NEW LONDON -- Joe Rodriguez has learned some valuable life skills and lessons while attending the Coast Guard Academy, none bigger than one that taught him anything is possible with hard work and commitment.
Rodriguez certainly is proof.
During his career, Rodriguez has excelled in the classroom and developed into one of the best swimmers in program history.
"I'm an electrical engineer at the academy," Rodriguez said. "Prior to coming here, I wasn't very specialized in math. I wouldn't call that my strong suit. But the mentality that they drill into you here is just because you can't do it right now, doesn't mean you can't do it.
"That parallels with swimming, too. You can really do anything that you set your mind to, so my attitude with swimming is the same as my attitude toward academics. Whatever assignment, whatever class, just trying to give it 100 percent and hopefully have it pay off in the end."
It certainly has paid off for Rodriguez, now a senior.
Rodriguez is a three-time All-American, program record-holder in the 50-meter freestyle and 100 freestyle and in December became the first Coast Guard swimmer to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials, making the cut in the 50. He earned College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association Scholar All-American team honors last season and received the Great Minds in STEM Cadet Leadership Award in 2019.
"He's a really nice success story in a lot of different ways," coach John Westkott said.
Few swimmers during Westkott's 21 years as coach at the academy have improved as much during their careers as Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, who's from Atlanta, was a good swimmer in high school. But lacrosse was his best sport.
Not until a knee injury temporarily halted his lacrosse career did Rodriguez jump into swimming. He eventually decided to try to compete in college.
"I thought it would be good to pick up something else and good to rehab my knee, so I just started swimming my junior year and it turned out I was pretty good at it," Rodriguez said. "I started looking at trying to do it in college and stumbled upon the Coast Guard Academy.
"It's very weird. Some things that you look at as maybe one of the hardest times in your life, turning (my injury) into a positive in the long run was well worth it."
Rodriguez was drawn to the sprint events, preferring the fast, exciting pace. He set lofty goals right from the start. He looked up at the record board in the CGA pool and figured why not try to beat the best times.
He's been a sponge, soaking up every bit of coaching advice from Westkott, who helped him with his stroke, breathing and start. He's a fierce competitor with the ability to simply outwill his competition at times.
Westkott marvels at Rodriguez's growth.
"He's developed better than any other national-level kid that we've had and that includes (2014 50 freestyle national champion) Christian Brindamour. When Christian came in, he was Connecticut State Open champ. Joe was a high school swimmer in Georgia. Between the start and the finish of his freshman year, he had a huge range of improvement and then he's continued it every year."
"It's pretty special to have somebody at that level. Just between our conference meet (last season) and three and a half weeks later at nationals, he may have been the one athlete that jumped the most places based on seed to where he finished. He was just squeaking in in one of the invite spots in the 50 and he ended up placing third."
Not only did Rodriguez place a surprising third in the 50 freestyle at the NCAA Division III Championship, he broke the school record with a time of 19.88 seconds. He also set a school record in the 100 freestyle of 44.53 and exceeded expectations by finishing a strong seventh in the nation. He swam a leg on the 200 freestyle relay team that took eighth.
Rodriguez's carried the momentum from his breakout season into his senior year, setting his sights on qualifying for the Olympic Trials. He regularly trains in a short course pool, so it was an adjustment.
He accomplished the qualifying feat while competing in the Navy Long Course Invitational at the Naval Academy in Annapolis on Dec. 13. He finished the 50 freestyle in 23.07. The trial cut time was 23.19.
"It was pretty great because there was only one other person at that point who had qualified at that invitational," Rodriguez said. "Watching that race and seeing everyone cheer, it got me pumped up a little bit. And I wanted to be that little Coast Guard guy who (makes) the trials cut."
The Olympic Trials will be held June 27 in Omaha, Nebraska.
First, Rodriguez wants to finish his swimming career in style. He hopes to break his own school records, do well at the NEWMAC Championship and place third or higher in the 50 freestyle at the nationals. He also competes on several relay teams.
"He's a better swimmer now than he was last year at this time," Westkott said.
A few things need to be worked out for Rodriguez to compete in the Olympic Trials, which comes over a month after graduation and after he's received his assignment.
"I'm not sure how it is going to work with my billet and graduating yet," Rodriguez said. "I don't really know much about that right now. Given the opportunity and if it doesn't conflict with what I'm trying to do career-wise, I would be more than happy to go and represent Coast Guard at the trials. ... It's really just pretty awesome."
This article is written by Gavin Keefe from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.