For the love of swim: Will Munstermann’s continuing journey to the top
There’s plenty of reasons why Will Munstermann should not be where he is right now — but he’s there anyways.
March 24, 2020
“Stances! Take your mark!”
Three UMass swimmers are in position on their boards to execute a 25-yard sprint swim at the end of practice.
“Stand!” yells sprinters coach Sean Clark.
Clark did not tell them to go, and instead purposely made an effort to throw the swimmers off. He’s preparing them for an actual swimming event, where you can be disqualified if you jump before the official blows the whistle.
Of the three swimmers, two were offset. One completely fell into the pool, losing all of his control, while the other swimmer was wobbling around on his board for a few seconds. But the third swimmer didn’t react. Instead he stayed perfectly still, staring dead ahead, so locked in that nothing would throw him off of his path.
The two swimmers who lost control regrouped and finally Clark yelled, “Go!” The three swimmers exploded off of their boards. It was the end of practice, so they would have to go one length of the pool.
The race wasn’t even close. The focused swimmer won the race, and easily.
A dazzled look crossed the face of Clark after this swimmer destroyed his two teammates in the sprint swim. Clark felt this way often when watching junior swimmer Will Munstermann bring the intensity that he had to have on a daily basis to even make the team a year earlier.
Very early on, Leonard and Heidi Munstermann knew that they had an energetic child on their hands, and they made sure to do something about it as quickly as possible, throwing Will into the pool at just six months old.
“He had such high energy,” Heidi said. “He would get into trouble a lot.”
Only, taking swimming lessons wasn’t enough to do the trick for Will. His parents put him on the swimming team when he was five, which also was not enough to contain the young Munstermann.
As a kindergartener, a curious Will was at McDonald’s with his father and his sister, Maya when he pulled the fire alarm.
His father was screamed at by the manager of the fast food restaurant after the fire department came, as Will sat in the corner bawling his eyes out. The manager made sure to let Leonard know that he was not raising his child properly.
Although this may have scared the young Will temporarily, his incorrigible energy quickly returned.
A year or so after, Will had to be forced out of a chair while sitting in class, as he kept putting his feet behind his ears while the teacher was trying to talk. The teacher then gave Will a yoga ball to sit on, so he would have to sit properly, without his feet behind his head.
Heidi and Leonard had Will try his hand at both basketball and baseball, but neither stuck. He played each for just two seasons.
His parents realized that Will was extremely flexible, so they stuck him in gymnastics when he was nine years old. Gymnastics was a sport that Will enjoyed more, and was unsurprisingly good at from a young age.
Athletics was not the only thing that Heidi and Leonard used to keep Will occupied, both of them coming from backgrounds that had no affiliation with athletics whatsoever.
Leonard is a calm, laid-back man from the tiny farm town of Correll, Minnesota. He would have to wake up at 6 a.m. every day to milk the cows, and then feed the chicken and pigs. He would then go to school, and immediately after coming right back home to shovel manure and do work around the farm.
Although he did not have time for much extracurricular activity, Leonard was able to earn his B.A. in psychology and M.A. in zoology at the University of Minnesota, Morris. After a stint in the Peace Corps and another in the Army, he earned his Ph.D. at Notre Dame and has been studying entomology and epidemiology ever since.
Heidi grew up in Taiwan, where her parents made sure her main priority growing up was academics and being able to become successful from doing well in school. She attended the University of Notre Dame, where she received her Ph.D. in virology and met Leonard.
They wanted Will to be more than just an athletic kid, having him start violin when he was only five years old. Will would take lessons four to five times a week, and then Leonard would have him practice before he went to bed for an hour or two. He continued it in grade school, where he was in a weekly ensemble every Saturday with the Southern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra up until eighth grade.
Will was also taking up the drums as a kindergartener, and even performed at piano concerts in the third and fourth grade.
“I just thought that he needed to expend his energy in a positive direction and to also do things that will continue to challenge him,” Heidi said.
During his freshman year at Hamden High School in Connecticut, Will also took up diving, and then joined the drum line of the school band, meaning that he was swimming, diving, doing gymnastics, playing the violin and in the band all at once.
This started to take a toll on Will, who started to fall asleep in his classes because of how much he had on his plate. Heidi was concerned, pushing him to focus on schoolwork just as much as everything else.
“Don’t push him that hard,” Leonard said to Heidi. “He’ll find his way.”
