Josh Schneider is being very cautious. He's watching what he eats. He's making sure he's not around anyone who is sick.
The NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships are March 25-27 in Columbus. And the University of Cincinnati standout swimmer isn't taking any chances.
"I'm being a lot more careful this year," he says.
What that means is that he is still haunted by last year.
Schneider has qualified for the NCAA meet for the second straight time in three events: The 50-meter freestyle, the 100 freestyle and the 100 butterfly. It is the third year in a row for the 50 free.
A year ago, the weekend after winning all three events at the Big East Conference championships, Schneider came down with a fever. It was a Friday. "I thought it was a one-day thing," he says. "I thought I'd sweat it out."
He felt better by night time and through most of the next day. That Saturday evening he went out with friends and before the night was over he had the chills again. Sunday he could not get out of bed and had no appetite.
"I felt awful," Schneider says. "I don't know what happened. I caught something."
He lost 15 pounds. While he gained some back by the time the NCAA meet came, he was still a good 10 pounds underweight.
Needless to say, the championships did not go well.
Schneider finished 15th in the 50 free - his strongest event. That was his best finish.
"Last year was really rough," he says. "I've never run into a problem like that. I know everyone has their excuses ..."
He stops there.
"I don't really care what my time will be in the 50 free, to be honest, as long as I claim an NCAA championship," Schneider says of this year's meet. "The other races are kind of little bonuses to show that I have more to offer than just an up-and-back swim."
Lost in all the stories about Reds spring training, the Winter Olympics and looming March Madness is the tale of this Taylor High School graduate and former high school swimming state champion who has an opportunity to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Josh Schneider is that good. And yet his saga still flies under the radar.
Just to recap, Schneider:
· Won Big East titles in three events for the second year in a row and was named the conference's Swimmer of the Year for the second straight time. He also holds UC records in all of his events.
· Was UC's Male Athlete of the Year in 2009.
· Shares the fastest time in the country in the 50 free with Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian from the University of California.
"The Olympics is 100 percent reasonable now," Schneider says. "I've just got to keep improving. There is so much more to improve on; you can't ever be content because no one else is."
It is, in some ways, that lack of contentment that led Schneider to overhauling his form last summer.
He went to Charlotte, N.C., to train with Dave Marsh and Cullen Jones, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. 4x100 freestyle relay team in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Marsh coached more than 20 Olympians while leading Auburn University to seven men's and five women's NCAA titles.
"They changed my stroke completely," Schneider says. "Wiped the slate clean. Started all over.
"I knew what I was doing wasn't right. I wasn't feeling the water. I wasn't getting what all the coaches were explaining to me. I knew this was the right choice, and I bought into it. I started changing my stroke, and I actually started feeling the water. They call it slipping, when you're not catching water and you can throw your arms around as fast as you can."
This is a good time to mention that Schneider is 6-foot-4 and counts his size and strength among his competitive advantages (some other swimmer named Michael Phelps is also 6-4).
"Now with this new stroke, I feel I can use my gifts," Schneider says.
In some ways, this whole swimming season has been about preparing for an NCAA title and a shot at the Olympics.
Schneider will work out at UC throughout March with Bearcat coaches Monty Hopkins, Michael Hewitt and Randi Vogel, to whom he gives plenty of credit. Schneider says Hopkins has put in extra time working with him, and Vogel - a former UC swimmer in her second year on the coaching staff - has brought "a different spice to the team." "You see her get excited, and it gets you excited," Schneider says.
Schneider will earn a finance degree in June and plans to continue for another quarter to complete requirements for a double major. He's thinking about a career in sales - down the road.
His peers are out looking for jobs and thinking about how to support themselves after graduation. Schneider is more concerned with a successful NCAA meet, maybe securing a sponsor and figuring out where to train this summer.
The U.S. National Team will be announced Sept. 1 based on results from the 2010 ConocoPhillips National Championships (Aug. 3-7, Irvine, Calif.) and the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships (Aug. 18, Irvine, Calif.).
"I'm really keeping my fingers, toes and eyes crossed, being optimistic," he says. "Just seeing what doors open after NCAAs. I know a lot of people are job searching right now. I don't even know where I'm living (this summer). All I know right now is I have a chance to make the Olympics if I keep my head on straight."