Exclusive! How USA Olympic swimmer Josh Prenot uses focus and physics to go faster

Many thought he wouldn't be able to balance an Olympic swimming career alongside a Cal Berkeley physics degree, but the Rio 2016 medallist tells Olympic Channel how he proved them wrong.
By Andrew Binner

Swimming involves the interaction of forces between an individual and the water, and few in the sport understand this relationship better than Josh Prenot.

The American won men's 200m breaststroke silver at the Rio 2016 Olympics, which attests to his knowledge of swimming in its own right.

But Prenot combined his athletic pursuits in the years running up to the Olympics in Brazil with a physics degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the process, he broke a stereotype. Some people believed that a student-athlete couldn’t manage a heavy sporting workload with the rigors of a Cal science degree. Not only did he successfully complete his studies, but he actually applied some of his physics knowledge to improve his swimming.

After his success in Rio he turned pro, but a loss of form meant the swim star failed to make the USA team for the 2017 world championships.

In the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Prenot has rediscovered his fire, and shared with Olympic Channel how he's pushing himself to "maximum potential" with the aim of making the plane to Japan in 2021.

Growing up on a military base

As the son of a former Lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force, Prenot grew up on an air base in California.

But far from being a limiting experience, sports played a central part of his formative years and he wouldn’t have changed anything about it. The swimmer even attributes his tireless work ethic to that military upbringing.

“It was pretty cool, honestly,” Prenot told Olympic Channel.

“It's a really tight knit community, as everyone's more or less got the same job or the same purpose. All the kids know each other and you've got sports leagues.

“I was running cross-country, I liked playing baseball, I played soccer, and swam of course. I definitely learnt time management, punctuality, and accountability.

“When I was 12 or 13 years old, baseball and swimming were the two sports left where I was having fun and some level of success. I figured out that I had long-term goals in swimming whereas baseball was just for fun. So I stuck with swimming.”

Josh Prenot competes for Cal in the 2017 National Championships in Indianapolis.

How Prenot balanced swimming and studies

The decision was a good one.

In 2012, he enrolled at ‘Cal’ to study physics and quickly put to bed any doubts that his swimming would suffer as a result.

During his freshman season Prenot was named the 2012-13 Pac-12 Newcomer of the year after claiming the 400-yard individual medley (IM) conference title. He went on to finish fourth in the NCAA Championships 400 IM in a new school record and earnt All-American honours.

He retained the Pac-12 title in the 2013-14, 2014-15, and 2015-16 seasons.

It was in 2016 that the the 1.81m (5-foot-11) star claimed his NCAA title, lowering Ryan Lochte’s pool record to win 400 IM gold at the championships, before taking out silver in the 200m breaststroke and 200m IM.

But with such an intense training workload to fit in around his studies, how did he do it?

“It was very tricky. Very tricky indeed,” the 27-year-old admitted.

“There were these mandatory lab courses that were only offered during swim practice time on Wednesdays. So I had to go do laps and swim around with the water joggers on my own on Sundays."

While it may seem like Prenot was an expert at multi-tasking, the secret to his success was actually the opposite.

“There is a concept given to us by the late, great Ken Ravizza, who was a sports psychologist,” he continued.

“He would speak to the Cal swim team and told us, “When you're somewhere, be there. Be 100 percent there if you're in the classroom. Pay attention to what's going on. If you're in the pool, be 100 percent there. You don't need to worry about the midterm that you've got coming up in two hours.”

“I guess a simpler way of saying that, is that I would try to never multi-task."

"Just being in the moment helps reduce anxiety about other tasks, and I would devote all of my attention on what's on my plate currently. I would not have survived doing physics and swimming if I hadn’t done that." - Josh Prenot to Olympic Channel.

“I'm really, really glad I stuck with it because, man, being able to study physics at Berkeley was unbelievable. I got to learn from professors who are Nobel laureates, publishing groundbreaking research. It was a unique student athlete experience, but I loved it.”

Josh Prenot with his Olympic silver medal from Rio 2016.

UC Berkeley student makes the US Olympic team

In his final year at Cal, Prenot qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympics by breaking a national record in the 200m breaststroke with 2:07.17 at trials.

That time was also the fourth-fastest in the event ever.

He took that red-hot form into the Gamesin Brazil, coming from behind to clinch the 200m breast silver medal behind Kazakhstan's Dmitriy Balandin. Russia’s Anton Chupkov rounded out the podium in third.