As a sophomore, Will made it into the Regional Orchestra, which was where he would perform with some of the best young musicians around New England.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Will said. “You’re playing with really good people and making really good music.”
Later that school year, Will found himself as the last leg of his relay against Amity High School who had won every meet between the two for over 15 years. Not only did the meet come down to this final race, which was a 400-yard freestyle relay, but Will also had to do so against a top 100-yard freestyler in the state as Amity’s last leg.
Will was being pumped up by his captain before the race started and was feeling better than he ever had before the start of a race. Will was given a second and a half lead when it came down to him in the last leg of the relay.
Will won the race, outlasting the all-state swimmer by less than two-tenths of a second, winning the meet for his team.
Come senior year, Will Munstermann was an all-state swimmer and diver, a level 10 gymnast, back in the regional orchestra and now the conductor of his school band.
The time came for Munstermann to select where he was going to head off to school next fall, which was going to be based on where he was recruited. Roger Williams, Southern Connecticut State and Wheaton all recruited him for the swim team. UMass had recruited him for diving, something that he wasn’t particularly passionate about.
Regardless, Munstermann chose to attend UMass in the fall of 2017 guaranteed a diving spot, but no swimming spot. His major, nutrition, was a more influential factor in his choice, as he liked the potential that he saw in the program.
“It really wasn’t for diving at all,” Munstermann said. “I went on a tour here and I just thought that this is the place for me.”
Munstermann and his mother initially decided that he should dive, because it would set him up with good friendships right off of the bat. He still had hesitation going into school.
“There was always the fact that I never actually enjoyed diving,” he said.
Munstermann then elected to not dive and instead pursue swimming, but because he wasn’t recruited as a swimmer, he had to ask swim and dive head coach Russ Yarworth to be put on the team. Unfortunately, Yarworth already had a full roster.
“He’s not a swimmer I would have recruited at the time,” Yarworth said. “Pretty good diver, okay swimmer.”
Munstermann’s high school swimming times had not been good enough to earn a roster spot and would have been likely the slowest swimmer on the team.
Although Yarworth didn’t give him a spot, he did tell him what he could do to try and make the team next year: he could swim by himself, he could join the club team and swim there or he could go to the local club team and swim with the Amherst Tritons. Still, there were no guarantees he would make the team his sophomore year.
“I didn’t think I was going to see him again,” Yarworth said.
Munstermann elected to try and swim with the Amherst Tritons under head coach Evan Maczka, and Yarworth approached Maczka with the offer.
Because Munstermann was joining a club team that was for grade school and high school, Maczka had to go to the board of the club team and inform them on the situation, since the rules at the club were that you had to be between five and 18 years old and still be in high school.
The board was hesitant with the idea of a college student swimming and competing with high schoolers and younger, but Maczka argued that this could be a help to the UMass swim team, and if Munstermann had enough success with the Tritons, he would be able to make the UMass team.
The board allowed Munstermann on the team, and the process began. But another obstacle stood in the way: he had no transportation to get to the club swims every day. He asked Maczka if he could borrow a bike to ride to practice so he had a way of getting to and from the pool.
Munstermann was now riding his bike 10-12 minutes each way to hopefully get a spot on the UMass roster next season by practicing with a few high schoolers and then 12-to-14-year olds.
“It was pretty lonely,” Munstermann said. “I felt like I wasn’t getting the college experience I wanted.”
At this point, he was no longer playing violin, participating in high-end piano concerts, conducting a band or diving — only swimming and studying.
Munstermann decided that if he wanted to be serious about making the team, more would have to be done. He would track everything he ate, making sure that everything he was putting in his body had nutritional value to him and would only help him become healthier.
Even with Munstermann doing club swim with the Amherst Tritons, swimming by himself on campus and constantly working out and reshaping his diet, doubts still poured in. He thought about transferring to a new school, or even just quitting the sport entirely.
“I wasn’t necessarily convinced that he was going to stick with it the entire time.” Maczka said.
“I had little hope that this was all going to be worth it.” Munstermann said.
Munstermann would even see Yarworth at rec swims in Boyden Gym. Yarworth would be surprised to see him and asked him if he was still actually trying to make the team.
Throughout the concerns and doubts, Munstermann continued his diet, swimming alone during rec hours and riding his bike to club swimming every day.
“It was just the love for the sport,” he said. “I feel like if I wasn’t in it 100 percent, it would have been a much more grueling process than it actually was.”
