On time for the Olympics
Written by Charles Kamper
ANN ARBOR—If you ask Ricardo Vargas to flex his biceps, you’ll see Olympic rings tattooed there, a reminder of his participation in the 2016 Olympics. Vargas never imagined that his mother’s wish for him to be an active preteen would lead to a spot on Mexico’s Olympics swimming team or setting national records.
As the University of Michigan junior prepares for the Tokyo Olympics next summer, he believes “everything has improved” in his training since coming to U-M, and his two-time Olympic dream might soon become a reality.
The journey to competitive swimming for Vargas mirrors that of many young swimmers. The Mexico native started swimming to socialize and compete alongside friends, but soon recognized his talent upon qualifying for a national competition at age 12.
“Out of all the sports, swimming was the one that I enjoyed the most,” said Vargas, who grew up in Cuernavaca, Mexico, about 90 minutes from the capital city of Mexico City.
He initially trained in a hotel pool with his club team that was often crowded. Vargas was pushed by older club members as they began to realize his talent. Eventually, as the medals began to pile up, Vargas was within striking distance of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics in the 1500-meter freestyle.
In many ways, Vargas’ journey to Rio began during the 2012 London Olympics. Rushing home from swim practice, he found he had missed the swimming competition highlights. Turning to his mother, he said, “In 2016, I need to be home in time to watch the broadcast.”
“Four years later, I qualified,” he said. “When I called my mom, I told her this time I was going to be on time to watch the Olympics.”
Vargas describes swimming at the 2016 Olympics as the “coolest and most exhausting time of his life.”
“Just being there, knowing that I was a piece of Mexico representing my country, meant a lot to me,” he said.
According to Vargas, swimming is not big in Mexico. Not many people train for competitive swimming and there isn’t a lot of support and awareness for the sport. Changing this mentality motivates him everyday to train harder to succeed in 2020.
“I want people to know that Mexico can have success in this sport,” he said. “I want people to realize that swimming is important to us and we have people with talent, people who can push themselves.”
His personal goal for Tokyo 2020 is simply to “be better.”
“I know I can do better,” he said. “I want my name to be heard, so let’s hope great things can happen.”
A Michigan Wolverine
Vargas says he was never in any doubt when it was time for him to choose a college.
“I knew they had a great distance program, but my mom also insisted on a good academic curriculum. U-M was the perfect fit,” said Vargas, who is working toward a degree in economics and statistics.
Balancing school and swimming is also a challenge, acknowledges Vargas.
“Even though we’re required to have tutor appointments and spend at least five hours in the academic center, I always spend more time than that,” he said. “It is stressful to have a competition, so studying weeks in advance is essential.”
Training with swimmers from around the world, Vargas says he has found a home amongst his teammates.
“Workouts are harder here,and the format of practices are more challenging,” he said. “Everyone is fast at whatever they are swimming, and it is challenging. It motivates me.”
One of Vargas’ closest training partners is distance swimmer Felix Auböck, a rising senior and 2016 Austrian Olympian.
“Felix and I are similar in that we didn’t take learning English very seriously in our home countries,” he said. “When we’re tired, sometimes we’ll say a phrase that doesn’t make sense in English, but we’ll understand each other. If I say something wrong in English, he will look at me and nod while everyone else is confused. It’s hilarious.”
When not in the pool, Vargas is typically in class or with other student athletes. To his friends, he’s “Ricky.” Living in a house with fellow swimmers, he finds time to read fiction and catch up on TV shows on Sunday, the only day without practices.
Vargas appreciates the invaluable academic and athletic resources U-M has to offer, but he is always happy to return home. When asked about what he looks forward to in his home state of Morelos, he said, “Food, family, friends and warm weather. But mostly food.”