Boiler Up: GTBY Breakers' Blake Rowe commits to Purdue University

Feb. 25—TRAVERSE CITY — No one has dominated the swimming pool like Traverse City's Blake Rowe.

"I love being in the water, first off," Rowe said when asked why he loves swimming. "Secondly, I love competing with myself. The aspect of where it's all on you and the only way you can get better is by trying harder or going faster. That self-motivation is what I like."

The Traverse City St. Francis senior and Purdue University commit began swimming for the Grand Traverse Bay YMCA Breakers at 10 years old. Joining the Breakers was quite apropos for Rowe as he has broken dozens of records — most recently, a 10-year-old pool record at West Zeeland High School in the 100-yard backstroke with a time of 48.91 seconds.

Rowe said when he broke the pool record that he wasn't aware until he got out of the pool and saw the excitement on his parents' and coaches' faces.

"I have a lot of friends on that swim team. I wanted to break the record so I can be up there with them," Rowe said.

Rowe said breaking the 100-yard backstroke record was his mom's favorite event in which he has competed

Before starting the race, Rowe saw on a billboard what the record was and told his head coach, Kathy Coffin-Sheard, that he wanted to break it. After swimming in the prelims, Rowe said he was close to breaking it then and that it became a realization that breaking it was possible.

"I didn't expect to swim fast, but it was a surprise," Rowe said.

His grind and passion for swimming haven't left him when others may have quit the sport before seeing it through.

Swimming hasn't been a popular sport, especially in northern Michigan. There's not a boys high school swim team, but a few high schools have an all-girls swim team.

Rowe believes a high school swim team like the co-op Traverse City Tritons could be a place for students who want to join a high school team.

"It'll be huge to have a high school swim team," Rowe said. "High school swimming is a different bond than club swimming. Club swimming is awesome because you have that mixed aspect of guys and girls on the team; but if you have a high school boys swim team, that'll be so much fun to race other high schools and have opportunities to see high schools downstate."

When Rowe competed at the 2023 Speedo East Junior Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, last year, he conversed with other swimmers about what it's like to be a part of a high school swim team.

"They all explained that it's a tight bond on the team," Rowe said. "You have some kids who are fast or some that are super fast."

If Rowe had transferred out of St. Francis to a high school downstate, Coffin-Sheard said "he'd be a big fish in a bigger pond."

"We gravitate toward developing a strong team culture," Coffin-Sheard added.

Despite not having a high school swim team to be a part of, Rowe didn't take the route many athletes in the area have done, which is moving elsewhere in order to compete at a high school where they might get better competition and attract more college coaches.

"I connected with my coach, and we have the same view of where I wanted to go in the sport, and my family is here," Rowe said. "The whole coaching aspect that connected with her is the biggest part."

His commitment and reasoning to stay on the GT Breakers for years made his head coach happy. Rowe admires the family aspect that the GT Breakers bring.

"I'm proud of him, and I'm just in tears whenever someone talks about our team that way," Coffin-Sheard said, holding back her emotion.

The feeling of being a part of a family and the culture the coaching staff built was a big part of his decision to commit to Purdue University over other colleges that recruited him.

The future Boilermaker will be a part of the new era of the Big Ten Conference with the additions of UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington joining the conference next season.

"I've only been to California for swim meets, but that's cool," Rowe said, after realizing he'll be going to the West Coast for competitions.

Being recruited by Purdue and breaking records has been a testament for Rowe that the fruits of his labor are flourishing. Since joining the GT Breakers, Rowe has been trying to be the best he can be.

"Swimming is an 11-month commitment, and someone like Blake, took 10 days off last summer and was back in the pool," Coffin-Sheard said. "That's 10 days out of a full calendar year."

The competition level in high school swimming hasn't gotten easier. To keep up with some of the best swimmers in the state, his coaches put together a training model the team follows.

The model has helped Rowe become much faster than the times he was getting a year ago. With his times getting faster, Rowe has a chance to qualify to swim at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Irvine, California.

Rowe will have a chance to qualify in March when he competes at the TRY Pro and Michigan Swimming Ultra Championship, and another event in Indianapolis in May. To qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials for the 200-yard backstroke, he would need to clock in at 2:01.67 — which is three seconds faster than his usual time.

"For Olympic trials, you have to qualify in a 50-meter pool. Typically, the competitions that are 50 meters are in the spring and summer, and they aren't around in the United States," Coffin-Sheard said. "He hasn't swam it in that format since last July."

Rowe's favorite event he's competed in was the event in Ohio, where he dropped multiple seconds of his time to make it into the finals with a group of the top 24 swimmers.

Rowe placed 23rd in the 200-yard individual medley after clocking in at 1:48.22, qualifying him for 2024 Summer Nationals in July in Irvine. But he'll forego the event to swim in the Futures Championship in Minneapolis at the end of July.

Some athletes use music to get the mind ready for events, but not Rowe.

"When I was younger, my coaches didn't allow us to listen to music because she wanted us to stay as a team," Rowe said. "Ever since I've developed to not listen to music and just shutting everything off so it can be quiet in my head."

When Rowe isn't attempting to zone in for a race, he's jamming to Morgan Wallen or Zach Bryan.

Wallen's five-time platinum hit song, "More Than My Hometown," has several meanings, such as staying true to yourself and never forgetting where you came from. Rowe spoke highly of what living in Traverse City has meant to him and why leaving isn't going to be easy.

"The actual water," said Rowe on what he'll miss the most. "I have been so spoiled to be able to live here my whole life. To be on the lakes, it's so beautiful, and that's what I'll miss the most. Without a doubt."

Rowe said when he leaves the GT Breakers, he hopes what he helped continue to build is a path others can add to.

"That's what I hope I've done, that I've inspired kids to stay in the sport and keep swimming. Since I was 10, I've seen a lot of guys swim and end up quitting," Rowe said. "I just hope I've inspired them to stay in the sport and learn that hard work pays off."