With a heart full of gratitude, a carload of college luggage and his dad by his side, Connor Jaeger embarked on a familiar, typical journey back to college on Wednesday.
It was the most ordinary thing the extraordinary 21-year-old Olympian swimmer from Fair Haven had done in a month-and-a-half, he reflected as the father and son team drove through the Delaware Water Gap on their 10-hour trek to the University of Michigan.
“Yeah, it’s been a month-and-a-half of just hectic,” Jaeger said while riding, GPS sounding in the background. “But it’s been an amazing kind of hectic.”
In the past month and a half alone, the 2010 graduate of Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School made the cut to swim the 1,500-meter freestyle on the 2012 Olympics team, trained in France and London, made it to the finals and came in sixth in the world in his category.
You could hear the happy sigh as he looked back on the whirlwind experience and the joyous mayhem that ensued because of it all.
Jaeger’s hometown cheered him on voraciously through it all and he got to see that all up close when he returned home last week and saw people lined along the streets of Rumson and Fair Haven welcoming the hometown hero back.
“Wow! It was so cool to get such a nice reaction like that from the town … all those friends and neighbors,” he said. “When I see these photos of all the signs and support from people, I just can’t believe it. It really just means so much to me. I didn’t ask for that. I’m not the kind of person who looks for attention. So when I saw it myself and saw the pictures, I just felt so grateful. I wish I could thank each and every person individually, I would. I guess I am trying to do that now. Just amazing. Thank you all!”
The motorcade last Friday, though unsolicited, turned out to be a good opportunity as well for Jaeger to connect with old friends from his team at the Central Jersey Aquatic Club (CJAC) and high school, he added. It also turned out to be an unwitting opportunity for him to connect with kids who he never realized were looking up to him.
“Yeah, the kids were so awesome,” said Jaeger, who was flanked like Elvis, when he returned to the Fair Haven firehouse after the motorcade to sign autographs and chat with the fans. “I was the same age as a lot of them when I started swimming, so it was very cool to sign autographs for them and maybe motivate them a little to realize that they can do whatever they want with their lives. They were so great. I didn’t realize what an impact I had on them, so I’m glad I got a chance to meet them and talk to them a little.”
Jaeger said he knew it was the start of a lifetime of swimming for him when he started swimming on a team at 5 at Surfrider Beach Club, and then the path to the Olympic pool was set in stone when he started competing at 8 with CJAC.
From that point, he just ended up loving and focusing on the sport more each year. And out of that pure love and enjoyment of the sport, he ended up in the Olympics.
In the very beginning of his Olympic journey, Jaeger, during the preliminary swims, inadvertently endeared himself to fans when he became known for swimming an extra lap and ending up alone in the pool as an audience watched him keep on swimming.
What was he thinking?
“I kind of knew I miscounted and thought I was supposed to stop, but, for a second I thought maybe I had lost count and wasn’t sure, so I just decided to keep swimming to be safe,” he said with a modest chuckle. “When I finally stopped and looked up and saw no one else in the pool, of course, I realized I had ‘overswam.’ Then I saw the time and was happier with that and the crowd cheered.”
Then it was off to making the cut on the team at the Nebraska trials on July 2. His feelings when he emerged from the water to find out?
“I remember being in a state of shock and disbelief and thinking ‘Wow, what’s gonna happen now?’ ” he said. “There was just so much excitement and happiness at once. Right away, Peter (Vanderkaay) congratulated me on making the team. Then Ryan Feeley (from University of Michigan) swam over. He was really happy for me, even though he didn’t make it and shared the moment with me. It was incredible. And, of course, my family was there through all of it, which meant the world to me.”
Jaeger and his family — big sister and fellow swimmer Dana, mom Bernadette and dad Eric — are very close, and Connor’s proud of that tight-knit relationship.
Bernadette had told Patch that Connor’s favorite meal is chicken parm and his favorite combination of things to do in preparation for a swim has always been “chicken parm and a side of nap.”
Well, there was no chicken parm to be found in London, Connor said, “but I improvised and made my own for everyone in the suite (two, two-person bedrooms and a common area). I got some grilled chicken, some sauce and some pasta and put it all together and served a different version of chicken parm. It worked pretty well.”
When he made the cut to swim in the Olympic finals, Jaeger said he was one of the last people to swim. “I watched my teammates do well. It was exciting to be there, not only as spectator, but as a teammate,” he said. “I fed off the energy and was ready to swim for my team when it came time.”
And that he did. Though Jaeger did not medal, as the youngest on the team, he came in sixth in the world, and he’s very happy with that outcome and looking to only the immediate future right now.
Will go for the Olympic medal in four years? He can’t say right now.
“I’m really, at this moment, just looking forward to getting back with the rest of the guys on my team (at University of Michigan),” the Olympian, entering his junior year, said. “I’m excited for the freshman class to come in, so I can meet all the new teammates. Then, it’s back to the 'big house' to watch some football games. I have two more years of college ‘til I’m done, then I’ll re-evaluate. It’s a long way off for any decision.”
Enjoy the trip down that next path, Connor Jaeger!