Michigan State junior Charlie Gentzkow was once terrified of water. Now the pool, and the sport of swimming, are his favorite places.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Emma Hollowell wasn’t sure if she was seeing things correctly one day at the Michigan State pool.
Hollowell, the co-founder of the MSU swim club, thought it was strange to see a member swimming in a lane by himself. While everyone else was circle swimming in lanes with multiple people, Charlie Gentzkow was swimming solo.
She wanted to know what was going on, so she waited until he was done swimming and out of the pool.
“It just seemed kind of odd,” she said. “…Eventually, he got out and I was like, ‘Hey, what's up?’ and was talking to him, and started to realize he has a visual impairment."
“I couldn’t even tell in the pool. He just looked like a normal swimmer.”
Gentzkow, a junior, is very much a normal swimmer, but one with a blurrier view of the world. He has been visually impaired since birth, thanks to a rare disease called leber congenital amaurosis (LCA).
It’s difficult for him to see anything other than bright lights, so he uses a cane to navigate East Lansing’s crowded streets.
Gentzkow is able to make out the black line on the bottom of the pool, which helps him from swimming into the lane lines. If he wants to flip turn at the end of each lap, he recruits help. Someone on the pool deck taps him on the head, using a pole with a tennis ball on the end, when he is an arm's length away from the wall.
While Gentzkow now finds peace in the swimming pool, he didn’t always love being in the water. When he was small, John Dwyer, a family friend and the uncle of U.S. Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer Conor Dwyer, told Gentzkow he should pick up swimming.
“I remember when I was really young, my dad or someone threw me in a pool,” Gentzkow, a native of Illinois, said. “I was like 5 or 6, and I was screaming for dear life. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die. I’m going to sink.’”
But with the help of Dwyer, Gentzkow curbed his fear of swimming.
“(Dwyer) eventually got me from that really scared stage of ‘I’m going to sink’ to ‘I can actually do this,’” Gentzkow said. “I just remember one day, I was like, ‘I’m going to just jump in the water and see what happens.’ And I jumped in and was completely fine.”
Gentzkow joined his country club’s swim team, but after a few summers, he chose to swim simply for fun. After running cross country in seventh and eighth grade, Gentzkow realized he missed swimming competitively.
His high school, New Trier in suburban Chicago, had no tryouts and no cuts for their swim team, so Gentzkow knew he had nothing to lose.
“My swim coach had never seen a visually impaired kid like myself swim before, so he was kind of nervous,” Gentzkow said. “He was a little anxious, and I just remember him being like, ‘Charlie, if you just want to swim now and hop on out, you’re more than welcome. Swim as much as you need to.’
“And I’m just like, ‘I came here to practice. I’m here to swim.’ I remember jumping in, doing the warmup, and he’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to do 12 50s now.’ And I’m like, ‘All right, jumping right into it now.’”
Gentzkow made the Illinois state championship meet all four years, winning 10 individual state titles in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyle along with the 100-yard breaststroke.
Gentzkow broke a minute in the 100 free his senior year.
“That was pretty sweet, because I wanted to do that for a while,” he said.
Swimming moved into the background when Gentzkow came to MSU. But he came back to the sport after realizing he was putting on too much weight last year. He knew he had to make a change. This past summer he joined the Masters club program at his local pool.
“I remember getting into the pool my first day and was swimming in a lane with 50 and 55-year-olds, and some of them were passing me,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the heck? This is going to take so long.’”
Gentzkow started to watch what he was eating and continued to work out. By the end of the summer, he was back in shape and began swimming in the fastest lane at practice.
Though Gentzkow has been on MSU’s swim club since its inception three years ago, he wasn’t fully devoted the first two years – something he’s changing this year.
“I’m fully committed now,” he said. “I had to miss a few practices for school-related things, but I’ve been able to commit a lot of my time to getting back into the shape that I wanted to get back in to.”
Gentzkow swam in his first club meet, at Ohio State, a few weeks ago – his first competition since his senior year of high school.
“He’s not afraid,” said co-MSU swim coach Joel Soler. “That’s just a testament to his character – that he’s not afraid to get out there and compete with other people regardless of if they have limitations or what not.”
Gentzkow is at ease with who he is. He doesn’t want extra attention; he wants to be treated just like everyone else.
“I know if I dwell on (my impairment) or anything like that, that’s just not who I am,” he said. “I don’t want to feel sorry about anything. I am who I am and I respect it. I have no problem with it.”