Shenendehowa swimming coach Chuck Dunham likes to tell the story about the guy who had a strong Section II meet, but struggled at the state championships that followed.
“It was his freshman year, and he looked like a deer in headlights. The confidence he had at the sectionals was missing, and in the preliminaries, it was visible. He was tense, and he swam tense,” Dunham said. “There was nowhere to go but up.”
Ryan Gordon was that guy, and he did move up that weekend. In the years that followed, he vaulted to the top.
“I remember that year. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. These people are so fast.’ I didn’t swim too well,” the Plainsmen senior said of his performance in the 500-yard freestyle. “It was all mental, and I dropped 10 seconds from the preliminaries to the finals.
“If your head is in the right place, you will swim fast. You have to believe in your talent. You have to believe in the work you’ve done.”
Gordon placed 10th in the 500 free final that year. He won the first of his six state titles the next year as a sophomore, and began his collection of All-America honors that ultimately reached 10. He’ll have those and a trio of Section II records in his back pocket when heads to Indiana University on an athletic scholarship.
Gordon made an unofficial visit to defending NCAA Division I champion Michigan and official stops at Notre Dame, Virginia, the University of Buffalo and Indiana, where the great Mark Spitz prepped for Olympic fame.
“Every year, they have swimmers improve,” Gordon said of Indiana. “That was a big draw. The improvement I can make there.
“Next year is going to be a huge awakening, as far as the amount of training. It’s going to be, ‘This is what men do,’ and I’m looking forward to it. I want to be in the pool,” the 18-year-old honors student added. “My body is going to be broken down like never before, and I’ll build back up. I’m going to grow.”
Gordon has done so in many ways since he joined the Plainsmen as an eighth-grader. His state meet showing the next season included a 33rd in the 200 free. At the sectionals beforehand, he won the 200 free and 500 free, and helped the Plainsmen take the 400 free relay.
“What changed was his mental approach,” said Dunham. “He needed to have that same confidence he had at the sectionals, and he came back and blew away his PR in the 500.”
“The preliminaries were an eye-opener,” Gordon said. “After that, I was like, ‘Now I have something to prove.’ ”
Gordon won New York State Public High School Athletic Association 100 backstroke titles in each of his final three seasons. As a junior, he also won the state public school 200 individual medley, and was a two-event Federation champ that season.
“When you get to college, you tend to specialize more,” said Dunham. “The backstroke will be his focus, but he’s versatile enough to do other things. He has six of the 12 Shenendehowa records.”
“I’ll go where they need me,” said Gordon, who was recently selected the Section II swimming and diving Athlete of the Year. “Luckily, I have the four strokes.”
Gordon closed his scholastic career with six Section II individual titles, and he swam legs on five Section II-winning relays. His efforts helped Shenendehowa claim five Section II team championships and win all but one dual meet.
“When I was in eighth grade, we had seniors who did a great job of showing the way,” said Gordon, who was twice selected the Section II large-school meet’s standout competitor. “They made it clear that Shenendehowa swimming does not like to lose, and we were willing to do things other teams don’t do.”
Something Indiana hasn’t done in quite some time is win an NCAA championship. The Hoosiers won their last in 1973, when they strung six in a row.
“They want to win a national title. That would be awesome to be a part of,” said Gordon. “They’ve got some guys there who are awesome, and they’re bringing in more of them.”