|Opponent||NCAA Championship Central|
|Date||Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26|
|Time||Prelims: 10 a.m. | Finals: 6 p.m.|
|Location||Atlanta, Georgia | Georgia Tech Aquatic Center|
|Getting There||Directions | Parking|
|Online Media||Live Stats | Video (ESPN3)|
By Emma Vaughn, Loyola University Maryland '17
Sophomore Ben Cono is the first-ever Loyola University Maryland swimmer or diver to qualify for the NCAA Division I Swimming & Diving Championships.
Cono qualified for two events: the 100 breaststroke and the 200 breaststroke.
At the Patriot League Championships in February, Cono shattered his personal-best time in the 100 breaststroke, tying the Patriot League Championships meet record and setting Loyola's program record with his winning time of 52.92.
"I have wanted to break 52 seconds for so long," Cono said. "I originally wanted to go 52-mid, but that was a reach goal. Once I finally hit 52, that was huge for me."
Cono, a transfer from NC State, is new to the Greyhounds' roster this year. In his first season at Loyola, the Smithtown, New York, native has broken three program records and set one pool record.
"I was really excited to go to NC State, but it was not a good fit for me," Cono explained. "I was coming off an elbow injury when I got there, so I was out of the pool for maybe three weeks. Once I got back into training, it was really intense. I had never felt anything like that before in my life, so I started rationalizing the training because I thought it would help me get faster." However, Cono only dropped three-tenths of a second off his 100 breaststroke by the time the season finished.
"To not see the results despite such intense training was brutal," Cono admitted. "It destroyed my morale. So I decided I wanted to try to be closer to home."
After the NCAA Championships, Cono not only informed the coaches he would not be returning to NC State, but he debated whether he was going to return to the sport at all.
He had a short stint with a small, local club team, YOTA (YMCA of the Triangle Area), under coach Chad Onken, before he returned home for the summer and picked back up training with his home swim club, Team Suffolk. It was there that his coach, John Pisano, gave him the drive he needed.
"I stopped practicing with the NC State team once I decided I wasn't going to return," Cono said. "By the time I got home for the summer, I knew I could be so much faster, though. I don't know what was driving me, but I got a lot more intense with training and picked up CrossFit. It was excruciating, but I loved it. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I got everything I could have wanted out of it."
After immediate success in the summer, where Cono broke personal records in both his 100 and 200 breaststrokes, he realized he wasn't ready to give up the sport.
"I knew I wanted to be in the Patriot League to be able to compete against Army and Navy," Cono explained. "When I started looking at schools, Coach Loeffler was the first to call me back, so we set up an official visit.
"I didn't think I would go to a small school after going to a big school like NC State, but once I got to campus, it dragged me in. The hype for sports here, lacrosse in particular, makes it feel a lot bigger."
The feel of campus wasn't the only thing that drew Cono to Loyola, though.
"The training is different here, too" Cono continued. "At NC State, they're a huge sprint program, so they do a lot of explosive training, while also bulking you up. At Loyola, we work a lot on being explosive too, but with a focus on maintaining lean muscle."
"We're not what I would call a high volume program," Greyhound head coach Brian Loeffler, also the U.S. Paralympic Swimming & Diving Coach, said on his training philosophy. "A lot of schools just swim yards and yards and yards, but I like to think that the yards we swim have a purpose. We are more focused around what the individual swimmers' needs are."
Loeffler's training methods and Cono's work ethics have proven to be a perfect fit.
"There's a fair portion of my coaching style that relies on motivated swimmers," Loeffler said. "I really like the fact that Ben is self motivating. He truly wants to get better."
Cono is quick to admit that he couldn't have achieved this level of success without the help of his teammates, freshman John Callaghan in particular.
"I owe a lot of my season to Johnny," Cono said. "Training wise, there were a lot of times when we would do extra practices on our own. I've grown to really like CrossFit a lot, so we would do dry land exercises together, even after really long swim practices."
"Those two work well together," Loeffler said of the training partners. "Ben pushes Johnny and Johnny pushes Ben. I think that Johnny has had a good part in Ben's success this year, being his training mate. They feed off of each other as well."
"I see his work ethic and it makes me want to do more," Callaghan said. "Often, we would go in on the weekends and do extra training together.
"Ben is a hard worker and you can tell with the results that he produces."
Cono has continued to train with Johnny, along with other teammates Zeke Wolfgang and Ruslan Kopunek, all of whom are hoping to compete with Cono in the Olympic Trials this June.
"My team has been really supportive," Cono said. "Training alongside of them is what's getting me hyped for both the NCAAs and the Olympic Trials. I wouldn't have succeeded as much this season if it weren't for them."
After traveling to the NCAA Championships as an alternate a year ago, Cono is prepared to compete this year.
"The NCAAs were the biggest meet I had ever been to," Cono said. "I may not have swam, but I know what the experience is like. You could be warming up and then look over and realize the national champion was right next to you."
One year after that experience, Loeffler and Cono have taken the steps to make both the NCAA Championships and the Olympic Trials as comfortable as possible for Cono.
"We have been trying to further expose Ben to big meet environments this year," Loeffler explained. "We traveled to Minnesota this past fall and more recently to a meet at Ohio State so that when we get to NCAAs, he can just go about swimming without being awe struck."
Entering Friday's preliminary round of the 100 breaststroke, Cono is ranked 29th nationally, while he's ranked 33rd heading into Saturday's preliminaries of the 200 breaststroke. Between the two events, he's lost only one race this season, as he finished runner-up in the 200 breaststroke at the Patriot League Championships, despite swimming his fastest time of the season.
"I'm a finals swimmer," Cono admitted. "At a championship meet, I will always go faster."
His outlook and preparation for the NCAA Championships is no different.
"I think it's going to be a really good meet," Cono admitted. "I've prepared really hard for NCAAs and put in a lot of good training and weightlifting. If I can make it into the top-16, I would be happy because I would score one point for Loyola and that would get us a national ranking."
Regardless of time or finish, though, Cono has already made his mark on Loyola's program.