Johns Hopkins Olympians swimming with the big fish in Rio

One-time Blue Jays Ana Bogdanovski, Pilar Shimizu will represent their countries at the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil

NCAA champion Georgia has five women swimmers heading to the Rio Olympics. Cal-Berkeley, the 2015 NCAA winner, has four.

And Johns Hopkins – yes, tiny Division III Johns Hopkins – has two. Not bad.

Rising senior Pilar Shimizu will represent Guam in a second straight Olympics. Ana Bogdanovski, a 2015 graduate and perhaps the university's greatest-ever swimmer, is a first-time Olympian for Macedonia.

Swimmer Ana Bogdanovski sits next to pool in Johns Hopkins warmup suit

Image caption: Ana Bogdanovski, who won 10 Division III national titles in her four years at Johns Hopkins, will swim for Macedonia at the Summer Olympics in Rio.

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Bogdanovski, Macedonia's flag bearer for the opening ceremony, will swim the 200-meter freestyle, one of seven events in which she holds her birth country's national record. Last year, at the world championships in Russia, she finished 35th in both the 200 and the 100 free.

"Right now, I'm still keeping my head down and focusing on my training," she said last week, still in Baltimore. "Once I get to Rio, I know I will feel differently. I will be excited and, of course, a little nervous, but I am thinking of it as any other meet."

Shimizu is entered in the 100-meter breaststroke; she was 58th in that event at the worlds last year after placing 42nd in the 2012 London Olympics.

"I'm very excited to represent Guam again," said Shimizu, who left for Rio on Monday. "I'm generally a very nervous person, but this time around I am a little bit more relaxed because I know what to expect."

Bogdanovski has spent the year since graduation training at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, sharing lanes with Olympians from Denmark and Egypt and two Paralympics world record holders. She also worked as an assistant to longtime Johns Hopkins coach George Kennedy, who just retired after a 31-year run and seven national coach of the year awards.

Bogdanovski won 10 Division III national titles in her four undergraduate years, including six in 2014, when she was DIII woman swimmer of the year. She's received the NCAA's highest student-athlete award, the NCAA Today's Top 10; won an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship; and was an NCAA woman of the year nominee.

Now she's an Olympian—all the more amazing, considering that in her freshman year of high school in New Jersey she was the only girl on her team who didn't earn a varsity letter. She had little swimming experience then and only came out for the team to hang with friends. But despite a series of broken bones and other injuries, she steadily improved in high school and eventually swam year-round.

"I would not be anywhere near the level I am now if it weren't for Hopkins and Coach Kennedy," she says. "Coach saw my potential the first time we met, back when I just started swimming and had a cast on my arm from a horseback riding injury. Not many other coaches took me seriously back then."

Pilar Shimizu competes in the breast stroke at the 2012 London Olympics

Image caption: Pilar Shimizu, who competed at the 2012 London Olympics (pictured), will represent Guam again in Rio.

Image credit: Rob Schumacher / USA TODAY Sports

Kennedy, she says, invested time and patience in her; their strong connection helped her grow as a swimmer, student, and person. She was an Academic All-American as a junior and senior, graduating with a major in public health studies and a 3.74 GPA. She will enter Rutgers New Jersey Medical School this fall.

"He helped me gain confidence in and out of the pool," Bogdanovski said of Kennedy. "He taught me not to shy away from difficult tasks out of fear of failure, but to become excited about a challenge that I could overcome."

Shimizu said that Kennedy has also been critical to her success. The genial Blue Jays veteran, widely respected as a technical coach but, even more important, as a motivator and all-around good guy, "reignited the swimming fire in me," she said.

"I had my senior year of high school after London, and to be honest my interest slowly drifted from swimming," said Shimizu, who had been competing since she was 8. "I'm so grateful for the enthusiasm, guidance, and mentorship of Coach Kennedy."

Shimizu, also a public health studies major, swam for Johns Hopkins as a freshman and sophomore, making All-American in 2014 on a national champion 200-yard medley relay. As a junior, she trained with Baltimore's Mariner Swim Club and swam for Guam, aiming to return for a second Olympics after a wonderful experience at the London games.

The two future Johns Hopkins teammates actually met before Shimizu's freshman year, at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona.

"She and I were both swimming the 50 free, and I recognized the name on her cap and introduced myself when we were in the ready room," Bogdanovski said. "I can't wait to see her again in Rio. It's great having a fellow teammate at all the big meets. It takes the pressure off … and makes it feel more like home."

Neither Blue Jay is favored to medal; each faces a stiff challenge advancing to the 16-woman semifinals. Bogdanovski's 2:01.28 in the 200 is about seven seconds behind the time posted by top seed Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden. Shimizu, at 1:16.05, heads into the 100 breaststroke lagging five swimmers who qualified in under 1:06.

So you might not see any Blue Jays on NBC's prime time coverage. But they'll be on camera competing their hearts out in the prelims (Shimizu sometime after noon EDT on Sunday, Aug. 7, and Bogdanovski after noon on Monday, Aug. 8).

And isn't that what the Olympics are all about?

"I just want to do my absolute best and make my island, family, and school proud," Shimizu said.

Bogdanovski's goal is similar: a personal best and another Macedonian record.

"As long as I stay focused and calm, it is definitely an attainable goal," she said. "I will be happy with any place so long as I know I did the best I can, without letting my head get in the way of the process.

"I hope to raise Macedonia to the highest level possible at this meet, and have our country be recognized as one with potential for greatness," she added. "As a Hopkins athlete, I want to prove that DIII athletes have what it takes. … DIII doesn't mean we are any less competitive!"

Correction: Due to incorrect information on the FINA website, Ana Bogdanovski's qualifying time in the 200 freestyle was misstated in an earlier version of this article. The Hub regrets the error.

Posted in Athletics

Tagged swimming, olympics