Jan. 29, 2009

Special to NCAA.com

A lot can go through the mind of a swimmer while perched atop the starting blocks, just before unfolding from their frozen stance and springing outward. In the suspended silence that fills a natatorium in the moments before plunging ahead, George Washington’s David Zenk sharpens his focus to one simplistic notion: forward.

Gone is pressure of a full academic workload. The painstaking steps of applications and interviews for pursuing a career in medicine disappear. The balancing act of a two-sport athlete in Division I becomes a mere postscript beneath the task at hand.

The objective for Zenk is to never leave anything behind in the pool. No regrets, win or lose. The ladder has become a rare experience for the senior from St. Louis, Mo., since joining both the George Washington swimming and water polo teams in 2005.

“We knew David was going to make an impact his freshman year,” coach Dan Rhineheart said. “He’s come in and made an impact for both water polo and the swim teams. We knew it was going to be immediate and both coaches were excited about it.”

The positive effects, however, were not without its obstacles. In December of his freshman year, Zenk accidentally broke his hand and was forced to stay out of the pool for nearly four months.

He returned just in time for the A-10 Championships that March and took home the Conference’s Performer and Rookie of the Year honors after winning three events in what was his first competition since the injury. It marked the first and only time in the history of the A-10 that a male swimmer has captured both awards in the same year.

“I think I have a pretty good competitive edge,” Zenk said. “When someone is next to me or if I’m just a little behind them, I can put it into that extra gear and get to the wall first a lot of the time. I’ve been really fortunate in that respect.”

Zenk, who attended a small private high school in St. Louis, was introduced to both swimming and water polo by the same coach as a high school freshman. After competing for four years, he knew he wanted to pursue both while attending college and with the solid programs at George Washington, the fit was perfect.

Now in his final season as the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Performer, Zenk is maintaining the same level of success he’s put forth every year. The results speak for themselves as he’s unquestionably the best backstroker in the A-10, with the top times in both the 100-yard (50.50) and 200-yard (1:48.44) events. He has also clocked the A-10’s fastest time in the 200-yard individual medley (1:52.46), an event he’s continually working to better himself.

 “On the IM, I really work well from the first half with the fly and the back because they are my strengths,” says Zenk. “My breaststroke is, however, definitely a weakness. Right now if I don’t have a lead at the end of backstroke, it’s not looking good for the end of the race. So I still need to work on that.”

Already the A-10 Championship record-holder in both the 200-and 400-yard individual medleys, Zenk could become the first swimmer, male or female, to earn three Most Outstanding Performer awards. Still, he keeps his teammates at the forefront, stating that one of his major goals is to get a relay team on the medal stand at the Conference meet.

That kind of dedicated unselfishness has made the job of his coach much easier.

“He’s pretty straight forward,” Rhineheart said. “Always focused at what he’s doing here at school and very strong. Never someone I’ve had to worry about and if I need someone to talk to the team about something, he can get it done. He’s been focused on his goals from day one.”

An exceptional student who earned Academic All-Conference honors last year, Zenk is planning for medical school once he’s graduated from George Washington with a degree in biology.  He’ll continue to have opportunities in the pool as well, where according to Rhineheart, he’s quite at home.

“He’s just got a great feel for the water,” Rhineheart said. “He always knows where he is and when to push himself.”

Whether it’s in the pool, the classroom, or eventually in a hospital, most would agree that Zenk will bring the same approach he maintains every time he’s on the starting blocks, with his focus forward.