On Oct. 19, an 18-year-old freshman at Wisconsin, who spent the majority of high school training alone, put the entire NCAA swimming and diving community on notice when he beat 2016 Olympian Jay Litherland in the 100-yard backstroke at a dual meet. That swimmer’s name is Matt Novinski, and he’s hoping his performance in the pool won’t let opponents forget it.
Novinski’s story starts in the “biggest small town you’ve never heard of” — Grand Island, Nebraska — which is much more known for its football than its swimming. The son of two former University of Nebraska swimmers, Novinski played “basically every sport you could think of” growing up, before eventually settling on football — where he played wide receiver — and swimming. But, after dislocating both of his knees playing football as a freshman in high school, Novinski realized his greatest potential was in the pool.
That same year, he started training with his older brother Daniel and his best friend, both of whom were a few years older than him. And then Novinski started winning. And winning. And winning.
“I kinda had a breakout year [that year],” Novinski said. “I started comparing my times to the top three people in the nation and realized if I can keep up [with them], I’d have the chance to swim in college at a high level. From that point, I worked hard and buried my head.”
Once both of his training partners left for college, Novinski basically trained alone. On his team, the Grand Island Quicksilver, there were maybe five or six swimmers who would come to practice regularly, and all of them were much younger. Pushing and motivating himself became second-nature, and those top-three lists became even more important: By the end of his sophomore year, intrigued coaches from all over the country were calling into tiny Central Catholic High School asking about their star swimmer.
“My times coming in were pretty solid,” Novinski said. “I was pretty highly recruited out of high school mainly because of where I’m from. I took officials to pretty much everywhere that was known for swimming — Texas, NC State, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin. All those coaches saw a lot of potential in me.”
Novinski eventually settled on Wisconsin and, upon arrival, started training in the backstroke group with a group of swimmers that included sophomore Cam Tysoe and junior Stephen Boden.
“I didn’t think Matt was going to be that good right away,” Boden said. “It’s safe to say he’s already exceeded almost everyone’s expectations thus far after just a few dual meets. He’s just a kid that came in and has crushed it from day one. As soon as I saw him swim in practice, I knew he was legit.”
Tysoe echoed Boden’s sentiments. “[Novinski is] doing real well,” Tysoe said. “I think this year will be all about keeping his head on his shoulders. He’s humble, he’s got all the attributes to have a brilliant swimming career. He’s got a tremendous amount of talent.”
And since his arrival at Wisconsin, Novinski is no longer under the radar. The kid from Nebraska that no one outside of certain coaching circles had really heard of had, within months, turned into a bona fide NCAA contender in both backstroke races.
“I hadn’t heard of him before he came here,” Boden said. “I think [sophomore] Camille [Hodge] showed me a video of him swimming and you could just tell he was super clean and polished. He’s not afraid to race someone who’s really fast … 48.0 in a dual meet, that’s pretty unreal. I think he put guys like [Texas’] John Shebat on notice that they’ve got another opponent to worry about.”
Just being mentioned in the same conversation as someone like Shebat, last year’s national champion, is something that Novinski doesn’t take for granted.
“I came in trying to advance as much as I could,” Novinski said. “That win over Jay [Litherland] kinda gave me some confidence going in, knowing that I am in the same conversation as those guys, like John Shebat and [Arizona’s] Chatham Dobbs, and I have a chance against them. I started looking at it like ‘Oh, I just need to keep up with them’ and now I see it as ‘What do I need to do to beat them?’”