In March, Cumberland, Md., native Daniel Diehl had some unfinished business. At the Maryland Swimming LSC 14 & Under Championships, the top age-group meet for Maryland Swimming, which is the USA Swimming local swim committee (LSC) that covers all parts of the state except Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Diehl won all nine events he competed in, setting LSC records in six of them.
His times were within striking distance of 13-14 National Age Group (NAG) records, which he wanted to break a few weeks later at YMCA Nationals. But COVID dashed those plans. Luckily, Diehl didn’t turn 15 until Oct. 26, and he made one final push to break NAG records.
Diehl met those goals. On Oct. 11 in a meet at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., Diehl swam a time of 1 minute, 36.75 seconds in the 200-yard freestyle, breaking the 13-14 NAG record in the event by 1.56 seconds. A week later at a meet in Carlisle, Pa., Diehl broke the 13-14 NAG record in the 100-yard backstroke, with his time of 47.44 beating the old record of 47.83.
“It was very exciting,” Diehl said. “Because those records [are what] I’ve been going for for the past two years. It’s been my goal. It’s what I’ve been training for all this time.”
His 100-yard freestyle time in Carlisle was one-tenth of a second slower than the 13-14 NAG record in the event, so Diehl went to a meet in York, Pa., Oct. 25 for one last shot at the record before turning 15. He came up short but set a new 13-14 LSC record in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 20.37. In the previous two weekends, Diehl had also set 13-14 LSC records in the 100-yard freestyle (44.00), 100-yard butterfly (48.85) and 400-yard individual medley (3:56.56).
It was a challenge just to get in these meets for Diehl, who swims at the Cumberland YMCA. Teams across the country have been mainly holding intrasquad meets during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Cumberland YMCA swim team is too small to host one. Diehl’s coach, Brian Dowling, and his mother, Karen, have had to email teams hosting meets asking if Daniel can swim. It helped that all three meets were hosted by teams that had allowed Daniel to compete in their meets in years past.
Despite restrictions on who could be on deck at those meets, Karen was still able to witness Daniel’s 100-yard backstroke record in person.
“The [200 freestyle] record I watched through a video camera,” she said, but seeing the 100 back in person “was very exciting. I was teary-eyed for all that and then I was allowed on deck as a volunteer to help for the timing [in Carlisle], it was so exciting to get to see him do that in person.”
While Diehl’s rise in the sport has been anything but ordinary, his start in the sport is a familiar one. He started swimming at age 6 for a local summer swim team, then started swimming at the YMCA the next year. He started working with Dowling when he was 11 years old, with Dowling taking over as the head coach of the team after the previous head coach left. Without Dowling taking over, the team may have folded.
At 12, Diehl started competing in USA Swimming meets, which are meets sanctioned by the governing body for swimming in the States. Before, he had just been competing in less competitive meets with other YMCA teams. By the end of his time as a 12-year-old, he was breaking Maryland Swimming LSC records. Combined with his records in the 13-14 age group, he has LSC records in 17 events.
Diehl has blossomed under Dowling, and the two have a unique relationship. According to Dowling, the team only has “four or five” swimmers who also compete in USA Swimming meets like Diehl, so the coach is able to work one-on-one with his swimmers. Diehl has a fire inside him to always get better after being given workouts to do, according to Dowling.
“Not too many people just do it by themselves,” Dowling said. “I could tell him to come in tomorrow and do [5,000 yards], and here’s the workout to go do because I can’t get there until a certain time. He’ll be doing it. There’s just an inside drive, it’s very rare to see.”
For Diehl, he knows he needs to put the work in at practice to meet his goals.
“I want to do well,” Diehl said. “I know that if I want to swim fast times and break records I need to do well in practice.”
Now that he’s aged up, Diehl has more goals in his sight. He wants to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in June and will have his first shot at getting Olympic trial cuts at the U.S. Open meet in Richmond, Va., which runs from Nov. 12-14. That meet will take place in an Olympic-sized 50-meter pool, more than double the length of the 25-yard pools Diehl has competed in the last three meets. If he doesn’t get any trial cuts there, he’s looking to get them at another meet this spring.
It’s the next step for Diehl, who has dominated at a local level the last three years. Now, he’ll get a chance to see how he stacks up nationally.
“Each season has always been a great season,” Dowling said. “There hasn’t been one that we haven’t improved on so what we’re doing is continuing to work and continuing to do what we’ve been doing one step at a time at each level. Now it’s nice to see that we’re getting into the next level and I’m excited for it to come.”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Brian Dowling