay will not face one of the out-of-the-pool problems he encountered in Shanghai.
The Chinese authorities blocked access his Facebook account and for inscrutable reasons also had his own website on their banned list.
However, swim fans should be able to read his erudite and entertaining updates from this summer’s Olympic Games regardless of his fortunes in the water.