Written by Tyler Neville '17
Tyler Neville, a rising senior Communications/Journalism major at Saint Joseph's, has been a regular contributor to the SJC Athletics website this year. See the list below for more of Neville's releases.
For his fifth and final installment of the 2015-16 academic year, Neville writes about Andrew Merlino, a senior captain of the men's swim team last winter. Merlino took a circuitous route on his way to becoming a major contributor to the SJC swim program and capped his career with his name on the team's record board.
Andrew Merlino's athletic career has been anything but predictable. From struggling to crack the starting lineup on the baseball team as a freshman to becoming a co-captain on the swim team and a school record holder, few athletes at Saint Joseph's have had as interesting a career as Andrew Merlino. The path he took was long, filled with twists and turns, unexpected drops and incredible highs. But in the end, Merlino believes he ended up right where he was supposed to.
"I came to Saint Joseph's to play baseball," Merlino said. In high school, he became hooked on the Monks baseball program after watching five minutes of practice. "In my eyes, I knew just about everything I would need to know about the game" Merlino explained. "Saying I was wrong would be an understatement." Showing up for fall baseball, Andrew discovered that the majority of his freshman class were pitchers. In fact, the freshman pitchers totaled about the same number of players as Merlino had on his whole high school varsity team. Struggling to make an impression, Merlino was convinced by Head Coach Will Sanborn to stop splitting time between trying to play both the catcher and pitching positions and just to focus on pitching for now. Quickly realizing that this was a far cry from his small high school varsity team, Merlino found himself buried on the depth chart. His initial goals of being one of the impact players on the team quickly evaporated as he realized just how overmatched he was.
Merlino's freshman season ended with the Monks winning the GNAC Championship in spectacular fashion, with a walk-off hit in the bottom of the tenth inning. But while the season ended in a dog pile and a trophy presentation for the Monks, things weren't all great for Andrew. Sitting the bench all season, Merlino didn't pitch a single inning, forced to watch and wonder how he would've performed in the situations unfolding in front of him on the field.
Going into the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, Merlino and the rest of the team were told by Coach Sanborn that next year's class was one of the deepest and most talented classes in recent memory and that competition for spots on the team would be fierce. "I didn't work as hard as I should have," Merlino admits.
A week and a half into the fall baseball season during his sophomore year, Merlino was told that the team didn't have a spot for him on their roster.
"I was heartbroken," Andrew said. "I didn't want to turn my back on the team and walk away" he continued. So when Coach Sanborn offered the position of Student-Assistant for the team, Merlino jumped on the opportunity to still be a part of the program.
"It was fun," Merlino said, "I got to watch just as much baseball as I did before, but I got paid to do it."
No longer a part of the baseball team, Merlino turned his focus to his "other" sport: swimming. To explain, we need to go back to the fall semester of his freshman year.
After losing a bet on a ping-pong game with classmate Alex Gilvey after fall ball his freshman year, Andrew was forced to attend swimming practice. Not sure what to expect, and basically attending practice to fulfill his end of the wager, Andrew showed up outfitted in regular swim trunks and a pair of borrowed goggles. He quite literally dove right into his swim career.
He didn't know how to flip turn, couldn't keep up with the other swimmers, and got out of the pool at the end of practice dead tired and certain he didn't want to do that ever again. However, the next moment saw the entire men's team come up to him and shake his hand, welcoming to the team. Merlino finally felt like an important member of a team, an integral piece.
Andrew met with then head coach Rick Hayes, joined the team, and slowly but surely improved his swimming talent. Additionally, he saw it as an opportunity to get into better shape for his upcoming freshman baseball season.
After being cut in the fall of his sophomore year, Merlino became even more focused on his swimming career. He worked hard to improve on all three of his strokes; butterfly, backstroke, and freestyle. Merlino's improvement helped the Monks come one win short of their first .500 winning percentage season in program history, with a nail biter to Gordon College being the difference.
Although Merlino's sophomore season had seen great improvement on a team level, he was not satisfied with his progress on an individual level. All his times in individual events improved, yet he still was coming in the same places as his freshman year. "I wasn't any closer to a medal or a record, and I didn't feel as if I was pulling my own weight (on the team)" Merlino explained.
For his junior year, Andrew was committed to becoming a leader on his team and helping to propel the team to new levels of success. Merlino found himself volunteering for events like the 1000 yards, the mile, and other races that would help his team win. He saw his times drop more and more throughout the season, until one day he nearly broke the school record for the 50-yard butterfly. That became Merlino's singular focus, beating the 25.36-second record for the school's 50-yard butterfly. Plagued by shoulder and elbow injuries in his left arm, Merlino just missed the record in the final meet of the season. Another summer came, and Merlino began to prepare for his final season as a swimmer.
A few weeks into his senior season, Merlino was named men's team co-captain by new Head Coach Margaret Howe, who replaced Coach Hayes after he moved on to accept a position at another college. Merlino's co-captain was none other than Alex Gilvey, who was responsible for getting Andrew into the sport four years prior after that fateful ping-pong game.
