Tom Wilkens of Middletown is proof that you don't have to be tall or have extremely large hands to win an Olympic medal in swimming.
"I'm living proof that someone growing up right here on the Jersey Shore, who isn't too tall or isn't too strong, can go on to achieve their dreams," he said.
Speaking poolside at the Oceanport Lions Swim Club on Wednesday, Wilkens, a bronze medal winner from the 2000 Sydney games, told the swim team that a series of small choices throughout his life led to a victory over another swimmer, as it turns out, by a distance only the size of the thickness of his medal itself.
When Wilkens began his swim career at age 7, he said, he was a short, skinny, dorky little kid with glasses. "I wasn't even the best swimmer on the team," he says of his first team at the Middletown Pool and Tennis Club.
After the Middletown team he joined the team at the Red Bank Community YMCA. He then went on to swim for Christian Brothers Academy and Stanford University. He is also a graduate of Saint Mary Elementary School in Middletown.
What propelled him to become one of the best swimmers in the world, he said, were three simple keys that kids can apply to all areas of their lives: a good attitude; hard work; and persistence.
Through his own challenges in the pool Wilkens learned that if he was going to go to the Olympics, he would have to become "a 24-hour athlete," keeping his goal in mind when he was eating, lifting weights and even resting.
Gathered around him in their wet bathing suits, kids from the pool club swim team from 5 to 14 years old, such as Jack Hester from Oceanport and Kathryn Medrow from Fair Haven, listened intently even as their siblings splashed and laughed nearby. Wilkens' own son just joined the team.
"Be a 24-hour person," Wilkens told his crowd. Though he said they might be able to fool their parents or their teachers about how much effort they put toward their lives, "You can't ever fool yourself. Only you know if you are doing your best to be your best... You have a lot of control."
Wilkens also won a gold medal in the World Championships, setting a world record that was eventually broken by Michael Phelps. Wilkens also is the last swimmer to have beaten Phelps seven years ago.
One of his most difficult challenges happened when Wilkens was swimming in seventh grade. "I just really loved swimming," he said. But he was also getting sick a lot, suffering bout after bout of bronchitis. A trip to the allergist revealed a startling reality. This boy who loved to swim was allergic to chlorine.
His doctor said, "I know how to keep you from getting sick again — wear a nose clip."
It was a simple solution but a hard one for a middle schooler.
"'No way,' I thought, 'The older boys are going to tease me... the girls are going to laugh at me,'" he said.
And that's just what happened, but he never got sick again, and his swimming career took off.
"Even though it wasn't the most popular thing to do," Wilkens said of wearing the clip that made him look and talk funny, "It was the right thing."
Later after the Olympics when he was swimming with his team he noticed a few teammates also wearing nose clips, a real rarity.
He asked one of the guys why. His teammates reply made him laugh at the irony — "Because you wear one and your the best swimmer in the world, so I thought maybe I should."