CANTON - For the uninitiated, the state swim meet at C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton can be a bit overwhelming. The tightly-packed atmosphere intertwined with the magnitude of the event itself can make of break first-timers depending on his or her mental preparedness. Which is why Ursuline junior and Hubbard native John Tomko, after barely missing the state meet a year ago, dedicated his entire season to mental toughness.
At the Division II preliminaries Thursday evening, it showed. Tomko swam a season-best 1:47.96 and finished with the 16th best overall time in the 200-yard freestyle, qualifying him for finals competition today.
"This entire year has been about mental toughness for me," Tomko said. "It has helped me through all of the bigger meets where more nerves come up and I've done a better job training with that in mind."
Tomko noted that last week, in district competition, the second half of his race had been a major struggle. He felt that fatigue held him from his best time. On Thursday, Tomko, who also swam in the 500-yard freestyle, seemed to only get better as the race wore on.
"I definitely felt stronger in the back half of this race," he said. "I was able to get the extra oomph I needed to get into the finals."
Tomko will need even more endurance coming into today's finals. After just a night's rest and a trip back and forth between Youngstown and Canton, Tomko has to be able to turn it on again, this time against the best the state has to offer.
"John has a lot of experience in prelim-final meets," coach Craig Yaniglos explained. "And he's one of the strongest mental competitors I've ever witnessed. He does exactly what you tell him to do the first time and he does it obsessively."
Another Hubbard native, Hubbard junior Joey Spurio, also came in to Thursday's meet focused, but in a different way. He tried to focus his mind on, well, peace of mind. Spurio barely missed qualifying for finals competition in the 100-yard butterfly, finishing 18th overall with a time of 54.34 seconds. Spurio missed qualifying by .15 seconds.
"I told myself there's not much I can do after this so just try to have fun," Spurio said. "I was focused on having fun and not over-thinking the race and, you know, whatever happens-happens."
What happened was a respectable sixth place finish in his heat. While the time wasn't a personal best, Spurio has been able to maintain through the rigors of tournament swimming.
"Considering how many meets I've been to and how much I've had to endure competing the last few weekends I think I did pretty good to maintain," he said.
Spurio also maintained despite a minor hiccup to start his race.
"I was a little too excited and one of my hands slipped away from the other during my streamline. I could have had my under-waters go a little farther as well and had more of a kick or more of a pull."
Hubbard coach Trish Wirtz was more than satisfied with Spurio's performance, as this was, for both coach and swimmer, the pair's first trip to the state meet.
"It's been a joy to coach him," Wirtz said. "It's my first year as coach but I had worked with him at Hubbard Swim Club. For me to take over this year has been an excellent adventure for both of us. He's done very well. This was a learning experience for both of us.
"It's been a privilege to coach him and know him and know his family."
As far as Spurio's attitude entering the race, Wirtz insisted that her swimmer try to calm himself and enjoy the experience.
"I told him to stay focused and have fun with it," she said. "Our goal was to get to state and we met that goal. Everything else was frosting on the cake."
Spurio and Tomko have been training together in their preparations. The two are long-time friends and have been very supportive of each other's efforts.
"I'm really glad I got to go to state with a friend," Spurio said. "It's good having somebody here cheering for you and there's been a really good camaraderie between us."