His senior season went by in a flash, as Merlino won event after event, leading the men's team and finally feeling like he was "pulling his weight." He was named to the GNAC Weekly Honor Roll in early February and headed into the final stretch of the season feeling like he was on pace to finally break that 50-yard butterfly school record, after months of hard work and preparation.
The final meet of the season, the New England Intercollegiate Swimming & Diving Association (NEISDA) Championships, saw Merlino slated to swim in seven events.
On Day One of the NEISDAs, Merlino swam the 100-yard butterfly, going all out and putting it all on the line. He hit the wall and looked up at the clock. "I thought the clock was broken," says Merlino. He had dropped over 5 seconds from his time and moved up nearly 10 places from where he was expected to finish. He ended making the finals for the event, finally receiving that elusive medal and getting to stand on the podium.
That night, Merlino went back to the hotel and began to prepare for the 50-yard butterfly event, which was held the next day. Looking for every advantage he could get, Merlino proceeded to shave his head, arms, and legs.
Day Two started with Merlino participating in the team's 200 Individual Medley Relay, where each swimmer's leg is a different stroke, as one person swims each stroke for 50 yards. Merlino swam the butterfly portion and shaved a full second off his time. Going into the 50 butterfly later that day, Merlino was feeling very good about his chance at the school record.
Merlino hit the water for the qualifying rounds of the 50-yard butterfly, and his swim cap promptly slid forward and partially covered his eyes. He still gave it all he had and hit the wall at 25.26 seconds, a tenth of a second under the school record.
However, looking up two spots on the leaderboard, Merlino was crushed to see that teammate Ben Johnson posted a 25.19 time. He had broken the record but, in a bizarre and slightly cruel twist, was not the record holder.
Merlino would get one more shot at the record in the finals later on in the day.
The time finally came later that day and Merlino could feel the nervous energy flowing through his body. Andrew had learned the hard way how to deal with these pre-race jitters, after forgetting to tie his suit at one event and almost throwing up at another.
In that moment, Merlino remembered something that Head Baseball Coach Will Sanborn had taught him during his one year of baseball, almost four years prior. "Amp down," Merlino says. "Amp down means that you have to keep your head. You can't' forget to just stay calm if you don't then you make simple mistakes like a bad turn or a subpar finish" Merlino explains.
The moments before stepping up onto the starting blocks, Merlino "amped down" and was able to calm his nerves and slow his mind down. "I remember thinking to myself "this is it, one last chance"" Merlino recounts "give it all you got." His whole season, really his whole swimming career, had led to this moment.
Merlino shook hands with teammate Ben Johnson, stepped up onto his block, took his mark, and waited for the starter's beep to dive in.
From coming in freshman year and immediately finding the challenge of college baseball, to literally diving into the challenge of becoming a college athlete in a sport in which he had no experience, dealing with the loss of the sport he loved, and channeling that drive and passion into become the best swimmer he could be on an individual and team level, Merlino was ready for this moment.
An athletic career unlike any other that Saint Joseph's has seen, Merlino finds it hard to believe himself. "It's strange to think that a small choice to challenge myself freshman year would shape my entire college career and change me for the better."
Merlino didn't realize it when he jumped into the pool for the 50-yard butterfly finals at NEISDAs, but all of those things prior to this race and this moment were propelling him forward through the water that day.
He hit the wall at the end of the race, snapped his head around to look at the board, and saw the number.
Merlino threw his hands in the air, slipped underwater, and let the moment wash over him as the crowd roared. He checked his lane number to make sure he was looking at the right number on the board, and then realized the other competitors were coming over from their lanes to congratulate him on the win. He slipped out of the pool and embraced teammate Ben Johnson, who had held the record for a few hours. He went and found Coach Hayes, his former coach who decided not to cut the inexperienced Merlino during his freshman year. He went into the stands and found his mom and gave her a hug.
Merlino went on to help break two more school records at that event, as a part of the 200 and 800-yard freestyle relays. He placed seventh overall in the 50-yard backstroke on the final day of the NEISDAs, capping his swimming career.
"I would put my success on three things coming together," Merlino says, "good coaching, supportive teammates, and the right attitude." When he was cut from the baseball team as an 18-year-old freshman, he was convinced his athletic career was all but over. But he found a new love in swimming. "I've formed friendships that will last a lifetime and done things that I never dreamed of doing," Merlino reflected. "Year after year I kept surprising myself with what I could accomplish in the sport (of swimming) and my only wish is that I had one more year to do even more and to set the bar even higher."
As to what's next for Andrew, all we can say for certain is that he'll graduate this spring with his degree in Marine Sciences. What he going to do with that degree, his amazing work ethic and commitment, and all the skills and experiences gained over his four years at Saint Joseph's? Well, like his career path as a Saint Joseph's athlete, that can't possibly be predicted.
OTHER RELEASES FROM TYLER NEVILLE:
Saint Joseph's College is Maine's only Catholic liberal arts college, providing a supportive, personalized and career-focused education for more than 100 years. From its 474-acre campus on the shores of Sebago Lake, the College offers more than 40 undergraduate programs to a population of approximately 1,000 students. Saint Joseph's College Online provides certificates, undergraduate and advanced degrees for working adults through an online learning program. For more, visit www.sjcme.edu.