When Munstermann was finally finished with his time with the Tritons, he had become a vastly improved swimmer, having broken just about all of his personal bests.
“[Russ would] be pretty silly not to let him on the team,” Maczka said.
Freshman year was over, but that did not mean that Munstermann was going to relax for a couple months and hope that everything worked in his favor sophomore year. He kept training at home with his local club team until it came time for sophomore year to start.
Munstermann even tried to reach out to Yarworth over the summer and tell him what his times were for different events. The difficult part about this was the fact that Munstermann was swimming in an Olympic pool over the summer, so his times didn’t line up with times in a collegiate sized pool.
Then came the first week of his sophomore year. Munstermann emailed Yarworth offering everything he had, saying that he would work as hard as he could and be a positive impact on the team from both a swimming and atmosphere standpoint.
Yarworth and Clark sat down together and contemplated Munstermann’s future on the swimming team, making sure they were sure that he would be valuable enough of an asset to add on to the team.
“Russ, I have not seen this before,” said Clark. “I have not seen this sort of persistence, consistency and willingness, let’s make room.”
This time around, they had the room to put Munstermann on the team, but before they did, they wanted to talk to the swimmers, since they had lived with him in his freshman year because he initially came to UMass with the intent of diving.
The team vouched for him, saying they enjoy his company and have seen his work ethic as a gym rat who is always working out.
Hearing this, Yarworth brought Munstermann to his office and told him that he would have a spot on the team, letting the sophomore know that he didn’t want to be let down.
Eager and relieved, Munstermann was ready to prove himself.
“I knew that I was the scrub, the little kid in the group,” he said. “So, I knew that if I wanted to prove something, become a leader or be able to have say in practices, I would have to get faster.”
Because Yarworth and Clark were not sure whether Munstermann would be best in mid-distance races or sprint races, they put him in both. About a month into the season, he was officially placed in the sprint group —although Yarworth is the head coach of the swim team, Clark would be his coach since he was the one that was training the sprint group.
Immediately, there was a spark in the relationship between Munstermann and Clark, both vital to what the other was trying to accomplish.
“He would be really forward with me, no bull—-, no nothing,” Munstermann said. “He told me that, ‘If you want to be better, you have to do this kind of stuff.’ That really motivated me to be a better person and get faster too.”
“The biggest thing right away was that Will was open to listening and learning and hearing,” Clark said. “Because he had to wait longer, because he had so much more appreciation for the opportunity.”
Clark wouldn’t know if Munstermann was tired or not by talking to him, he would only know by watching him at practice using every last ounce of energy that he had. Munstermann would have to continue to push himself to the limits just to be able to try and keep up with the rest of the swimmers on the team.
By the end of his sophomore year, Munstermann had proved that he belonged on the team. He had made the scoring team in the Atlantic 10 Championships, but failed to score any points. Although he’d had come a long way since the beginning of the season, there was still work to be done.
While most took the summer to relax their bodies before the next season started up, Munstermann again trained at his local club. One thing that Clark wanted him to work on was his underwater swimming, right after he would jump into the pool and whenever he turned on a wall. Without natural speed, he would have to make up for it by mastering his skills where he can.
Munstermann would also spend his time in the gym specifically working on short distance, doing low repetitions, but high volume, resting plenty but also doing a bunch of sets to get the sprint conditioning he needed.
When the team practiced for the first time junior year, Munstermann wanted to prove what he had done while just about everybody else had been doing nothing. To start the year, Clark ran some test speed swims to see where his sprinters were at. Munstermann dominated, out-swimming all of the other sprinters with ease.
“Is that Will in that lane?” Clark asked himself. “This is not the same guy that we have had, and he didn’t just enjoy his moderate success from the first season.”
Munstermann knew he had an advantage now, at this moment when he was faster than every other sprinter, but that could easily change when the sprinters got themselves into shape.
“Everyone was getting faster and faster,” he said. “I just have to be one step ahead of them.”
In a morning practice about a third of the way through the season, everybody was tired, dragging their bodies in the pool trying to get through another practice. It was the end of practice and the sprinters were doing their final sets, putting up decent times. Munstermann continued to leave them in his dust.
“He’s not all the way there with his technique. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the tallest guy,” Clark said. “He’s fit, oh boy is he fit. I want more Wills.”
It was obvious to everyone that Munstermann’s flexibility and elasticity had far outreached anyone else on the team. He was a level-10 gymnast and it showed, as he was able to leave teammates stunned by his free weight workouts and the way he was able to contort his body.