It was an even more memorable occasion for Prenot. His best friend and roommate Ryan Murphy won three Olympic medals including one in the 4x100m medley relay alongside Michael Phelps, in his final Olympic race.

“We were lucky in that we could take guidance from Phelps, for sure. It was a pretty young team for us but we did have veterans like Michael and Nathan Adrian, who I train with every day at Cal, and their mentorship was unbelievably beneficial for everyone around them.”

From Rio success to losing the fire

If 2016 was the Missouri-born swimmer’s best year in the sport, 2017 was one of his worst.

After winning silver at the Olympics he took a short break from the sport, but he failed to even make the USA team for the 2017 worlds.

His regression served as a reminder that form should never be taken for granted.

“Swimming's hard. Swimming is really hard,” he shared.

“It's not only hard to improve, but it's hard to maintain. This is something that I think I've gotten better at over the course of my career."

“I really struggled for that year. I'm not very good after I take a break from swimming. I'm a guy who likes to touch the water every day to maintain that feel. I definitely think I lost that fire for a little bit.” - Josh Prenot to Olympic Channel.

Prenot on keeping a diary

In 2018, Prenot showed that he was finding his way back to top form by winning his favoured 200m breaststroke at the US nationals, before winning 200 IM silver at the short course world championships in Hangzhou, China.

Reflection was the key to the upturn.

“It was very refreshing to get back into the sport. Really finding the reason, 'Why am I here doing this? Okay, it’s because I actually like this sport. I like the process and making myself better. I want to push myself to my maximum potential'."

Prenot’s scientific roots are never too far away though, and he started using a diary to analyse his performances and correct his mistakes.

“Sometimes what you're feeling in the pool can be different than what you're actually doing on video. So if you write down something that felt good or felt bad in a certain performance, you have something to refer to when you're looking to fix something.

“It's a very fulfilling self-improvement process that I do every time I swim.”

Josh Prenot (silver), China's Wang Shun (gold) and Japan's Hiromasa Fujimori (bronze) on the 200m IM podium at the 2018 short course world champs in Hangzhou, China.

Using physics to go faster in the water

The key swimming forces of drag, lift, gravity, and buoyancy are fairly simple to understand for a physics student.

But the mental skills needed to be successful in studying the science at a more advanced level, could help any athlete improve their performance through a more technical understanding of body mechanics.

“I think it’s just the problem-solving nature of physics that’s going to help you figure out how to get better (in the pool).

“What I'm working on at the moment is energy conservation. I want my body line to be perfect in the water. I don't want it to be tense as I want to only put the amount of muscle (power) in necessary, not more.

“I am analytical to a fault sometimes. I need to switch that off because this is a very feel-based sport. You just got to go do it at some point.”

The science of switching off

In order to escape from swimming, Prenot enjoys spending time outdoors.

His Instagram page is full of adventure sports like rock climbing, and during his days at Cal (when he wasn’t in the labs or in the pool) he became a keen slackliner.

Slacklining is similar to tightrope walking, except a flat length of webbing is used.

“It's pretty popular on the Berkeley campus,” he revealed.

“There's this perfectly flat grass area with these perfectly spaced trees near the physics building, and me and some buddies on the swim team got into it.

“Balance is pretty important in swimming and it definitely helps with that. Swimmers are known for being klutzes on land, so I think any time you can just make yourself a better athlete in any way, like that's going to be good.”

Huge competition for places at Tokyo 2020

The last man from America to win Olympic gold at the 200m breaststroke was Mike Barrowman at Barcelona 1992.

Prenot’s return to form means that the USA will have their best chance in years of gaining another champion, given how strong their pool of talent is.

He will be competing against the likes of Olympic medley gold medallist Cody Miller, ex-world champion Michael Andrew, Will Licon, and Andrew Wilson for spots on the team, and is more than up for the challenge.

“I don't think it's a secret that I do more IM training than most breaststrokers. My biggest challenge is working my starts and underwater to improve my easy speed in the first 100 metres, so that I can make the most out of my endurance for the second-half of the race.

“It's pretty exciting. It’s a stacked field which is a blessing and a curse. You've got to go through a gauntlet of the best of the best, just so you can get on the team.

“But once you're there, you know that whoever is sent to Tokyo will be going as a true competitor for medals.”

Newton's third law of motion states that, 'For every action, there is and equal but opposite reaction.' Perhaps Prenot's down year in 2017 was the catalyst that propels him to higher honours in 2021.