After almost quitting, a 'scrawny kid from York' now among nation's elite swimmers
Ten years before Coleman Stewart stood on the starting blocks at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, he wanted to quit the sport.
Stewart was raised in a family of swimmers, led by his childhood coach and father, Andy. As a teenager, Coleman was tired of the monotony of swim practice and spent many car rides trying to convince his dad to let him give up the sport.
That was never going to happen, and years later, as the York Suburban High School graduate comes off a successful week competing against the top swimming talent in the nation, he’s grateful that his father wouldn’t let him quit.
“He reminds me on a relatively frequent basis that he's glad that I made him stick with the sport,” Andy Stewart said with a laugh.
“I didn't want to do it for a while, but once he didn't let me quit, I was kind of like: ‘OK, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to try to be the best that I can,’” Coleman Stewart said.
It didn’t take long for Coleman to see the results of his hard work. His father said that success helped motivate his son to fight through the challenging times. He reached multiple national championships while competing for the York YMCA club, before he joined the prestigious North Baltimore Athletic Club, where Michael Phelps and other Olympians have trained.
There, Coleman was named the Maryland Swimmer of the Year in 2014 and 2015, before he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in 2016.
Finding success at North Carolina State: Coleman joined North Carolina State after he graduated from York Suburban and continued his success there.
He was named Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year in 2017 and ACC Swimmer of the Year in 2019 and 2020. Coleman left the program as a 22-time All-American and won a pair of 2018 NCAA titles in the 100-meter backstroke and the 400-meter freestyle relay.
Despite all the success in college, Coleman also learned how to deal with failure. He narrowly lost two NCAA title events in 2019, and then the COVID-19 pandemic ended his chances to win another championship in 2020.
Coach gets credit: Braden Holloway, Coleman’s college and current coach, was credited by both Andy and Coleman with developing the self-described “scrawny kid from York” into a national champion and elite professional swimmer.
Holloway detailed how the losses in 2019, despite Coleman dropping his times, taught him how to approach the sport and life in a healthier way.
“I think he was able to learn how to put the appropriate amounts of pressure on himself from his junior year, when he swam really fast and went faster, but he got beat, and he had a hard time handling that,” Holloway said. “There's other things to look forward to. There's gonna be other disappointments, there's gonna be other successes, and I think once you kind of let go and understand that point, he stopped putting an intense amount of pressure on himself and then it kind of started opening the doors.”
Dealing with mental battle: Those experiences helped him deal with the mental battle he endured while competing at the Olympic Trials last week.
Coleman finished top 10 in each of the three events (fourth in the 100 butterfly, eighth in 100 freestyle and 10th in the 100 backstroke) that he qualified for, and reached the finals in two. He did not, however, qualify for the Olympics.
He entered last week's trials with his sights set on the 2024 Olympic Games. That is when he expects to be at his physical peak and when he believes he can best compete for a spot on Team USA. Still, Coleman struggled with viewing his impressive performances last week as failures. To combat that, in addition to the support of his friends, family and coaches, he needed to tweak his mentality.
“I gotta keep reminding myself if someone came up to me in high school and said: ‘This is what your career is going to look like four or five years down the road,’ I would have taken that any day,” Stewart said. “So, just kind of like putting it in perspective of how far I've come and knowing that there's still a lot more to go. Even though I might be still getting second or third, and missing these times by the touch out, essentially, just knowing that the best is still yet to come.”
Change in mindset: Along with his new view of success, Coleman also had to adjust the way he viewed himself in comparison to the professional swimmers he idolized the last time he went to the trials as a teen.
A big part of that process came during the 2020 International Swimming League season, when Coleman competed with the sport’s top talent as a member of the Cali Condors. He was teammates with Team USA member Caeleb Dressel, who he competed against last week, and that helped him shed the feeling that he didn't belong on that stage.
“I've had to change my mindset a little bit to be like: "Well, now I'm with them. Now I need to compete with them, and not necessarily look up to them,'” Coleman said. “I'm here to play now.”
Special connection with his coach: Coleman mentioned multiple times how special his connection with Holloway is, and his coach agreed.
Holloway added that most coaches have good relationships with their athletes, but it’s rare that two people can completely trust each other they way they do, and it’s led to their success.
That bond made the moments when Holloway walked Coleman to the ready room before Saturday’s 100 fly final even more special for the coach. Coleman had a real shot at earning an Olympic spot, but Holloway wanted him to know that he was grateful to be part of his story, regardless of the result.
“I just kept thinking about the process he's gone through for five years and he's gotten to this point and it just made me super proud,” Holloway said. “I always told him to dream about it and now we're living it. He's accomplishing big things, not on the NCAA platform, but now as a professional athlete and I think it's just a really unique journey that he's come through. He was always the underdog early on in his career, but he's not the underdog anymore. He's a name. He's a name in our sport that people know, people talk about and people can identify, and I just think that's a pretty neat experience.”
Looking ahead: With 2021 trials behind him, Coleman’s focus will shift to the next ISL season and building his pro brand and the camp he started in last year.
Coleman has also launched his own website, which features apparel, including hats, shirts and hoodies.
He also started the Fifth Stroke Swim Camp, which focuses on underwater kicking. It’s referred to as the fifth stroke after freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke and backstroke, but it has become a skill that swimmers are emphasizing in training.
Coleman has been known as a talented underwater swimmer and wanted to help young athletes learn the skill. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed his original plans, but Coleman was able to host a camp in York last summer and plans to do more in the future.
“It kind of blew my mind that people were actually willing to pay to hear me talk,” Coleman said. “I had to step back and put it in perspective again. I’m actually giving back to a community that has given me so much. To be able to do that was just really rewarding.”
Just the beginning? A decade after he spent many car rides fighting with his dad to quit swimming, Coleman is now one of the nation’s best.
The sport has given him more than he could ever imagine and changed his life. With a group of family, friends and a coach who has unlocked potential not even Coleman saw in himself, a trio of top-10 finishes at the Olympic Trials could be just the start of Coleman's future with USA Swimming.
“I still can't believe that I'm here,” Coleman said. “Now I'm starting to realize that this is real and that little scrawny kid from York is actually doing something.”
Reach Rob Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.