GENEVA, Ohio -- Ramunas Paknys is only 22, but at the NCAA Division II swimming national championship, he’s already an old man of sorts.
Of the 10 swimmers from Lindenwood University who qualified for the meet, he’s the only senior and the rest are freshman. Paknys is the lone holdout here, the only Lion swimmer to compete in the finals of both DII and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics after his school made the transition following the 2010-11 season.
Lindenwood was not the only school to make the jump, after DII added the entire Great Midwest Athletic Conference (G-MAC) to its ranks. Of the eight schools that made the jump to active DII status, only four had swimming programs and only two are represented here in Ohio -- Lindenwood and California Baptist.It has been a journey, but through it all, coach Jason Owen has marveled at Paknys’ ability to remain a model student-athlete, training throughout the year and making tremendous improvements along the way.
“A lot of things changed,” admitted Paknys, who competed for the Lithuanian national team in last summer’s World University Games in Kazan, Russia. “The level definitely got way better. The team got way stronger. Practices got way harder. The teams we started swimming against were way faster.”
Asked about his expectations for the week, Paknys laughed. He’ll compete in the 200-meter individual medley as well as the 100- and 200-meter backstroke events.
“To be honest, I would love to be on the podium,” he said. “I worked so hard in the last two years. Hopefully, this year, I got that much better and I’ll be able to at least be in the top three.”
At that point, Lindenwood assistant coach Jonathan Lau chimes and wants to add something about Paknys. Lau has been through the transition as well, both as a student-athlete and then as an assistant. He’s seen the improvements and the hard work that Paknys has put in as much if not more than anybody, so when he speaks, he’s not just blowing smoke.
Paknys is called “Ram” by his coaches and teammates, and it’s not just a play on his first name, either.
“Ram’s very humble. He doesn’t like to talk too much about himself,” Lau began. “He likes pressure. Throughout the last four years, the more pressure you put on him, the better he does.
“When we’re putting together our freestyle relays, myself and Jason sit down and we talk about who we should anchor. Time and time again, Ram’s proven to be the guy because it’s the most pressure-packed position. That’s been big for us.”
With the move from NAIA to DII competition, Lindenwood’s roster shrank from 40 to 18 last year. As that took place, Owen shifted the team’s focus from quantity to quality. He raised the bar in training and by bringing in high-caliber student-athletes.
The moves were met with resistance at times, kids satisfied with the way things once were and not wanting to change.
“The biggest priority that we’ve tried to focus on was trying to get the team to train together and to push each other in practice,” said Owen, who is in his second year as Lindenwood’s head coach. “We kind of overhauled their schedule a little bit to get them in the water more than they had been in the past.
“Ram really kind of took off with more time in the water. He has really good ability, and he doesn’t do anything counterproductive outside of the pool like partying, staying up or doing the things that a typical college student would do. He’s been elastic. He’s just stretched to whatever level we tried to take him to.”
Those who balked moved on, while those who have come in during Owen’s brief time at Lindenwood have bought into his program. That’s what makes the school’s first DII national championship meet so special for him, in that Paknys represents the link between the team’s past and its future.
Owen has competed at this level himself as a swimmer for powerhouse Drury, so he knows what it’s like to be nervous the first time out. He’s happy to be in Ohio and happy to have a large contingent of swimmers qualified for the meet.
“Our goal is to have a healthy sense that we’re excited to be here, we’ve got nothing to lose and just to try to have a good time,” Owen said. “After this year, the expectation level is always going to be to get better than what we did this year. We shouldn’t have a lot of anxiety. We should just have a lot of excitement, and try to go make an impression.”