Lyons Township swim coach Scott Walker remembers confronting Brian Donatelli repeatedly in the locker room when the latter was a freshman basketball bench-warmer. “Brian,” Walker would ask, “what are you doing?”
Walker remembered Donatelli showing promise as a young summer swimmer, and eventually won him over from basketball. It worked out: Donatelli would soon become the Lions’ most-decorated swimmer of all time, and now will compete in the Olympic trials for the 50-meter freestyle in Omaha next Saturday.
The Lyons Swim Club, which Donatelli will officially represent at the trials as their first-ever Olympic hopeful, threw him a boisterous pep rally at South Campus on Wednesday evening, with testimonials to the 19-year-old La Grange swimmer, 2011 LT grad and current Iowa Hawkeye from Walker, LSC coach Casey Hnatiuk and fellow swimmer Eric Merrion.
Merrion lauded his friend, saying that Donatelli had seen how a brutal competitive swimming regime could make one sick to his stomach, yet strove forward anyway—“the best decision he ever made.”
“He doesn’t complain about having to wake up early; he just goes to bed early and wakes up ready for practice; he doesn’t complain about hard workouts… and that attitude is what makes him such a successful swimmer,” Merrion said. “He’s going to be great at Iowa and the Olympic trials.”
Donatelli qualified into the field of 179 with the exact time—to the hundredth of a second—necessary to place in the 50-meter freestyle, a 23:49. (Only two swimmers will advance to the Olympics themselves.) He thanked the organizers and attendees, telling the youth of the LSC that he could use their company and competition soon.
“I was a pool rat—I was just like you guys, hanging out at the pool all day,” Donatelli said. “This could be you—you guys are all just having fun swimming… There’s always a chance in the next four years, who’s going to come with me to Rio who is sitting in this pool right now.”
Walker agreed. “You all need to know that you could do this same thing,” he said. “If Brian Donatelli could do it, you could do it. I think the best thing that Brian’s got going for him is, he’s goofy and he has fun doing what he’s doing.”
He also joked about having threatened to boot a younger, attention-challenged Donatelli over the water tower outside the school straight to Adventist La Grange, but spoke of his immense pride in Donatelli’s returning home to coach the younger generation of swimmers, calling it the ultimate honor for a coach to see in a one-time pupil.
And he offered some simple, friendly advice for Donatelli’s trip to Omaha:
“Don’t think, shut up and swim.”