“I think gymnastics really taught me body awareness,” Munstermann said. “Having that edge helped me improve my swimming and my technique way faster than other people.”
Munstermann was able to get himself in a position where Clark would use him and the results that he has been able to produce to convince the rest of the team that there is a method to the madness.
“It’s inspiring, encouraging and even for the coaching staff,” Clark said. “When we see a career arc start the way Will’s did, then we can reach around and pat ourselves on the back too. We can say we are doing the right thing for the team, here’s the results, here’s the proof. If you do what we ask, great things can happen.”
Another feature of Munstermann that was noticed by Maczka, Yarworth and Clark was his consistent composure, with not one of them being able to cite a specific time where they have seen Munstermann in any sort of negative mood. His ability to compartmentalize any negative energy leaves everyone around him quite surprised.
This is something Munstermann’s dad sees as quite familiar, knowing that Will does not fall far from the tree, as Leonard himself sees himself as a very chilled individual. Will agrees, and is able to use this to keep himself motivated from being in a state of anger.
“I know I’m going to be mad if I swim slowly, so I train my butt off to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Will said.
“I’ve had a handful of guys where I’ve had to keep up with their thirst for knowledge and desire to be intense and take the next step forward,” Clark said. “Every day you can see it in his eyes.”
On Nov. 2 of his junior year, Munstermann and the UMass swim team hosted Boston University in a rivalry meet. BU had beat them the year before and UMass wanted vengeance.
Swim meets start off with a 200-yard medley relay, consisting of the four strokes swam by four different people for 50 yards each. Throughout the season, Munstermann was in the top 200-yard relay group on the team and swam the butterfly leg of the race.
After getting pumped up with his group before the race, Munstermann was ready to race. The relay group broke the pool record, and the time of 21.96 crossed the board after Munstermann finished his leg, one of the best 50-yard butterfly split times in the conference.
“I didn’t believe it. Did he false start? Is that actually Will? Did we put up the right guy?” Clark asked himself. “Early season, unshaved, unrested 21.96, I mean we hope for that at the end of the year.”
Munstermann was in shock himself, looking at the board right after he finished. Seeing a time like that boosted him and his relay team’s confidence to an entirely new level.
“There’s no better feeling than knowing that there is a guy you can count on,” senior swimmer Al Madden said of his relay teammate.
Six days after his record swim, Munstermann was driving home from breakfast when he got a call from his former gymnastics coach, who informed him that Melanie Coleman, one of his gymnastics teammates and his prom date, was in critical condition from a freak gymnastics accident, and was rushed to the hospital.
Shocked and in disbelief, Munstermann immediately pulled the car over and started sobbing.
“I couldn’t handle myself,” Munstermann said. “She was one of my closest friends back home, I really couldn’t believe it at that point.”
Not knowing what to do or how to handle it, he hugged all of his roommates when he got back to his dorm.
That Friday, he drove back to Connecticut to visit Coleman at the hospital. When he got there, she was already on life support, in a coma and unresponsive.
A few days later, Coleman was declared brain dead, and taken off of life support.
“Having her pass was the hardest thing I’ve had to go through mentally,” Munstermann said. “I wanted to devote the rest of my season to her because she would’ve been able to accomplish so much with her talent.”
Even though Munstermann had failed to beat his time split time of 21.96 in the last four events of the regular season, the same relay team was still able to finish its season with an undefeated record heading into the A-10 Championships.
“I think about her every time right before my race,” Munstermann said. “It gets me in a certain mindset that gets my adrenaline pumping and reminds me I’m swimming for her and her family.”
The first event of the entire tournament was the 200-medley relay. Starting it off strong could ease a lot of pressure for UMass and instill a lot more confidence in the swimmers if they performed well.
Before the last relay race of his junior season, Munstermann put himself in a certain mindset to pump himself up and once again channel the endless amount of energy he knows he has had since he was less than a year old.
Ever since Munstermann had shocked everyone with the 21.96 split against BU, he was looking to go faster, and he now had more than ever to motivate him to do so.
Even though the relay team placed third, which was the first time the group of Munstermann, Madden, Michael Tartavosky and Ryan Pedrick were unable to win the event, they still were very happy to even be able to be a top-three relay team in the entire conference.
Will had finished his 50-yard split with a time of 21.38.
Joseph Aliberti can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JosephAliberti1.